The Ethics of Street Photography



“[Garry] Winogrand was famous for never asking people permission before taking their photographs;” writes Caille Millner in a review of the photographer’s current retrospective at SFMoMA, “a whole generation of male photographers idolized him for shooting however he wanted, whenever he wanted.” It’s not hard to imagine what the legions of Winogrand fans will have made of Millner’s review, which continues “No one seems to recognize that Winogrand’s beliefs are shared most seriously by the kinds of men who haunt Reddit subforums like ‘Creepshots.’ On those forums, the chorus is ‘Rape her.’ Thanks to his superior sense of aesthetics, Winogrand’s moments of lechery show up at SFMOMA, where the chorus is that he’s a visionary.” (more)

Winogrand aside1, there is a serious issue here, namely the issue of permission or consent. If you take a photograph of someone and that person confronts you about it, how do you react? The most common response from photographers appears to be that provided you’re in a public space you can take any picture you want. That’s true, at least in a legal sense. But it does not really address the issue at hand at all: If someone does not want their photograph taken do you, as a photographer, just go ahead and do so anyway, because you can? I actually do not think that’s such a good idea.

I wrote about the ethics (or actually total lack of ethics) surrounding paparazzi a little while ago. There, sadly our culture has embraced the idea that celebrities somehow deserve to be treated in ways that we would reject for ourselves, that celebrities in effect are fair game for our societal bullying. After I published the piece, I found quite a few references to street photography, many comments centering on something like “If we enforce restrictions then street photography is in danger.” (paraphrased and from memory)

I’ve long been critical of the macho culture of the Winogrand era street photographers, and I also do not like the idea that you can do whatever you want with your camera in a public space. Photographers need to be aware of the ethics of their endeavour. But I have to be more precise. Street photographers for the most part agree amongst themselves that what they’re doing is fine. But that’s actually irrelevant. The main question is whether the public is fine with it.

Over the past few years, the public’s understanding of photography appears to have changed considerably in various aspects. In particular, people appear to have become much more wary of being photographed without being asked. Of course, this would appear to be ironic given that there are surveillance cameras everywhere. But I think one needs to understand that there is a difference between these two. If you enter a store that you know has surveillance cameras you implicitly give your consent to being filmed or photographed. If someone takes your picture in the street that consent is absent. (I don’t want to get into too many details here, but it has something to do with what I think of as active and passive privacy)

Given that large parts of the public have become much more wary of photographers and their cameras I do think the photographic community has to start thinking about what this means. I can think of two consequences right away.

First, given that many people just don’t want to be photographed without their consent, photographers should be more careful about this. In other words, it might be perfectly legal to photograph someone in a public space, but something being legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical as well (it was perfectly legal for banks to sell “shitty” loans to their customers pre-2008 financial crisis [and it still is] but that does not make it ethical). If that means that street photography is in some sort of trouble then, well, so be it. Street photography might be a type of photography with a rich history. But just because something was widely accepted in the past does not mean that it will always be widely accepted. I could list all kinds of previously widely accepted practices that we now reject.

That said, and second, it’s the photographic community’s task to educate the public about what they’re doing. In other words, instead of posturing about what they can do, street photographers better tell the public how what they’re doing is not only mindful of the public’s concerns, but also constitutes an important and valuable artistic practice that enriches not just the practitioners’ but everybody else’s lives.

The onus is on photographers and not on the public. Art photography occupies a tiny niche in this very large world, and we cannot expect the general public to have the same kind of knowledge and/or understanding of photography the members of this tiny niche have.

I personally do not find street photography unethical per se. But I am very concerned about street photographers brushing aside concerns voiced by the public. If a large number of people do not want to have their photograph taken in the street, then that poses a serious ethical problem, a problem that cannot and must not be solved by photographers’ fiat.

In actuality, it would be impractical to ask every person in the frame whether they’re OK with a picture. That said, if someone clearly does not want to be photographed or if they are for their photo to be deleted after the fact, then I do think those wishes have to be respected.

Mind you, street photography is not the only type of photography that has to deal with rubbing against the public’s perceptions. Just think of the various photographers who have found themselves in hot water over pictures of their nude children. Think of photojournalists who were accused of photographing, yet not helping. The list goes on and on. In each of these cases, the onus has always been on the photographers.

In a certain way, having this kind of explaining to do might not be such a bad thing at all. I don’t mean to say that I want photographers to have problems. But running against resistance means having to think about what one is doing, having to explore it more deeply, having to explain to a lot of non-specialists what is going on. We all gain from that.

And the ethics of photography, the way how its possible applications or uses might clash with our ideas what’s right and wrong is a very important topic, especially given the fact that cameras are everywhere now.

Thus the public’s wariness of having photographs in public spaces taken without permission poses a challenge for photography as much as an opportunity, an opportunity to talk about what photographs - street and otherwise - do and how they do it.

1 Given I have not seen the Winogrand show or looked at the book I am in no position to comment on whether or not the work portrays women in a very unflattering light. For what it’s worth, I spoke with a couple of friends who met the photographer as students, and they both seemed to agree with Millner’s assessment.