Ethics in the street

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by pniev, Aug 22, 2013.

  1. pniev

    pniev Student for life

    May 13, 2013
    Jordan Steele's recent post of the homeless man - in which he mentioned that he asked for permission to take a photo (which I appreciated very much indeed) - triggered a question: what are the ethics in street photography? I am curious what your thoughts are with respect to ethics (so I am leaving out the legal aspects because I asked that earlier, if I recall correctly, here or at fujixspot).

    Let me share my - evolving and strictly personal - view. The more I see, the more I dislike the "secret" shots (including my own) and the more I appreciate shots taken openly, like Jordan's shot and Karin/Briar's posts such as the 'mostly-monotone' and 'cool' shots which seem to taken without being secretive. Wouldn't anyone of us be offended when we would find out that someone put a microphone in our houses to listen what we were saying? To me that seems to be similar to taking a photo of person, who is clearly visible, without his/her permission. Who likes voyeurs? How does it differ from agencies quietly monitoring the internet?

    So I browsed a bit and found this article: Conscientious Extended | The Ethics of Street Photography. The writer refers to Winogrand and his followers who believe that everyone can be photographed anywhere and any time without permission. Isn't this what paparazzi believe? (of course, after taking the photo paparazzi are really upset when someone uses their photo without having paid for it and without their permission).

    Based on what Joerg Colberg wrote, I tried to come up with basic rules (again from an ethical perspective, not a legal one) for myself. But I got stuck after two basic rules:

    1. Shots are taken 'open, so not from the hip, while the camera is hanging around the neck, etc. So basically shooting should be done while viewing the LCD or looking through the viewfinder. Bottom line is that it must be (potentially) noticeable that the photo is taken.

    2. When a person or multiple persons will be clearly visible/potentially recognizable, those people are asked upfront for permission. If that is not possible of spontaneity would get lost, ask for permission after taking the photo. Asking permission is not necessary when taking photos of crowds, during demonstrations and large-group gatherings, and/or when people are not clearly visible (eg silhouette, viewed from the back).

    Did I miss anything? Am I talking nonsense here? I am curious what you think (really).

    Just to be clear: it is not my intention to insult anyone or step on toes. If I did, please accept my sincere apologies. I am just trying to learn more about street photography!

    Looking forward to your opinion,

  2. Luke

    Luke Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Nov 11, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI USA
    Hi Peter, for me it's fairly simple. It kind of comes down to a general feeling of personal invasion. Obviously when one is out in public anyone can see them. And anyone can shoot them. I think the photographers intent matters more than anything else in these cases. Are the shots meant to be exploitation or are they done in a manner to show the humanity of a homeless person.

    I think some people just feel uncomfortable when they see an uncomfortable image. If we are never challenged though and never see the downside of humanity, it can be easy to forget. And we should never forget about those who are left behind by society.

    Also in the discussion (apart from the downtrodden) are people just going about their lives, but in a public space. I think they are fair game. And some of my favorite street shots are getting secret glimpses into someone's life (not peeking through their window obviously)

    so would your evolving code of ethics have a problem with this shot? (and I'm not talking about the pole ruining the shot or the fact that I'm no good at street photography)
    View attachment 74684
    men walking by Lukinosity, on Flickr
  3. rbelyell

    rbelyell All-Pro

    May 14, 2013
    NY Mtns
    so youre walking around a city somewhere and across the street you see a bunch of guys in front of a cafe at 6 different tables, all smoking and drinking coffee. it looks like an awesome candidate for a b&w shot. all faces are visible. so after the shot, you suggest crossing the street and what? making a general announcement? going from table to table getting individual permissions? further, one guy out of the twenty objects and you think you have just taken a great shot, what then? what if youre shooting film--do you not develop it? promise to destroy the 'offending' negative?

    look, i dont mean to come off like a jerk. i struggle with this also. i sometimes feel uncomfortable with taking a shot, and i do employ stealth as a technique. more and more if that feeling crops up i dont take the shot.

    but imo in the end, i dont think 'rules' can be made to work. too many exceptional situations, too many 'but what if's'. a public scene is in fact public. its not in any way like invading someones house and planting a mic. by definition, there is no expectation of privacy on the street. i do not think that is dispositive of whether or not a shot should be taken, but it is a big factor and shouldnt be compared to what it clearly is not.

    have i asked permission? yup, but it always yields a much different result. its no longer, imo, a 'street' scene, but a 'managed' or 'staged' scene, and it always has that feel and look. do i 'aim' my cam in obvious fashion head on at a subject? hardly ever because i consider it discourteous, like 'pointing' at someone.

    i do think if a subject somehow approaches to object, i personally would do what i needed to diffuse the situation. i dont think i'm 'entitled' to a photo of a private person in public, but neither am i morally proscribed from taking it.

    i think we are really only left with how luke put it above.
  4. alessandro

    alessandro Regular

    Sep 5, 2011
    Vicenza, Italy
    Extract from the 1941's Italian law on copyright:
    "a portrait cannot be shown or sold (it's not taken) if it offend's the person's honour, reputation or dignity".
    Of course it's speaking of photos taken in public spaces.
    That's it for me. And I don't mean my country's law, I mean my personal ethics.
    If anyone happens to be even the main character of a public life photograph, I cannot think of any other good reasons not to publish a shot.
    If he is or isn't aware of being photographed, doesn't make any difference.
    The fear of being photographed is unreasonable. The matter of privacy is a totally different one, I can't and don't publish personal data. Only those that already know the photographed person would know who he is. Or he himself.
    Of course, if seen and disapproved, I'd stop or delete, or remove the published image. But that's courtesy, not a duty.

    One could argue that offending the honour etc. is personal stuff, but we perfectly know that showing images means people observing them will point out if there's any problem. And again: it must be a very evident problem, because an ok shot may always hurt anyone's sensibility. So the thing is self-regulated without the need for (other annoying) bans.

    Wanting to protect one's own image when in public spaces is nonsense, IMHO.
  5. Luke

    Luke Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Nov 11, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI USA
    Well that about sums it up for me.
  6. Ray Sachs

    Ray Sachs Legend

    Sep 21, 2010
    Not too far from Philly
    you should be able to figure it out...
    I've thought about this a fair amount and I've come up with this:

    1. People in a clearly public space are fair game. People in private spaces are absolutely off-limits (no shooting people over a backyard fence or through a house window, etc). If I'm free to look at someone in public, I'm free to photograph them as well. When you're in public, you should have no expectation of privacy. This is true of me, as well - when I'm in public I'm fair game to be looked at and/or photographed.

    2. My goal is to be an observer to a moment, not a participant in it. This requires "secret" shots, although I'm never terribly secretive about it - most folks are just too busy in their own world to be worried about mine. Most of my best shots happen without the knowledge of the subjects. Some of my best shots are when I fail in my task and the subject is clearly aware of me and it works quite well anyway, but that's almost never what I'm going for. On very rare occasions I've interacted with folks and asked to take their photo and I've liked those too, but I almost see that as something different than street photography - more like street portraits. But those shots don't capture a moment - just a face. Nothing wrong with that, but if that's ALL street photography was, I wouldn't have any interest in it.

    3. Do unto others. Kind of a basic rule. I see videos of folks like Bruce Gilden (sp?) working and, even though I like some of his results, I find his methodology repulsive. Even in public when anyone is free to look at or photograph anyone, there is still such a thing as "personal space". I do not invade other's personal space. I sometimes shoot from quite close when in a very crowded area, but I don't get right in people's faces. Some folks almost force a confrontation in order to photograph the reaction to that confrontation. I would never do that. I try not to be noticed when I'm shooting - when I am noticed I damn sure don't want it to be because I'm all but assaulting someone. On the rare occasion I'm asked to delete a photograph (it's happened twice in the 3+ years I've been doing a lot of this street stuff), I happily oblige - I don't get all high and mighty about my rights - I'm not out there to get into a confrontation or to piss someone off.

    4. If a shot looks even remotely exploitative when I pull it up on the computer, I just toss it, period. I realize we all have our own standard for this - I can only go by my own. But when in doubt, I toss it.

    4. Homeless people are a bit of a conundrum and all I can say is I treat each situation differently. For them, being in public, semi-hidden in a doorway or behind a barrier of some sort, is as close to privacy as they ever get. I generally don't shoot them. I did for a while at first, but I rarely came up with a shot I really liked and I never felt right about it. Those ARE their private spaces, not by choice. So I usually try to respect that. And on the rare occasion I think I see something good in a shot that includes a homeless person, I still toss most of those shots because they don't do enough once I see them on the screen. BUT, I'll occasionally take a shot with a homeless person in it if it says something about their plight, or contains some sort of juxtaposition (that usually says something about their plight). But its very very rare anymore that you'll see a shot of a homeless person from me. Others have other opinions and I respect them. Don Springer is among my favorite street photographers ever and he shoots a LOT of homeless in Philadelphia and I know he used to (probably still does) package them up and send them to the Mayor's office periodically, to keep the issue front and center. I fully respect that.

  7. Lightmancer

    Lightmancer Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Aug 13, 2011
    Sunny Frimley
    Bill Palmer

    Peter, I fundamentally disagree with some of the points you make. Leaving aside for a moment the legal aspects (which as far as I am concerned can be summed up as "If you are in a public place you can have no reasonable expectation of privacy") let me comment upon a couple of specifics:
    No. It is totally different. In my home I have a reasonable expectation of privacy. When out and about I have none. If you are clearly visible and in a public place I will take your photo. If you are in your home I and I was outside I would not do so. I certainly wouldn't put a camera in your home to do so, which is the logical corollary of your example.

    You are conflating two separate issues here; let me deal with each one in turn. Colberg's essay, to which you refer, makes the mistake of tarring everybody with the same brush, in this case accusing street photographers of behaving like Winogrand. Personally I think the bloke is an egocentric sociopath hiding behind a camera; he does not epitomise street photographers in general and his approach is a milion miles removed from my own.

    Think of it this way. Street photographers are parasites; they feed upon the interactions of people in public places. A good parasite does not irritate or harm its host. A bad one does. Winogrand is a classic example of a photographer who has become the story rather than capturing the story and in so doing he has done himself - and anyone who "follows" him a disservice.

    Your second point refers to copyright theft. That is illegal. Full stop. It matters not how the photo was taken, by whom or why, the copyright vests with the photographer. A key point - we do not own copyright in our own image.

    Now, to your rules:
    In my view, shots are taken by whatever means is necessary to get the shot. There is something called the "Hawthorne Effect" which in simple terms states that the process of your observing an event has an influence upon it by the act of your doing so. In street photography terms, nine times out of ten, this means that the activity I saw that made me want to take a photo will be interrupted or changed if the person doing so notices me framing up. My original shot is therefore lost forever. It will be a very poor - and misleading - world if it is simply made up of posed moments.

    No. See above. Asking permission is not necessary, and in most cases not desirable. If you want to take a portrait, then you should engage your subject and ask them to co-operate with you - this is not the same as asking permission.

    I may sound like I am being harsh but I am actually being both pragmatic and mindful of the way in which, the more we restrict ourselves by "rules" the less we can capture the world as it is. There are enough restrictions put upon us as photographers as it is without our making our lives even harder through our own actions - be that behaving like Winogrand or being "too polite" - and I speak as someone who is proud to call himself a "Gentleman Amateur" - ie one who does not make a living from photography but pursues it as an amateur - one who loves the art.
  8. Ray Sachs

    Ray Sachs Legend

    Sep 21, 2010
    Not too far from Philly
    you should be able to figure it out...

    I agree with almost all of your post 100% and love your "parasite" analogy - that is indeed what we do and, yes, even parasites have ethics.... But I'm not sure what your issue is with Winogrand. I'm not aware of how he became the story - maybe he achieved some level of celebrity, but his iconic photographs are definitely from the "observer" perspective, rather than the "participant/protagonist" perspective. I like most of his stuff a lot. What's your issue with him? Or are you possibly confusing him with someone else? Here are a number of his shots and I just don't see what you seem to be seeing:

  9. retow

    retow All-Pro

    Jul 24, 2010
    Often some random shooting of destitute strangers in no context is mislabeled as street shooting. Here an example of great street photography imo:iN-PUBLiC | David Gibson
  10. KillRamsey

    KillRamsey Super Moderator

    Jun 20, 2012
    Cambridge, MA
    I think the original question has been thoroughly and lovingly addressed above, and thank you guys for it. Some great points made.

    As a side note, I thought it would be helpful / interesting to discuss another actual example, ala Luke above. I've only taken one picture of a homeless person, and it was at night when I was trying out TMax3200 film for the first time. I was in Harvard Square, and as I walked past an indoor set of ATMs at a bank, I noticed a guy sleeping standing up, right in the window. I tried for the shot, and as you can see I didn't really get it. I was too intimidated to frame it better, and the auto metering put too much of the interior lights into the equation. Also I've learned a lot about shooting since January, but bear with me.


    So for me, the 4 or 5 second long internal decision process went something like this:

    - See the guy, am drawn to him, process what's going on, understand what I'm looking at.
    - Want to capture the image, because it moves me and therefore I think it might make a moving image.
    - Is it demeaning? If it is, then it would feel disgusting and exploitive to take the image, and I won't.
    - I think about it and it doesn't feel exploitive, it feels poigniant and a little sad... what I think of only as a space to quickly run in and pull $40 out of the wall is, for him, a quiet clean warm place to sleep.
    - Decision made, try and photograph it quickly.

    And there my lack of skill and my squeamishness at taking more than 3 seconds to shoot it glues my feet to the ground where I stood, where I could more easily act like I wasn't taking a photograph if he moved or if someone walked by.
  11. olli

    olli Super Moderator Emeritus

    Sep 28, 2010
    Metro Manila
    Apart from the law there are no rules - everyone will have their own approach.

    Good street photography (i.e. photography that respects the subject) is dependent on two things - humanity and experience. Experience you can gain; humanity (or call it decency, compassion, empathy) you can't.

    Great street photographers have both. Too many street photographers have neither, or have experience without humanity.

    Unfortunately street photography's reputation for being 'edgy' makes it a fashionable pursuit for people whose interest is only in themselves and their own reputation.
  12. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    I don't like taking pictures of people in an unflattering light. Not intentionally, and if unintentionally they get deleted.

    I also don't take pictures of the homeless or disadvantaged (although my impression from being in America recently is that this is a large problem in that country so the views from anyone who lives there may be different). I don't have an outlet to use such images for positive means in a way that would actually help their plight, and if we're talking about having a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home, what happens if the street IS your home?
  13. pniev

    pniev Student for life

    May 13, 2013
    That is excellent food for thought and helps in shaping my evolving ethical rules! They definitely evolved after reading your replies.

    1. that is an interesting point indeed and rules the paparazzi out!
    2. I don't think so. I also don't see the point here of running behind them to ask for permission.

    Very valid points indeed! Thanks!

    I was indeed a bit too fast here!

    I can live with that. ;-)

    A nice way of phrasing it!

    Wanted to capture the first sentences of your reply here as well, Ray. Thank you for such a very thoughtful and ethical view. Very helpful.

    Point taken and (mostly) agreed. I guess the suggestions done in this thread reflect the limits of photographing in public places without a need for formal regulation (which I do not like either).

    I have to admit that I had never heard of either one of them. Says a lot about me, I'm afraid.

    When I read this, it crossed my mind that street photographers show stories and capture moments that make other people think. that is a good thing. That deserves a better name than 'parasite'! ;-)

    You don't sound harsh at all. I like your reply a lot and thank you for taking the time to do so! Besides, the Dutch are used to direct discussions!


    Food for thought...

    A great rule.
  14. KillRamsey

    KillRamsey Super Moderator

    Jun 20, 2012
    Cambridge, MA
    'Nother side note...

    Walking around Harvard Square during the day, there are literally too many people taking pictures to even count. I'm not joking when I say that anywhere near the main gates to Harvard the number of people with a camera around their necks or in their hands is well north of 75%, and the number of people actively taking a photo (seemingly of anything... I often look at a guy and wonder what in the living hell is so interesting at a 45 degree angle up in the air behind me) is up around 50%. Bus loads of chinese tourists disgorge every half hour, spilling numberless hordes of the curious (armed almost invariably with entry-level CanNikon street sweepers) out into the flow of people going to work or to school. And they all open their jaws slightly, smile, and lift the cameras to their eyes as locals squeeze around them on their way somewhere.

    What I mean by all that is that this particular place is especially easy to go shoot street shots of people, because simply having a visible camera, much less using it, is just lost in the noise.
  15. Steve Miller

    Steve Miller New Member

    Aug 18, 2013
    A 30-min train ride to B&H
    Not THAT Steve Miller
    First post here, so let me start by saying hi. A special shout out to Ray Sachs for turning me on to a photography forum that seems quite helpful, informative, and from what I've seen so far, incredibly civil. Such a nice change from a certain gear-driven website owned by Amazon!

    To the original post...

    I've often tried to come to terms with this question and I have to say that Ray's thoughts above pretty much echo my sentiments. One thing that really hit home was the following comment from Bill:

  16. pniev

    pniev Student for life

    May 13, 2013
    A great idea to share and discuss examples! I don't think you're exploiting the situation here, especially because it is full of people. Yet, I do see the point made that "the public is their home". So I would also be inclined to wonder what purpose I would serve by photographing the person even if he/she is not recognizable (I am thinking loud now). It would be a valid shot if I want to share a message. Does that make sense?
  17. KillRamsey

    KillRamsey Super Moderator

    Jun 20, 2012
    Cambridge, MA
    It does. I was conflicted about even trying to get that shot above. But it didn't seem exploitive to me, so I tried. I will also say, though, that I pass by hundreds of similar shots all the time and elect not to take them, because I feel like they wouldn't like it. I donno... it's difficult to pass up what you think might be a compelling image, sometimes.
  18. pdh

    pdh Legend

    Jan 2, 2011
    But also only a personal rule, and not one to be applied willy-nilly.

    If it had been followed by all photographers we would have no documentation of historical injustice, or more generally large slabs of history at all (think Dorothea Lange, Doisneau, Henryk Ross), and our record of (for instance) contemporary urban deprivation would be entirely absent (think Don Springer, as an example close to our hearts here at SC)
  19. Lightmancer

    Lightmancer Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Aug 13, 2011
    Sunny Frimley
    Bill Palmer
    Ray, you have it in a nutshell. That will teach me to work and play at the same time - I am a bloke and cannot multitask. When writing Winogrand I was thinking for some reason of Bruce Gilden; Winogrand was an incessant photographer, a man to whom every evolving scene was a potential target. Gilden, on the other hand, is a mugger with a camera...
  20. Lightmancer

    Lightmancer Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Aug 13, 2011
    Sunny Frimley
    Bill Palmer
    On a similar note, the sad situation we have today is that photography of children is viewed with suspicion at best and accusations of perversion at worst. As a result, in 200 years time will our ancestors look back on images of today and wonder where all the children were kept? Clearly they were not allowed on the streets at all... I freely admit that I will not point my camera in the direction of a child in the street these days - such is the world we live in.