Tag Archives: public

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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Curmudgeon Agency

There are people who are ill-tempered for no particularly well-thought-out reason. They simply react poorly to seemingly innocuous circumstances or events. It seems these people are curmudgeons for no other reason than to make it perfectly clear they have agency as a human being. And it’s certainly a good idea to assert yourself and to make it known you have thoughts and feelings too, but overreacting to a benign situation for the sake of expressing your individualism is counter-productive at best.

As this relates to street photography, I’m talking about the person who reacts negatively either verbally or physically to their picture being taken. And certainly that’s their prerogative (at least the verbal part), but people seem to think they have some special right no one else possesses when out in public.

For better or for worse, we live in a surveillance society, and at the same time, nearly everyone has a camera. There is no presumed privacy on the street, or in a park. What is it exactly that people fear about the photograph? These same people do not live in fear that their likeness could be captured by accident with someone’s smart phone camera. They don’t think twice about walking down a city street where the number of security cameras can measure into the dozens. But raise your camera up, and snap a shot, and suddenly you’ve taken away their agency? Most people who react badly in these situations couldn’t begin to tell you why, they just react.

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Aspiring Street Photographers: Know Your Rights, Then Stand Your Ground

If you are an aspiring street photographer, you need to know your rights, and then you need to stand your ground. No, we aren’t talking about the ridiculous “Stand Your Ground” law in the state of Florida, but rather, stand your ground in this context means you as a photographer need to be courteous yet assertive when confronted on the street. Because the unfortunate reality is that if you are in the city taking photographs with a DSLR or similar “pro-looking” camera, you will eventually be approached by a security guard, or even sometimes the police — so know your rights!

The Photographer’s Right: The General Rule — The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs. Absent a specific legal prohibition such as statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.

Property owners may legally prohibit photography on their premises but have no right to prohibit others from photographing their property from other locations.

And this right to photograph when in a public place is not limited to objects and buildings, as it also includes people. It’s your right to photograph anything, including people when you are in a public place, and yes, that even includes children. But that doesn’t mean you should be an ass about it. Obviously if you like candid street photography you aren’t going to ask for someone’s permission (although in the case of children, you might want to consider asking the parent’s permission first), but be mindful of how people react to you and your camera. If someone is not happy about it, move on to the next subject. While you are within your rights to continue to shoot in this scenario, common sense says you should avoid a possible confrontation, but more importantly, you should respect other’s feelings and emotions. Your task as a street photographer is to capture a slice of life, the human condition, and to tell a story, but you shouldn’t seek to upset people.

But when it comes to overzealous security guards or anyone else who questions your right to photograph, I think you should stand your ground. Be polite and explain why you have a right to photograph. I don’t think you should purposely escalate the situation by mocking the person who is challenging you, but you also should not immediately back down because it is up to all of us in the photography community to stick up for our rights. And so that brings me to a short documentary from 2011 where six photographers spread out across London with intention of capturing how private security reacts to their presence. I have to warn you, if you are well aware of your rights as a photographer, you might start yelling at the screen as I did.

Ugh, this is so frustrating! As I said, you can photograph whatever you want while in a public space, and that includes private buildings and people! And that is generally true in most advanced democracies. These private security guards, they are like singular human microcosms of the military industrial complex – continually inventing ways to justify their existence. They have no idea what they are talking about, but they think they are an authority on the matter. Okay, well leave this commentary at home and to yourself. Remember what I said, don’t escalate the situation. If you are approached, try to remember the way the photographers in this video behaved. There’s no reason to intensify the confrontation.

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