Is There Such A Thing As Ethical Street Photography?

Is There Such A Thing As Ethical Street Photography?

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“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.

My Ethics

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.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post



  1. Great Rob. As you say we all have different ethical standards. Yours are I am happy to say on the high side and it’s rare! I differ somewhat, but overall I agree. I do photograph children and only once in five years have I been challenged. On the other hand I have been thanked by parents (hard to believe..or it was for me LOL..but it’s happened many many times, the last just a couple of weeks ago in Lisbon from some tourists who you would think would be more wary than most), and many times have been asked to send a copy of the image later. Which of course I always do.
    I think your advice for S/photographers to think about what they are doing is very sound. So few do, except for what is in it for them and what THEIR rights are. They forget the rights of the people they photograph. thank you for a fine thought provoking article!

  2. Fantastic article Rob! I’ve recently thought about my own personal rules for street photography lately. I find a lot of it should be based on some common sense as well as a healthy dose of respect for others.
    For me, children are a no-no, but that’s just me. I have done some, but at registered events where I am of the photographers (and I’m clearly marked as a photographer). I found it gives the parents a better sense of security that I’m not some creepy guy taking their kid’s pictures.
    Well written article. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Good morning Brandon and Paul
    Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read the article and I’m glad you both enjoyed it! I would also like to thank you for taking the time to comment. Feedback is important and it is nice to get some dialogue going to see different peoples ways of operating and opinions. Your comments also highlight the point I was making about grey areas, particularly with regards to shooting children! All three of us have slightly different opinions on this matter but all shoot morally and ethically.
    I think as you both said, common sense, respect and a little thought goes a long way!
    Thank you both again. The Feedback makes it a pleasure to write the articles.


  4. Hi Rob. Thank you for your well written and clear text. In my case, and apart of the legal restrictions, the only way I had found to decide if I take a picture and, next, if I post it in my blog, is to put myself in the place of the subject. I try to think if I would feel comfortable seeing me in that picture, in that attitude, in that situation… It’s easy to say, but sometimes difficult to do. And not everyone feels comfortable in the same way as well. We will never know the possible consequences of publishing a seemingly innocent picture of someone… As a prevention, if the characters are clearly prominent, I try to shoot in a way that they are not easily identifiable, if I have no permission, but this is not always possible.
    Thanks, again, for helping me to think about street photography.

  5. Hi Rob,

    A well written piece that sums up the ethical questions that we pose and the grey legal issues that surround us (especially in France!) I’m on the same wavelength as you concerning the cases you mentioned. With street photography where the subjects are easily recognizable (which is the type of SP I do) there is always the possibility that people could take offence at the publication of their image and / or be placed in a difficult position by its publication. That is unfortunately a side effect that is difficult to have at zero risk. What I try to do is not to pass judgement on the subjects in the photos.

    Hugh SLATER

  6. Hi Oriol and Hugh

    Firstly I would like to thank you both for taking the time to comment. I’m sorry it’s taken me a little while to reply but I’ve been extremely busy. This post received mainly positive feedback which I am pleased about as it is quite a delicate subject to cover. I am glad you both feel similar to me in terms of ethics. I think we all react differently to different situations but as long as we respect our subjects and treat them with dignity we are doing the right thing as far as I am concerned. The really grey area I think is publishing images on social network sites. I don’t know of any law that covers this aspect? It’s also difficult when the laws vary from country to country. Oriol, what do you know of the laws here in Spain. As far as I can tell as long as you are in public space then you are permitted to photograph anything or anyone? Do you know anything on the publication laws?
    Again, thank you both for reading and commenting. I hope it helped and please feel free to ask any questions of myself, Spyros or Andrew in the future.


  7. I just joined this group. In fact, I’m new to Google+. I’ve been street shooting for a couple of years, and I educate myself and feel I improve by reading articles like this one. What I have taken away from articles like this, is that if there was just one rule we were mandated to use, it would be to use common sense. For example, I always carry singles ($1 USD). I hand them out to street people when I feel it’s warranted. I live in southern California and primarily street shoot in metropolitan Los Angeles. Every situation each day has its own set of circumstances. You never know what’s going to happen at any given moment. That’s part of the rush I get. Case in point, recently on the streets of busy Hollywood Blvd, a young girl (23) was street shooting three panhandlers, when one asked for a buck, and she refused. He jumped up and, before anyone could stop him, knifed her to death. This is obviously an extreme example, but "reading the streets" is part of the common sense formula.

    • Clarification: I hope you reading this realize that her being killed was not the "rush" I was describing.

  8. Hi Geoff
    Thanks very much for reading the article and taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it interesting. Apologies for the late reply but I have been extremely busy this week preparing for a holiday.
    I agree with you 100% that common sense should be first and foremost. I also like the fact that you are willing to help the needy by handing out $1 bills to those that need it. As I mentioned in the post, if I was in a position to do this for the genuine needy I would. First and foremost to help, secondly to try and find out their circumstances and finally, if it warranted it, a photo. As I’m not in a position to help I don’t shoot them. That way my conscience is clear. The only ones I will shoot without helping and without remorse are the ones that harass you when you are out with family.
    I heard about the girl getting killed. A terrible situation.
    Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. Keep up the street shooting and the good work helping those that need it.


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