Street Ethics :: Costs :: Privacy

A surreptitious peek into a private moment.

A surreptitious peek into a private moment.

One of the potential adverse consequences of street and travel photography is the invasion of privacy. Most folks move between their homes and work — or the grocery store, the wine shop, the gym — with few others paying much attention to them.

But unlike most folks, who are also just running errands or trying to get home for dinner, a street photographer tends to be really looking. The photographer’s eyes and brain are consciously scanning for interesting, telling details within the visual ocean of stimuli that everyone else’s brains are automatically filtering out. And when the photographer witnesses an interesting scene, they may take a picture — an electronic snapshot of that information. When a street photographer consciously pays attention to us they can invade our privacy — whether we’re arguing with a significant other, taking a phone call to hear of a family member’s passing, or just admiring ourselves in a shop window. Our presence, appearance, and actions have been consciously registered by another sentient being. Moreover, if they make an image of us, that information can be retransmitted allowing our privacy to, in effect, be reinvaded repeatedly by others — who weren’t even there.

Let’s first define what “privacy” actually means in this context, both in terms of the potential types of privacy and the degrees of privacy. The notion that first comes to mind when one thinks about privacy is likely what would more specifically be called personal privacy. This is basically “the right to be let alone” (as Christopher Allen quotes Judge Thomas Cooley). It’s the type of privacy we assert when we tell someone they don’t have a right to come onto our property, look into our windows, or hack into our phone. Street photography doesn’t (usually) infringe upon this type of privacy since street photography is typically done in public spaces. There are some interesting gray areas, however. Ethically, taking a picture of someone’s text messages (see Jeff Mermelstein, for example) likely infringes on one’s personal privacy, even if the subject is in public. (Mermelstein’s images do, for the record, usually retain a great degree of anonymity.)

Generally, though, concerns stemming from street photography involve contextual privacy (Allen). This is essentially the freedom to keep different spheres of one’s life separate. Someone might be open about their sexual orientation amongst a particular group of friends, for example, but prefer that that information remain private with respect to their work colleagues. The most direct consequence of a violation of contextual privacy is often emotional. One’s been “exposed”, made “vulnerable” as a result of “an inappropriate level of intimacy” (Allen). There could certainly, however, be secondary financial, career, or interpersonal consequences as well.

There are also different levels of privacy. Something can be private private — only we and whoever we specifically permit to know something know it. Something can also be public “without it being prominent” (Allen). We might call this type of information effectively private. Finally, a photograph or a bit of information could be anonymous; that is, publicly available, maybe even prominently available, but not tied to a personal identity. Many, if not most, street photographs fall into the final category. An image may be public, even prominent, but without viewers typically having any knowledge of who the subject the image is. I can conjure the gentleman caught mid-stride in Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 image, “Behind the Gare Saint Lazare”, to mind at will, for example, eighty-seven years after the shutter slipped closed on those rays of light. That moment of his is now ours forever. Yet, I have no idea who the man was. And, as I understand it, neither did Cartier-Bresson. This is true of the vast, vast majority of street and travel photos we see on the web or in print. The subjects remain completely anonymous, often to the photographer, and almost always to the viewer.

So what are the costs of these invasions of privacy? As noted above, there are potentially a couple of different types. The first is the emotional toll or stress of losing control of information about some aspect of one’s life, information that one might have preferred to keep private, or have sequestered within some sphere of their life. The second type of cost stems from any secondary consequences of this release of information: repercussions on one’s career or relationships, financial impacts, etc.

The first type of cost, the emotional toll, raises an interesting question: are subjects better off not knowing an image has been taken? Secondary damages could certainly still follow, but the initial emotional impact of the violation could be avoided. Should street photographers be as sneaky as possible out of deference to their subjects?

Okay, probably not. And I suspect there are a couple of reasons. First, the sneakier one is the less it would likely appear one could trust them. What exactly are you intending to do with those images, one might wonder, that would cause you to appear to be so worried about someone catching you taking them? If caught, the breach of trust only adds to the emotional impact. Second, if the subject knows an image has been taken, they technically have a choice. They can ask the photographer to erase the image if its existence really bothers or offends them. Without the knowledge that an image has been made, they don’t have this choice, and as we’ll discuss in the next post, choice may be quite important to our ethical calculus.

The second type of cost, the actual impact to one’s relationship, career, finances, etc., is in some ways more straightforward, but also, perhaps, even more uncertain. Further, it’s not clear that the full magnitude of these potential costs should be assessed to street photography, or to any particular street photographer. Economists often talk in terms of marginal costs: what’s the additional cost of “one more”? The street photographer is typically just “one more” contextual privacy risk incurred by anyone that goes out in public. Yes, it is possible that someone’s work colleague could see an image posted by a street photographer on the web — and that that could have adverse ramifications. But it’s also possible — maybe even more likely — that the subject bumps into a work colleague on the street themself. The subject may worry about this, as well, so the risk and associated costs are partially borne by external factors that have nothing to do with street photographers. That said, the marginal cost is also unlikely to be zero.

Finally, we might each think a bit further about whether even more deference should be given to members of many marginalized groups. The risks associated with violations of the contextual privacy of these folks might, for example, be quite a bit higher than they are for many other members of society. The homeless may, as well, deserve a bit of consideration on a different front. For you or I, going out in public largely raises concerns only about our contextual privacy. The homeless, however, often have no private space to retreat to. They may still have contextual privacy concerns, not wanting a friend or family member to see them while homeless, for example, but they almost certainly will also have personal privacy concerns that you or I wouldn’t; something as simple, say, as changing their pants or brushing their teeth, things that you or I would normally choose to do in private, they may have no choice but to do in public. Images made of someone who is homeless may, thus, risk not only violating their contextual privacy, but also their personal privacy.

Brent DanielComment