Is Street Photography Ethical?

Christina Harman by Christina Harman on

In a day and age where there is a threat of images falling into the wrong hands, the issue of street photography is coming under fire from public opinion.

Ironically, in a time where everything we do is being increasingly captured on camera anyways – whether by security cameras or at the ATM, public awareness – and opinions on the issue of street photography are also on the rise, and the debate goes on.

However some photographers wonder why there is even a debate on the ethics of street photography. Surely ethics aren’t an issue for photojournalists, or something that other photographers have to face. Why are street photographers being singled out and viewed with suspicion?

Street Photography
photography by Ian Carroll

Photography has always come under scrutiny

Whether it’s a photographer photographing people in a culture that is superstitious of the camera, or a photojournalist being criticized for photographing the plight of someone – rather than helping – photography of any kind will always involve an ethical dilemma.

Photojournalism in and of itself isn’t unethical; however, snapping photos at the scene of an accident can cause the issue of ethics to come into question.

In the same way, street photography in and of itself is not an ethical issue. It’s the problems that arise from some of the tactics that are used, the potential conflicting motives that are involved with some cases of photography (should homeless people be photographed for art?), and the public concerns and conceptions of street photography that conflict with the photographer’s opinions, that pose the ethical dilemmas.

“There is a fine ethical line between invading a person’s privacy and capturing their true image”

Street photographers are artists, whose goals are to capture an image that is artistic, or an accurate record of social history. The ethos of most street photographers is to maintain the right of freedom of expression, and to capture the world through images.

Street Photography Code of Ethics

The Photography Code of Ethics from the US National Press Photographers Association has some solid points and guidelines. The code says that you should provide context when taking photos of subjects, give consideration to vulnerable subjects, not intentionally stage the scene, and avoid altering your images in such a way that is misleading to viewers or misrepresents subjects.

Street Photography Strategies

  • Be Compliant: If you find someone who objects to having their photos taken, delete the photos and apologize. You may have had a legal right to take the photos, but ugly confrontations only increase public negativity towards street photography.
  • Use Common Sense: It may be perfectly legal to photograph children at a playground, but use common sense – it might be wise to avoid the telephoto lens – or at least introduce yourself to parents first.
  • Be Mindful Photographing People Who are Poor or Desolate: Some people photograph homeless people because they feel it makes an interesting photograph. However, be aware of exploiting someone’s condition just for the sake of art.
  • Consider an Open Approach: Erik Kim, world-renowned street photographer and workshop leader, recommends an open approach for street photography:

“I think the best way to approach someone is openly and honestly. This means if you take a photo of someone (without permission) you don’t pretend you didn’t take the shot. You then approach the person and tell them why you took the photo and what you found interesting about them. You then take a potentially negative experience and make it into a positive one in which people actually feel humbled to have gotten a photograph taken of them.” – Erik Kim

Tips for Street Photography

  • Dress Appropriately: Wear what everyone else is wearing. This helps you to blend in, and in some cases it’s actually polite – for example, you wouldn’t wear a crazy bright shirt to a wedding.
  • Keep the Gear Light: Think unobtrusive. A DSLR with a fast prime, or even the kit lens, is a great option. Mirrorless cameras are also great for street photography. Shoot with a telephoto if you’re confident enough, but in most cases, pointing a big lens at someone will intimidate them, and may cause trouble. It’s best to avoid obtrusive, up-close flash photography – unless you’re Bruce Gilden.
  • Adjust the Settings: There’s no shame in shooting street photos in auto. Capturing the decisive moment is more important than having to take the time to get your settings right – and missing the shot. If you want to try your hand at manual or semi-auto settings, adjust the settings early.
  • Know the Law: Be mindful of the laws and customs in the country that you are photographing in. The USA and UK allow public photography, it is legal to take photos of people without their permission as long as they are in a public place and the photo is not going to be used commercially. Other countries though, have different laws on photography. Germany, for example, requires photographers to get their subject’s permission before taking the photo. In some countries, it’s good to be careful taking photos that may be deemed disrespectful, and be mindful when taking photos in politically sensitive situations.
  • Don’t Lose Confidence: Eventually someone will tell you that they don’t want their photo taken. In which case, just delete it and move on. Don’t let one person discourage you from pursuing your craft. Street photography, when done with pure motives and consideration for others, is nothing to be ashamed of.

The Value of Street Photography

It’s been said that photography is about making photos – not taking them. For street photography, it’s no exception. Street photography is about capturing the subject in context and telling their story.

Street photography requires passion, and observation. It’s easy to snap photos on the street, but to get a picture that tell a story, you have to take the time to observe the situation, take in the surroundings, and capture the moment.

While street photography is not unethical in and of itself, the issues and the publics’ concerns on street photography should be taken seriously by photographers. While it’s not realistic to ask for permission before taking every single photo, if someone voices a concern about having their photo taken, it is important to treat their concerns seriously, and to delete the photo. The subject’s opinions and wishes should always be respected.

What are your thoughts on the ethics of street photography?

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