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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This entry was posted in Photography, Street Photography and tagged , , , , , , .