Street Ethics :: Who's it okay to photograph?

There have been a number of articles and videos over the past few months, including a particularly thought provoking one by photographer Jamie Windsor, on the ethics of street photography. These got me thinking, and feeling a bit conflicted, … which got me thinking some more. Are street photographers inherently exploiting the subjects of their images? If so, how? And to whose benefit? And are there circumstances where the benefits outweigh the costs? Or not?

(Note that I’m thinking here primarily about street photos that capture something of the human experience — rather than those focusing on more abstract visual compositions, or street portraits where permission is explicitly obtained. Many of the same questions, I suspect, are also relevant to a lot of travel photography that includes local subjects as well.)

There seem to be a lot of potentially complicated and nebulous questions that can arise on the street, many ethical in nature, some even legal in nature. In this post, we’ll run through some hopefully thought-provoking questions that might guide our enquiry. In later posts we’ll try to shed light on the costs and benefits of street photography, as well as some of the pitfalls we might run into when making or evaluating street photographs.

Jami. East Santa Clara Street. San Jose, California. A worthwhile look at the human experience? Or just voyeuristic and exploitative?

Mentor insights?

First, maybe someone has this all figured out for us. Are there subjects that are typically avoided, fairly universally, by nearly all reputable photographers? I’ve read that you should never photograph children, for example. But, then, what about Steve McCurry’s heartbreaking image of a young Peruvian boy with a toy gun pointed to his head? Or William Klein’s image of a boy pointing a gun at the photographer? Sally Mann’s work features her children prominently and, to a degree, explicitly. I’ve also read that you should never photograph women in a sexualized way in street photography. But what about Garry Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful project? Or the occasional Parisian capture by Robert Doisneau, among others? Those with mental or physical challenges or deformities? See Diane Arbus. Bruce Gilden. The homeless? Take your pick among any number of Magnum photographers. Hmm.

Personal opinions?

It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of clear answers to be gleaned from the work of our mentors; or, at least, there appear to be strong counter-examples to common “rules” or concerns, suggesting that there are contexts within which the ends might justify the means. Let’s jump into the fray ourselves and look not to the work of others, but to our own instincts for guidance. Let’s think about some examples.

Is it okay to photograph businessmen? What do you think? How about business women? Men we deem particularly attractive? Women we deem particularly attractive? Attractive men who have chosen to go out without a shirt? Attractive women who have chosen to go out without a bra? Men or women we deem particularly unattractive? Men or women who appear different than us, or who dress differently from us? What about a woman wearing a men’s button-down? What about a woman who is partially through the process of undergoing a gender transition wearing a men’s button-down? What about a man wearing a women’s dress? A homeless man? A homeless woman? A homeless child? Who is it okay to photograph, and under what circumstances?

What if we could peek behind the scenes and know a little more about the potential subjects of our photographs? Would that make a difference? What if the attractive young man in the business suit grew up in a sour, single-parent home with a mother that beat him; what if he worked midnights to put himself through college; what if he just lost his young spouse last year to cancer?

What if the homeless woman in the alley was born on the upper east side; spent her twenties doing lines in the restrooms of trendy clubs, demanding that the chauffeur work an eighteen hour day so he could drive her home at 2 am. She had it all, until she didn’t.

Of course, we don’t typically know any of this when we capture a candid image. We see only the stereotypes. And based on those stereotypes, the street “rules” seem to suggest that we afford her greater respect or deference. Should we?

W o m e n

If a woman wears a braless tank top to grab a coffee on Sunday morning and a pant-suit to the office on Monday, should we refrain — on her behalf — from taking a picture of her on Sunday, but snap away on Monday? What if it were a guy that was shirtless one day and in a suit and tie the next? Haven’t both the woman and the man chosen what to wear on both days; and chosen, just as deliberately, to wear each of those outfits in public?

I love the juxtaposition of the young woman's desire to be both a good mom and to feel attractive — as well as the possibility that there might be some tension created between the two when they play out against one another in the form of a slinky dress and uncomfortable footwear on the dusty, gravel midway of a county fair. Yet, … the image contains a child. It also includes a woman — and in what could be interpreted as a sexualized way.

T h e H o m e l e s s

Is there something important in the words “chosen” and “in public” above that might suggest a reason to treat the photography of homeless individuals differently than others? Homeless individuals haven’t just lost their homes; they’ve lost their privacy. Things that you or I might choose to do in private — sleep, pick our nose, dance around in our boxers — they have no choice but to do in public.

If that’s the case, does that just suggest that there are some things that it’s okay to capture homeless individuals doing and other things that it’s not? Perhaps we shouldn’t totally preclude ourselves from photographing the homeless, but only if they’re doing something that we would normally do in private.

First Street, San Jose, California. Is this image terribly unethical? Or could it serve a purpose? Are the two mutually exclusive; or could the answer, perhaps, be both? How would we weigh the costs against the benefits in that case?

M a r g i n a l i z e d G r o u p s

We were traveling through New Zealand’s awe-inspiring scenery a few years ago, driving a narrow country lane on the South Island, miles from the nearest town, when we passed a gentleman walking along the roadside. He was wearing a yellow summer dress, red high heels, and carrying a teal purse.

I had a camera. I chose consciously not to make an image out of… respect?

Would it not, perhaps, have been more respectful to simply treat that gentleman’s choice of attire that day as I would have anyone else’s conscious choice of public attire? Was I being disrespectful in assuming that he wouldn’t — shouldn’t? — want to be photographed wearing those clothes, rather than wearing something more “normal”?

Yet, admittedly, the beauty of the moment, the potential of the image, was at least partly in the fact that the scene wasn’t “normal”. The chances of seeing anyone walking out there were remote. In fact, we saw no one but him walking along the road over the course of many hours of driving. The chances of that particular scene arising were surely a million to one. And many photographers have extensive bodies of work based on “coincidences”. Rare events. Unusual juxtapositions. Surely, that scene would qualify as an interesting coincidence at the least.

But it wasn’t just a coincidence. A woman holding a book before her face — which happens to have another woman’s portrait on the cover — is a charming coincidence, but little more. You’re not particularly inspired to ponder how she got to the cafe; what arc her life might trace; how the scene could be resolved; or what would become of the protagonist. She’d eventually put the book down of course.

But a man in heels, miles from the nearest town, begs the mind to engage, to try to fill in the underlying story, the arc of the broader narrative that led to that moment. Years later I’m still pondering what set of events led to that scene, what events might have followed. And in a way, the image might well have been a fantastic metaphor for the broader situation of this frequently marginalized group.

But I never made the image.

Was that not a worthy photograph? Did its worth not stack up against its harm? What does “worthy” mean? What harm?

I n t e n t i o n s

Does the intent of the photographer matter? What if I make an image with, and out of, a genuine respect for the subject I’m shooting and the choices they’ve made, the hardships they’ve endured? Is that different than if I make the exact same image out of a desire to mock the subject? And what role does the potential viewer of those images play? To what degree is the photographer responsible for how a viewer could perceive the subject of an image? What if I make the image with the best of intentions, but someone laughs at the image I’ve captured? What if I make an image out of ill will, with mocking intent, but the image inspires someone else to devote their free time to helping the homeless or aiding another disadvantaged group?

Having prodded ourselves into thinking a bit about who we might take photos of, we’ll explore some of the potential costs to the subjects of our street/travel photography in the next few posts.

Brent DanielComment