“Is There Such A Thing As Ethical Street Photography?”
What a question! I suppose that depends who you ask!?
Let’s start with the people we shoot. Some of them enjoy having their photo taken so if you ask them they probably won’t see any harm in it but what about the people that take exception to it? I’m sure if you ask them they will say that no street photography is ethical.
Then we have us the photographers. Every street photographer thinks different about ethics. There are some that would say “anything is fair game on the street”, others who have strong ethical views and some who take the middle ground.
Obviously I can’t speak for everyone so all I can do is tell you my point of view and the ethical values I have for myself. Hopefully this will spark some debate and feedback from some of you.
Ok, so this is how I operate.
Homeless, Beggars and Opportunists
I never knowingly shoot homeless people or people sleeping rough on the streets. I know people who do and some do it for very good reasons. These people talk to the homeless, help them when possible and highlight their situations in a right and positive way. Others do it just for a photo. If I was in a situation where I could help these people in some way I would. I would talk to them and help them if possible. Unfortunately I am not in a financial situation to be able to help. I also live in a foreign country and although I can get by in Spanish I am by no means fluent. If I tried to talk but had trouble understanding or putting my point across it could just end in frustration on both sides.
With beggars and opportunists it’s a different story. I have to weigh up the situation. There are certain places I shoot where I see people begging with one hand and playing with a “smartphone” with the other. To me these people are taking from those that really need it. There are also certain types of beggars who operate in groups, harass you when you are sitting in street cafes even with your family and if you say no they look at you as if they wished you were dead! I have also seen these people steal tips from cafe tables. I will shoot these people if I get the opportunity. Beggars who appear genuinely needy I will not shoot though. So for me it’s a judgement call. If I’m not sure I won’t take the picture.
Race, Creed, Colour and Religion
For me all of these categories are equal. I will not shoot anyone on the basis of their race, creed, colour or religion with that as the story of the photograph. I like to shoot interesting people or people that fit the composition of the photo regardless of what colour, race or religion they are. There are enough problems in this world regarding these topics and I have no wish to add to them!
People With Disabilities, Physical Impairments/ Issues
The same rules apply as with the point above. I will not shoot someone to make a photo highlighting their physical issues. If they fit the shot for other reasons then I don’t have a problem with it. None of us are perfect physically and I think to highlight someone’s physical issues could be very damaging. A lot of people in this world are ashamed of their physical conditions and many of them have these issues through no fault of their own. Imagine if someone in your family had a physical condition and someone posted an image on Social Media for the world to see, making fun of that person. How would you feel?
This, for me, is the most difficult one. In my opinion it is full of grey areas and uncertainty. I have shot children in the past both in group scenes and portraits. I have also done a couple of portraits without parental permission. Would I do that now? No, probably not. Generally now I only shoot portraits of children if they ask me to take a photo of them (which does happen) and then I would ask the parent if it was ok. If they agree I will take the shot and show it to them. But then what? Do you need to ask permission to use it on networks such as Google? I don’t know the answer but it’s not something I ask.
What about group shots? Are you supposed to go and ask everyone in the group if you can take a picture? If you did that then 99% of the time the opportunity would have gone, like in the example I have used in this post. I have done and will continue to take group shots without asking for permission as long as they are decent and harmless. I would not for example take photos on a beach of children in swimsuits or bikinis.
What if the shot is from behind so the child can’t be recognized? Is that ok? Again, I don’t know the answer.
Finally what constitutes a child? Is it someone under the age of 18 or 21? Again I don’t know the answer. If you are about to take a great shot but you are unsure if the person is over a certain age what do you do? How do you know how old they are?
As I said, there are so many things to consider with this subject. For me, I just make a judgement call and try to keep all my shots respectful and follow my own morals and ethics.
I hope this post has at least made you think about what you photograph. As I say, we are all different and it’s up to you to decide on your ethics. I t would be interesting to hear from some of you as to what you feel about it and your own personal views and if you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
One more thing. Don’t confuse your ethics with the laws of the land. These can vary greatly depending on where you are so make sure you know what you can shoot legally. This link gives some guidance for different places around the world and I found it useful to know my rights as a photographer. http://dougnz.deviantart.com/art/Worldwide-Photographer-s-Rights-Edition-2-324624426
Thanks for taking the time to read this post