Is Street Photography A Violation Of Privacy, Or Ethics?

Reflect Upon

There’s no question street photography is polarizing. Some, myself included, see street photography as an art form, and a means to document city life and society at a particular place and time. There are others who see street photography as an egregious violation of personal sovereignty. So is street photography appropriate? Is it ethical? And is it okay to post street photos online without permission from the subjects?

Because I practice street photography, and because I post street photos on this blog and on Flickr, I think you know where I fall on this subject. But there are some who think street photography is a clear violation of privacy, and others who take it a step further and believe it is (or should be) against the law. And candid photography is against the law in some countries. But in the United States, and many other democracies, there is no presumed privacy in a public space. While in public, photography of random people is legal, and that includes children. And there are some who do understand the law, but who argue just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And I do have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but I believe this is a highly subjective issue for which there is no clear and concise answer.

Some people have no problem taking photos of anyone, including children, even if the subject is in an embarrassing or compromising position. And I’m not here to argue against that kind of photography, as everyone needs to check their conscience on their own terms. But for me, at least right now, I’m uncomfortable photographing people in a way that would subject them to potential embarrassment if they discovered the photo online. I’m also uncomfortable with photographing children (as the main subject), but that has more to do with avoiding confrontations with parents. But I’m not here to judge fellow street photographers who have no such self-imposed limits. And while I might have my own personal limits, I do not believe there should be any enforced or defined limits for others. I live in a free country, and I want it to stay that way.

When it comes to posting street photos online, I actually make no such distinction. What I mean to say is, if its fine to display street photography at an art gallery, then its fine to display it on the internet. People need to stop fearing technology.

But unfortunately we live in paranoid times. Much of the fear of others is unwarranted, and the perceived risks in society overstated. Your local news broadcast deserves much blame in creating an overly suspicious public, but government is also to blame for overreacting in the name of national security.

Because of our overwhelming panic and despair, increasingly our so-called free society is becoming a police surveillance state. Yet amid all this anxiety and dread, we also live in a time when nearly everyone has a camera at hand. So it would seem by participating in modern society, you are tacitly offering your consent to be photographed. It is against this backdrop that the street photographer, a person who is capturing images for the love of the art, risks confrontation, and being labeled suspicious. But it is the lens of the surveillance state that we should fear, not the lens of the artist.

Street Photography in a Paranoid time — By walking out of our homes we essentially consent to be filmed and watched and photographed by any number of entities; at least a street photographer is making photos out of some interest in art or their fellow human being. – UtahN8 (Nathaniel)

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  • MarkT30

    Just found this post. As someone who very much opposes you, I hope you’re
    still reading comments. If you ever want to get a clear explanation of the other
    side of this issue, you should really read Daniel Solove’s “The Future of
    Reputation.” He doesn’t discuss street photography per se, but does go into
    detail about the “no expectation of privacy in a public place” principle and the
    problem with it, including its effect on freedom itself. I’ll take it further, though,
    and say that it is the most disgusting, hateful, and objectifying (in that it
    basically reduces people to zoo animals meant for the entertainment of others),
    principle in American law, and one that makes a mockery of the idea of this
    country being “a free country” as you so claim. You don’t want freedom. You want
    a relentless super-surveillance society far more invasive and pervasive
    than what was envisioned by George Orwell, and the lack of freedom that comes
    with it.

    Ultimately, you’re nothing but a lobbyist for a special interest group.
    Like all special interest groups, you claim to base your position on the desire
    for a free society, but what you really care about is YOUR freedom — a freedom
    that comes at the expense of the freedom of others.

    • We can make distinctions. We don’t have to view things through an absolutist filter. I find the idea of the ever pervasive surveillance state to be, well, creepy. But at the same time, it always comes down to what its used for. So we should never go around banning things or saying things shouldn’t be done because of the potential for it to be misused. We should be forever vigilant in combating abuses of power, but if you say you are for freedom, then what gives you the right to tell me what I can or cannot photograph in a public space? But certainly you do have agency yourself, so you are free to ask me to stop taking your photo and to delete it. Freedom goes both ways. Your photographic likeness does not afford you some additional “freedom.” If I’m a good guy, and I’ld like to think I am, and if you asked me to delete a photo I took of you, then I would. It’s not worth the hassle and there are a million other photos to take. But, I’m also just as free to say “No” and then go about my day. And at least from the perspective of photography alone, there is no right to privacy in a public space. And that is backed up by law. Some of the greatest art is done with this license. It’s hardly Orwellian.

      • Tom Rose

        I am impressed by your patience in dealing with that argument. I’d have given up on him ages ago.

        • Heh, well, I try to be diplomatic, maybe to a fault in this case.

  • MarkT30

    “But at the same time, it always comes down to what its used for.”

    don’t care how it is used. For those who believe in the value of privacy and its
    incredible link to freedom (again, I recommend that you read the book I
    referenced if you TRULY care about this issue, as it goes into this link in
    detail), the dissemination of information about people and their lives to the
    entire world IS ITSELF A VIOLATION OF A HUMAN RIGHT. And that dissemination
    is also what makes what you people do entirely different from government
    surveillance. No doubt — any image you put online is available to the
    government (as I’m pretty sure the government has Internet access), but unlike
    government surveillance, is available to the rest of the world as well. If you
    truly think that street photography is less invasive/intrusive than government
    surveillance, does this also imply that you would find what the IRS does less
    invasive if they published people’s financial records online so that the rest of
    the world has access to them as well?

    “if you say you are for freedom,
    then what gives you the right to tell me what I can or cannot photograph in a
    public space”

    The person whose life you are disseminating information
    about. By the way, would you also find it strange or inappropriate if you sat
    next to two people on a bus having a conversation, covertly recorded their
    conversation, and then they objected when they found out you put the recording
    online? What you’re basically saying is that it’s somehow absurd for people to
    object to you be able to choose what moments of THEIR lives are broadcast to the
    rest of the world.

    “And at least from the perspective of photography
    alone, there is no right to privacy in a public space. And that is backed up by

    So was slavery. And I already addressed the “no right to privacy
    in a public place” in my first comment as being the most disgusting and hateful
    principle in American law. Also, you know that First Amendment you guys always
    appeal to? You know what it’s real purpose is? TO PROMOTE CHANGE, very much
    including change in law.

    Finally, back to the freedom issue for just one
    moment. Would you please type out the following text, including the caps? I’m
    not kidding here. If this is truly what you believe — what you think is true —
    you should have no problem explicitly saying so:

    I, David K Sutton, believe that one’s PERSONAL freedom can ONLY be
    derived from the ability to reveal information about OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES.

    Rest assured, your argument that you’re in favor of freedom is predicated
    on this belief. If the ability to control what information is revealed about
    one’s own life is, itself, a freedom (or a condition that promotes freedom), it
    just proves what I said about you simply prioritizing your freedom over other
    people’s freedom.

    • I won’t be following your directions to type out “your” phrase that you came up with in your own mind because it does not reflect my ideals. I never said my freedom was contingent upon revealing information about other people. But see, this is where we have an issue. You believe someone’s digital likeness is the same as revealing financial data, or recording a conversation. They are hardly the same thing. In displaying a street photograph, I’m not revealing anything that could damage one’s finances or personal reputation. You do know that your local news does not need permission from everyone that appears in a live or recorded video segment, right? And that’s because when you are out in public, there is no right to privacy, and that is not a restriction of freedom, it actually is an enhancement of freedom. Just how totalitarian do you want to make the public square in order to maintain what you are defining as “freedom”?

      And I mentioned in my article that I do understand the mixed feelings on this topic. I’m certainly not an absolutist. I have sympathy for privacy arguments, but I also believe that no right is absolute. So when you talk about the First Amendment, or any of our rights, they are not absolute. And you could just as easily then make your case as I could mine knowing that rights are not absolute. You cannot have a functioning society predicated on absolute privacy. It doesn’t work. Now, I’m hardly making the case that street photography is necessary for a functioning society, but the case I am making is that there is a long tradition of street photography, and before that (and still), street portraiture by paintings. It is art. It is capturing a slice of life. It is documenting the human condition. It is giving future generations the ability to see what life was like at a certain time. So yes, the purpose does matter.

  • MarkT30

    “You believe someone’s digital likeness is the same as revealing financial
    data, or recording a conversation. They are hardly the same thing.”

    Two points here:

    1. To say that any photograph you take of someone doesn’t include
    information about him/her is nothing short of delusional (and, by the way, if it
    says so little about people, why the need to take the picture and disseminate it
    to the rest of the world? You can’t have both ways.). It’s not as if a
    photograph is something that originated in the mind of the photographer —
    something from his or her imagination. It’s a CAPTURE of a real moment in the
    life of a real person, made possible simply by being in a certain place at a
    certain time, and, as explained above, is something indicative of who that
    person is as a person. That most certainly DOES make it different from just
    about any other form of art. Contrast that with a piece of music, for example.
    You’re simply in denial of the concept of a photograph as a capture of reality.
    The fact that it might be interesting to look at does nothing to change

    2. I find your statement that “they are hardly the same thing” particularly
    stunning considering that one of the street photographer’s main arguments is
    that what they do is an example of “freedom of expression,” and that freedom of
    expression = free speech and is thus protected by the First Amendment. If you
    truly believe that speech = expression (otherwise stated, that nonverbal speech
    = speech), making a capture of someone else’s expression/nonverbal speech has to
    equal making a capture of someone else’s speech just as if you captured their
    words. That’s just Logic 101. I find it almost laughable that you’re now
    suddenly trying to differentiate between “speech” and “expression.”

    By the way, while I would guess that most photographers agree with you, not
    all do. Here’s one I found that does not: .
    In her, I think, wise words:

    “As far as I’m concerned, it is noxious, not to mention arrogant, to insist
    that one’s own artistic vision should be prioritised over the subject’s
    wishes. People are not exhibits or commodities, they’re people. Abusing an
    unwilling subject’s photo for entertainment or artistic and even economic gain,
    while often legal, is bad conduct at best and a violation of human rights at

    • The quote doesn’t apply because I never said artistic vision trumps the wishes of the subject. If the subject asks me to stop photographing, I will. Sure, other street photographers may not, but I can’t speak for other street photographers, only myself. You are projecting your own wishes onto someone else. You may make a blanket assumption that all people think the way you do about this, and therefore that means automatically a candid street photograph is against someone’s wishes, but even if that were true, your entire argument is fraught. And let me offer you some examples of why your position is untenable.

      1. I’ve got a great shot lined up of a national monument and I take it. But later I see there are some tourists in the background. Am I violating their privacy? What if the tourists around the monument are part of the shot I want, and not just the monument itself. Am I stepping over the line now?

      2. If I photograph a friend on the subway and get part of the person sitting behind him, should I delete that photo?

      3. Should all news/journalism video & photography be banned because it typically contains images of people in public places? And if not all, then where do you draw the line?

      4. When does a photograph (or any recording) cross the line into a violation of privacy? And maybe more importantly, why are you appointing yourself judge and jury on this topic? Surely I can audio record an audience cheering, and I would hope you wouldn’t have a problem with that, right? But what if I include a photo of that audience from a distance? Is that now a problem? What if that photo is close enough that you can see faces, but still kind of blurry, is that too revealing? What if those images are clear enough to recognize someone if you knew them? How clear? How much of them?

  • MarkT30

    You said earlier “If I’m a good guy, and I’ld like to think I am, and if
    you asked me to delete a photo I took of you, then I would. It’s not worth the
    hassle and there are a million other photos to take. But, I’m also just as free
    to say “No” and then go about my day.” So, I can only give you partial credit
    here. You are still implying that it is acceptable to prioritize one’s artistic
    vision over the wishes of the subject, even if you don’t personally.

    Regarding points 1-4, you said in your original post “And candid
    photography is against the law in some countries. But in the United States, and
    many other democracies, there is no presumed privacy in a public space.” And,
    you’re right. In many other democracies, there is not. But in some democracies,
    there is. France, for example, has a concept of “right to one’s image” or “droit
    a l’image” (and, by the way, some non-democracies such as China have horrible
    records on privacy rights, so this has nothing to do with democracy or lack
    thereof). Closer to home, I believe that street photography is restricted in the
    province of Quebec. So, it’s not like this is some kind of fantasy of mine —
    these laws actually exist. I don’t claim to know every intricacy of such laws,
    but I do know, for example, that one has to be the clear subject of an image to
    claim this right, which pretty much answers your monument example. I believe
    that if people are doing something as part of a group (a protest for example, or
    a parade), one cannot claim this right. When someone is minding his/her own
    business and you take AND PUBLISH (that’s really the key) an image in which
    he/she is the clear subject, though, he/she can.

    And that’s why I find it odd that you’re trying to paint me as an
    absolutist here. If I were an absolutist, I would support 100% privacy in a
    public place, but I don’t. What you want is NO right to privacy in public (not
    diminished privacy in public, but NO privacy in public). That is, the
    automatic forfeit of privacy for anything done in public. Therefore, I’m not the
    one being an absolutist here — you are. Oh, by the way, just as I don’t think
    anything done in public should forfeit all privacy, I’m also not absolute about
    the retention of privacy for anything done in private. Plenty of things take
    place in private places that are, most certainly, of public interest (corporate
    mergers that are transacted in a private corporate office, for example). That
    takes judgment, too, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make such judgments
    and either call 100% of what happens in private private or 100% of what happens
    in private public.

    Lastly, and I’m pretty much going to have to wrap this up here, please read
    the book: .
    And, no, I’m not the author, nor do I have any financial stake in it. But it’s a
    great articulation of the pro-privacy position written not by some random wacko,
    but a professor of privacy law at GW Law School. I guess you believe that street
    photographs are art and, therefore, make people think. Well, I believe that this
    may make you think as well.

    • I wasn’t implying that. I was making a legal argument with that statement, not an artistic argument. That’s why I said I would delete a photo of someone if they asked me to.

      You are admitting that this is a judgement call. That means it’s subjective. So, at least in some respects, that means neither you or I are 100% right. There are valid points to be considered on both sides, and there’s plenty of grey area where I believe there can be no claim of being right or wrong. But having said that, an absolutist statement I will proudly proclaim is that I don’t care if candid street photography is illegal in some countries, I don’t believe it should be illegal. So it hardly matters to me if it is illegal in a country because I believe they are wrong for making it illegal.

      There are street photographs where there is not a clear human subject even if humans are present. Where does your barometer measure for such a photo? My point here is that this is clearly too subjective a topic to proclaim that it should be illegal or that I should never feature a photo that has a candid subject.

      Regardless of how you feel about this, you have given me motivation to hit the streets and shoot some candid photos as I’ve been neglecting my hobby in recent months, but this conversation has rejuvenated my artistic passion. So thanks. 🙂

  • MarkT30

    Ah! One more time.

    My point in describing the laws other countries was simply to demonstrate that
    you can’t say that it’s impossible for such laws to exist, because such laws DO exist —
    they’re not something cooked up in my own mind as you would seem to like to
    believe. I’m not sure how demonstrating that a certain standard needs to be met
    in order for a particular image to be publishable implies that it’s subjective
    whether or not street photography itself should remain legal. Yes, there is
    something Potter Stewartesque (“I know it when I see it”) about it, but that
    doesn’t mean we never make distinctions and that everything should be allowed.
    That said, yes, whether street photography itself should remain legal is
    subjective. ALL LAWS ARE SUBJECTIVE! That is, you can probably make
    a case for and against almost every law — something like a ban on murder obviously
    being an exception. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make any laws or any

    As for me motivating you to go take some candid photographs, you know what,
    assuming you’re being serious here, if that’s what you take from this, that’s
    just sad. You’re really just a glorified (or at least self-glorified) paparazzo.
    Except that the paparazzi can claim that what they do to celebrities is “the
    price they pay for fame.” What you’re doing, though, is making ordinary people
    who do NOT receive the benefits of fame pay that same price, which I believe
    makes what you do MUCH crueler. So, sure, get out that and violate those
    human rights! But it speaks extremely poorly for who you are as a person,
    and I mean that. Hopefully, some day, such injustices will be corrected just like
    other injustices of the past.

    • So, if we are in agreement on the subjectivity, then I’ll ask again, who appointed you judge and jury on this topic? I’m just simply amazed how worked up over this you are. I’m not taking street photographs to piss people off. I’m not doing it to get under your skin. It’s a recognized art form, and has been for a long time. Ever heard of Magnum?

      It was founded by the father of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

      And people should not be expected to pay any price for fame, to follow you on your tangent. Being hounded by flash bulbs everywhere you go is WAY worse than a random candid street photograph done for the love of art, rather than the payday a paparazzo is in search of with a candid celebrity photo. That reflects on YOU if you think otherwise. I’m not trying to exploit someone for money by stalking them relentlessly like the paparazzi. I can’t believe you don’t see the difference, and in fact you think candid street photography is worse.

      There is such a fine distinction between documentary photography, photojournalism and street photography, I don’t know how you would make a distinction with a law. Many very important documentary photographs have been taken through the history of photography. It would be such a shame if you got your way with legislation. I can’t believe you think your position is one of greater freedom. Amazing.

      There is no definable “freedom” being curtailed by having your photo taken. You can object to it being done, but you aren’t losing a freedom. What is produced is a digital likeness. It’s a medium. My brain is also a medium. If I have a photographic memory, and can recall every detail of your face months later, am I violating your privacy? What if I then paint a picture of your face from my photographic memory, transferring from one medium to another? Is that a violation of your privacy? In some ways, your concerns sound like they are more rooted in a technology fear. Would you have a problem with street portraiture paintings, for example? So yes, it is an absolutist position to think everything pertaining to your likeness and your privacy should be protected in a public space through overbearing legislation.

  • MarkT30

    Oh, I can’t help it! Here we go again. Let’s see:

    1. I’m not saying that *I* should personally be the judge and the jury. I’m saying
    that there should be standards in place just as there are in other countries. Professor
    Solove wrote an entire book about this. I doubt that he thinks that he,
    personally, should be the judge and the jury on this, either. Again, just that
    standards should be in place. I just don’t understand how advocating for
    regulation of something constitutes an attempt to “be the judge and the jury” on
    that regulation.

    2. You might have a hard time wrapping your head
    around this, but some people might not look at themselves and their lives as
    objects of your art. Furthermore, even if street photography is art, one could
    argue that the subject is the art (a manifestation of the clothes they wear, the
    facial expression they make, etc.), and that you’re essentially co-opting their
    art rather than creating your own and then claiming the distribution rights to
    that art.

    3. The paparazzi argument. I knew you were going to try to
    come up with some rationalization involving how much better or more serious your
    work is than theirs, etc., but that’s just your opinion and nothing more (yup,
    subjectivity again), and a self-serving and self-congratulatory opinion at
    that. I’m sure a paparazzo could come up with an argument that the images he/she
    captures are more artistic than yours (and that, of course, would just be
    his/her self-interested opinion as well). The fact is, what you’re doing —
    taking pictures of people unaware they are being photographed — is almost
    conceptually identical to what the paparazzi do. It’s just your personal bias
    and self-interest that leads you to believe that what you are doing is more
    artistic — it’s not like it’s a FACT that street photography is art (and that
    what the paparazzi do is not).

    4. Let’s talk about graffiti for a
    moment. Could graffiti not be looked at as art? If so, does that mean it should
    be legal, especially if done on PUBLIC property? But graffiti actually damages
    property and thus is a violation of property rights? Well, one could argue that
    it adds to property rather than damages it, or at least only alters it — it
    doesn’t destroy it unless, I suppose, it paints over something else. But,
    regardless, IF (and, to be fair, I don’t know that you do) you do think graffiti
    should be illegal, it still tells me that are ARE willing to suppress a form of
    art — you just don’t value privacy enough to do so. I would argue, though, that
    if freedom from the eyesore of graffiti is a legitimate enough interest to
    warrant the suppression of a form of art, privacy, given its link to freedom
    (and probably a much greater link to freedom than freedom from the eyesore of
    graffiti), is as well. Let’s stop pretending that just by calling something
    “art,” it must be allowed. That is, your argument cannot be carried by simply
    relentlessly invoking the word “art.” There is more to life than art, and more
    to freedom than art.

    5. ” What if I then paint a picture of your face
    from my photographic memory, transferring from one medium to another?” Are you
    seriously trying to draw an equivalency here? Yeah, that’s a major threat to
    privacy in the year 2014 — people painting people from their photographic
    memory and then, presumably, taking a picture of that painting and putting it
    online. So candid pictures of celebrities are completely and totally different
    from candid pictures of non-celebrities, but a painting from photographic memory
    is the same as digital images put online. My God…

    6. “What is produced
    is a digital likeness. It’s a medium.” In that case, maybe people should be able
    to take candid pictures of people in private places as well, or even public
    restrooms. After all, it’s just a digital likeness of you standing at the
    urinal, right? Just a medium. Or, going back to the recording a conversation
    scenario, it’s not your voice, right? Just an audio likeness. Again, my

    7. “There is no definable “freedom” being curtailed by having your photo
    taken. You can object to it being done, but you aren’t losing a freedom.” That’s
    also just your opinion and nothing more. And, really, an indication of your
    devaluation of privacy and the link between privacy and freedom. For those who
    believe that privacy DOES, in fact, promote freedom, “no expectation of privacy
    in public” could easily be restated as “no, or at least significantly curtailed,
    freedom in a public place.” You think that a world in which everything you do
    and everywhere you go is made available for permanent worldwide
    public consumption is a free society. I, and many others, beg to differ.

    8. You’re just as worked up over this as I am. Just on the other

    • This discussion has grown tiresome, so I will finish with this reply. Feel free to reply again if you want, but I’m done here.

      We have both acknowledged the subjectivity here. And it’s not that I don’t value privacy at all, but I do not believe the level of privacy you are looking to achieve in the public square in modern society has much of anything to do with freedom. It’s not a loss of freedom, it’s just that you don’t like it, and that’s not the same thing. You might not like someone yelling obscenities at you on the street, but they can do so, and you are not losing a freedom because of it. Your digital-based or flim-based likeness is not you. That means the act of capturing those little dots of light that make your likeness is not impacting your freedom. Maybe I didn’t engage your agency in the process, but that still doesn’t mean you lost a freedom. In fact, this will blow your mind, but I own the copyright to the photo I take of you. I guess that’s a law you would like to change fast.

      But there is a tangible freedom being taken away if you ban a photographer from photographing on the street. And your position is entirely philosophical rather than material, because it would be untenable to enforce such a ban. “No officer, I was taking a picture of the building behind the person.”

  • MarkT30

    I guess I will make one last reply as well, but, as you indicate, there’s
    not much more to say. I’ve already responded to every point you’ve made here:
    the ridiculous characterization of an image as “little dots of light” (again,
    which, I guess, somehow only applies in public, as if the laws the laws of
    physics in public places are different from the laws of physics in private
    places), the link between privacy and freedom (if you believe such a link
    exists, I’m not sure how it somehow disappears in public — in fact, maybe one’s
    public library records should be public information as well. After all, it’s a
    PUBLIC library!), the existence of such laws in other countries that prove their
    “tenableness,” but you just ignore anything that’s inconvenient to you. I wonder

  • Pingback: Perspectives on Street Photography | The Daily Post()

  • janderby

    I tried some street photography in San Francisco yesterday, and was immediately confronted with ethics issues, such as shooting through the window of a business, shooting a child, and many of my pictures involved some very vulnerable people. I got some great pictures, I asked anyone whom I was close enough to ask if they would mind. Everyone said OK. Some of my pictures are very intimate, one woman asked that it not be online, although she was fine if I showed it to others. I spoke to many of the people I shot, with kindness, and I had a great response. Some people were in average circumstances, some were in some extremly hard circumstances. No-one lectured me, or indicated they felt violated. I connected with these people and and was astonished at what I experienced in a short time. They trusted me to take their picture because they interacted with me and trusted me. I think the situations where someone can be harmed by recording an image of them in public are few. I will try to be sensitive and hopefully be aware of such situations. I haven’t explored what it would mean to post pictures online but I will soon. Someone in a public space is visible, and can be seen by everyone, I will try and be as honest and compassionate as possible while practicing street photography, but I can only answer to my own conscience. I learned a lot about people in an hour and a half, and felt proud of what I had recorded and the way I did it. The pictures that I took have artistic value, and were taken in a spirit of humanity, not surveillance or exploitation.
    This is one of those things where it seems clear that folks won’t agree and probably won’t be persuaded. Therefore I’m not trying to convince anyone. I’m learning as I go.
    I do understand in some cases I will upset some people, and I will deal with that on a case-by-case basis, generally I expect that I will respect their wishes by deleting or whatever they want, but so far no issues.

    • Thanks for sharing. I agree that this is not a debate that will ever draw to a conclusion. I know where I stand, and my views on street photography are quite liberal, but each person will need to consult his or her conscience when taking on the challenge of street photography.

      • janderby

        I’m fifty, I’ve got some grey hair, I’m comfortable in my neighborhood, maybe I’m fooling myself but I assumed I wasn’t looking creepy or dangerous, or offending anyone, Usually stood in one place taking pictures and let people walk into my path. I’ll admit, I asked some people if they would mind if I took pictures of the mural behind them when I was actually interested in them, and was glad they didn’t move. I drifted in the general direction two people were walking in because they looked interesting, which was similar to following them but they got away, and I didn’t get those two pictures. I did notice one person in a crowd put their hand over their face, so I can tell they didn’t appreciate it.

        I’m sure I had a very good day, and I expect on average my experience won’t be so clearly positive, but I just wanted to report that I checked the opinions of many people I took pictures of and nobody expressed violation of privacy. I suppose the pissed people got away from me quick.

        I met a guy named Tony and took some pictures and he seemed to enjoy it and was cool about it, most were him smoking a cigarette, playing with a dog, eating a sandwich, this man was probably mentally ill, possibly an addict, possibly homeless. He was a grubby guy wearing two different shoes, dirty and completely charming. I asked and took several close-up portraits of his face and you couldn’t believe the look in this guys eyes.

        Some would consider his likeness exquisitely beautiful, I was proud to have recorded it. Beautifically crazy and enjoying the morning and floating around like a balloon. The man was really cool. He was enjoying his day and I was part of it.

        I can easily understand that some people could be offended by what I did and feel that I took advantage of him.

        Everyone has a unique non-objective and enigmatic perspective of what they see, and no-one can control that.

        I just don’t connect with the debate below. These are stimulating philosophical issues to be sure, but if I violated someone, I expect they’d tell me. There is an enormous presumption below that people feel violated and don’t appreciate being taken advantage of, and are being put at risk, and that their feelings don’t matter. I just don’t see it, it was not my experience. The people who had the time to interact with me were playful and enjoying the attention, or just let me do it. I’m clearly a novice and surely naive in some ways and will have a learning curve. The kind of bare-knuckle violations presumed below are hopefully perpetrated by a very small number of street photographers.

        I did take a picture of the line at the DMV and almost got arrested. I exaggerate, but I was confronted by an employee. That was dumb, and I can see how it could be an invasion of privacy. Learning as I go. I also had a little baby next to me pulling my shirt several times and smiling at me. I said hello to her and would have liked to shake her little hand and be playful with her, but of course, I’m an old man, I need to be very conservative about flirting with little girls I don’t actually know. It’s all a matter of personal perspective and we live in times where trust and humanity is withering in some respects. We are sterilizing our society in many ways in some quest for complete safety.

        Probably get punched or have my camera taken sooner or later.

        I’m not young and am comforted that I lived in some times I can call gratefully call the good old days. I hope our society won’t outlaw street photography in my lifetime, things are messed up enough already.

        Seeing, looking, gazing, reflecting, interacting, remembering, interpreting, documenting, presenting, these are dignified human activities that can be misapplied, so what?

        I will need to look at the laws and writings on this subject, I’m definitely woken up by this debate, thanks.

        • I find I need to get myself in the zone, or in other words, get myself mentally prepared before I’m able to snap off candid shots of people at relative close range. It does not come naturally for me at all, but nonetheless I’m drawn to candid photography. Of course it’s the end result that I’m after, getting a slice of life, but I think there is a bit of the thrill of the moment. That thrill is not derived from a sense of exploitation (as some people see it), but instead its a sense of overcoming a certain fear, or at least suppressing that fear enough to capture that “moment.”

          • janderby

            I came back to delete my 2nd post, embarassed at working through these issues on a blog as I type, but I guess I’ll leave it. I came here after my first time trying street photography, researching the obvious ethical issues I had encountered that day My various friends’ reactions to what I considered the best of my images also prompted me to research the issue.
            My perspective is so different than Mark’s for example there’s no overlap of understanding. David, even you are debating at a level that I don’t really relate to. I wan’t sure I was contributing to this issue, with my naive perspective.

            I think the distance from the subject is quite relevant. For whatever reason, I was very close, in most cases. My game was to stand there taking shots, sometimes dishonest fake ones that I didn’t care about and let people move into my path, then I might ask them to take a picture, or just take one, it worked well. I had other ploys people might consider dishonest. People engaged with me. I have pictures of nice happy people to prove it.
            I guess about 70% or more of the pictures I took were very vulnerable people in gentrifying neighborhoods that still have such people hanging on somehow. I do have some problem that. My moral quandry here would take too much time to work through and express in words right now, but it does exist,and it’s obvious, I suppose. I don’t think it is addressed in the debate you two had, but perhaps I should read it all again.
            When I’m taking good, close pictures and not asking, and posting, when I know the person would not like it, that’ll be a different game entirely. I haven’t addressed any points either of you make directly, since I’m not yet engaged in bare-knuckle street photography. It could happen any time. I expect my position will have some resemblance to David’s when it does.
            I was curious to see if Mark had any reply to anything I typed, but I expect not, we simply are not discussing the same activity, and there’s no point of engagement. From my perspective, Mark is talking about extremely serious issues present in our society today. I think it’s a matter of perspective of how these issues apply to street photography. He connects to street photography to some very bad, very real societal trends. I don’t think the issues he fears apply to the vast majority of street photographers and fruit of their work. I’m a newbie, I might be wrong.

            I know I had a very good day, and if I keep doing it I’ll eventually have a very bad day.
            Perhaps I wasn’t engaged in real street photography, I thought I was.

            Michael Olsen, SF

          • I’ve had two main tactics when it comes to street photography. One tactic is to stand and wait for people to pass by. I usually lean against a pole or a newstand that is near the curb and face back towards a building. I usually pick a spot that has an interesting backdrop or interesting play of light and shadow. I will admit that I try to make it look as if I’m just reviewing images on my camera as I wait for people to pass by. I guess this could be considered devious, but it is not done with mischievous intent, it’s done entirely to disarm passerby’s. The second tactic, is well, not so much of a tactic. I just walk briskly down the street looking for interesting people and interactions between groups of people and I raise the camera and snap off a shot. I don’t even stop walking. In this scenario, a nice fast shutter speed is a must. In fact, that’s how I took the photo at the top of this article when walking through Rittenhouse Square Park in Philadelphia.

          • janderby

            Ok now, I came back to delete my 3rd post because I’m a clown with 90 minutes experience but now you’ve made me want to comment again.

          • janderby

            I have taken several photos on the bus, with camera on my lap, covertly, it was two different old people, a safer subject. I was nervous, but not ashamed morally. I’m sure Mark would be livid. But that’s it, more because I’m shy and don’t want confrontation. So I won’t shoot from a distance on the street, since I don’t want to have to defend that tactic to anyone or endure rude looks, either from a subject or another observer. It seems clear that I’m easing in and my boundary lines will be moving towards more freedom all the time, it will be interesting to see where they settle.

            I asked another street person for his picture tonight. All I can be sure about this guy was he was addicted and dirty and looked interesting, and he was camped on the sidewalk. I assumed homeless, he implied it, but he was a pretty clever guy so anything is possible. I’m not picking people who are absolutely abject. I’m asking folks have something interesting going on, that shows some spirit to deal with whatever harsh stuff is happening to them. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but so far those are the people I have the stomach to shoot.

            This guy was on Market street and was super savvy about what I was asking for and he had been asked for pictures or not asked but had his picture taken many times. He asked me right away for some money, which I gave later, after saying I wasn’t really carrying any, he wasn’t adamant about it and told me about himself and let me take a few pictures, we discussed his life, he quickly told me of medical issues relating to why he was on the street, his tragic relationships on the street, his addictions, he brought these things up right away, so yeah, to some extent he saw himself in a zoo, or at least some sort of entertainment, and wanted to charge me a fee, or he considered me a kind of tourist. He led the conversation and cut to the chase, and answered the questions I wasn’t asking. Not a pleasant thought, the way he seemed to see me. He was still pretty cool, and we had a candid and interesting discussion about a few things, I asked his opinion on street photography ethics and posting images.

            He said he didn’t care, he had friends who were amateur photographers who took pictures of him all the time and put them online because they thought they were good pictures, he also said that he knew people who would be very ashamed to have previous partners or relatives find out their circumstances. He shrugged and looked at me and said: “So you have to ask.” Not the last word on the subject but I think his opinion has value.

            I do think he understood that all human pretenses aside, that he made a very interesting and somewhat charismatic impression, and that he was photographically desirable. I think the handful of people I’ve met in this context buy it when I tell them that I consider them photographically interesting and having character in that sense. They are human and are flattered by that attention despite it cutting both ways, and since I talk to them candidly and without apparent judgment or revulsion and I have made a point to shake hands no matter how dirty, perhaps they grant me some credibility and sincerity.

            I’m not an asshole, although I sometimes express myself like one, and I think that’s clear to both the person I’m photographing and even to the people who have undoubtedly watched me do it. I’m sure people have photographed me photographing people. In SF its so dense that people photographing people photographong people photographing poeple phtographing poeple, or six people photographing one scene from six different perspectives probly happens constantly` noticed that I have been photographed in public a few times throughout the years, talking or somehow interacting with homeless people. Many of my photographs have people carrying cameras or using them, just by chance, in the background, which can be amusing, I don’t notice until later, so far they’ve never been the subject. But there are a lot of cameras around everywhere in a city like San Francisco, on people on their feet, tourists as well as everyone else, people walking with their cellphones on a stick, videotaping and photographing themselves and their friends walking down the street, and I’m sure it’s the same in every city, and everywhere in modern life where people interact. Cameras are being used constantly in public by virtually everyone. I’m sure the number of pictures, the amount of data is staggering.

            These facts dilute the idea that street photography is dangerous, and it simply dilutes the impact of street photography. Everybody is photographing everything and posting it anyway, as a part of their normal lifestyle. People take pictures constantly and post them as a medium of communication with friends and family, I wonder if they identify as photographers. My circle is limited.

            That fact alone makes the idea of prohibition of intentional street photography in American society just ludicrous. I could see various restrictions in the name of anti-terrorism easily possible, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it became illegal to photograph children under some panicky scenario, but I’d like to think it couldn’t go any further.

            With concepts like the internet of things, and the fact that every
            public space it constantly being photographed and mapped in greater and
            greater detail by the minute, prohibitions against street photography
            seem absurd to me. Everything will have a digital representations, and everyone will have many digital viewfinders aimed at them, and street photography will one if the least threatening.

            Purely as photography it’s a tough call as to whether the whole thing with the young man tonight was ridiculous or not. I don’t really want to comment on to what degree either of us was truly mercenary about our 10 minutes together, because I’m not sure at this point. I don’t think I got any great pictures but I haven’t looked at them yet, I have a blank slate for technical knowledge and haven’t a clue how to take a picture at night.

            If been in these neighborhoods 30 years and to talk to and touch these people and photograph them is a strong and healing and educational experience for me. I’ve never been one to ignore a homeless person, I don’t give money often, but always look at the person, and acknowledge them, usually apologize for not giving money, often lie about not having any.

            This was a weird experience unlike the others, not bad, but certainly making me more critical of the validity of doing this activity, in unexpected ways. I’m sure I’ll have many unexpected turns of perspective with street photography if I continue.

            It gave me plenty of food for thought and I should probably avoid commenting so much until I think about these things for more than a couple of hours.

            It’s clear that I have only the shallowest understanding of a deep subject, and the ethics are very complicated and challenging, and I’ll be seeing what happens next.

            Maybe I’ll stop thinking vulnerable people are a proper subject. Probably not though, that seems too extreme.

            He asked for 10 dollars for a guitar which could really do him good, he said, I gave him less, and didn’t expect him to spend it on a guitar.

          • janderby

            Most of the conversations I had were pretty interesting, and it occurred to me most times that it was a shame they weren’t being recorded. I would never do it covertly and I don’t think I would ever ask. It’s just too much. It seems much different than a static image. I don’t think I’ll be using a video camera at any time either.

            I remember enjoying, and really admiring, the writings and recordings of Studs Terkel, it’s been well over twenty years so I don’t remember specifics well. I’m not aware that he incorporated images or video in his work, maybe. Images at least would make sense. I really no nothing at all about street photography, documentary, fine art, or anything else, I’m learning now, here. I was a Journalism student once, but I couldn’t get enough enthusiasm for it, I’m sure that impacts my perspective.

            I mentioned last night to Colby that I would never audio record him but it was kind of a shame, I didn’t have the best memory and he had said some interesting things. He told me he thought people can always remember important things when they need to. I wondered what the subtext of that comment was, or what his personal perspective really was when he said it but I can only guess.

          • Having a record of those conversations would serve well for writing purposes, which it seems you are well inclined for.

          • janderby

            Ha, I’m going through a personal ethical crisis and some of that intensity is spllling over here.

          • janderby

            A month later, I’m still doing a lot of street photography and may break down on the recording concept. Too many amazing things missed. I’ll deal with my conscience. Of course my boundaries have moved towards more freedom and less inhibition. I’m using a portrait lens or a fish-eye, so generally I have to get right in peoples faces. Some people are cool, some aren’t, if they aren’t I apologize and move away. I only had to delete two images so far, and no real confrontations yet. I generally ask, with words or with a look, if they don’t say no quickly, I take the shot. I’d seriously like to have the nerve to just shoot people up close with no permission, and just keep moving. I’m working towards that. I intend to have some integrity about it. I don’t really have any qualms, I know I’m not harming people

          • It’s true that the iPhone can be triggered quite covertly for street photography purposes. I have an iPhone, but I don’t find myself wanting to use it for anything other an casual photography needs. But it does take pretty good photos. My go to camera for street photography is a camera I bought expressly for this purpose, a Sony RX100-II. It has excellent image quality and the image stabilization and face recognition features work really well for taking photos while walking about. I’ve tried the same thing with my Nikon D7100 but it’s definitely more of a challenge to get these types of shots, and it’s influenced by being self-conscience while holding a huge DLSR camera. The Sony is so small it mostly goes unnoticed. But I have gotten some great urban landscape/architecture shots with my Nikon D7100 and Nikkor 24mm prime lens.

  • KB

    Question: what if a person is just very very private? They has absolutely no social media presence and just do not want their photo in public. They understand that it won’t cause any harm and is not being used for any profit. But if they step outside onto a public street and has photo taken, and photo gets posted, this person has no rights? And the photo of their image actually belongs to the photographer? And this person is just being paranoid? This person’s privacy hasn’t been invaded? Or this person just needs to never step into public.

    • NoRightsForHurtFeelings

      A person’s feelings are highly subjective and subject to change over time. How you feel today is a poor predictor of how you’ll feel tomorrow. Therefore, feelings should not be the basis of law nor should they be protected in any formal way.

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