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Tuesday, 10 May 2011


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Street photography is inverted graffitti. That said, I sometimes allow myself the former while woleheartedly despising the latter for its unashamed breach of written and unwritten law...

Personally I don't like so-called 'street photography'. I don't enjoy it.

I ask myself every time I press the shutter release: what is my motivation for taking the photo? Is it only self-serving in being able to take a picture to add to my folio so I can brag about it? Or am I taking it for a more specific purpose with an intention to serve someone or something?

Would I like to be photographed in the same manner as what I am about to do?

There's a video link of Nobuyoshi Araki taking photos floating around. He is chatting and laughing with the people he is photographing. He's having a relationship with other people, and I think that's what it's about.

I think slinking around taking random photos of people you haven't met before is literally "taking" without giving.

Henri Cartier-Bresson might have taken some iconic images, but I wonder sometimes if some of his subjects thought he was being a dick.

Controversial issues like these are rarely made simpler by debate. All four commenters here argue compellingly and I find myself more conflicted than ever. I liked Kirk Tuck's take on the issue, even if I didn't agree with him on all points.

But I find what Jeff says to resonate particularly strongly as I tend to go out on Georgetown's (Guyana) streets because I want people who view my photos later to see what it was like to walk around on these streets.

Sometimes I ask permission first, but many times I don't bother if people don't pay attention to me.

I've also been accosted, sometimes with great hostility and if others in more metropolitan cities find people getting less interested when explanations are offered, in Guyana it is just the opposite. People don't understand, at all, what I could possibly be doing.

When even a cheap point and shoot costs 50,000 of our dollars (more than a university graduate makes a month out of school) people think this activity frivolous and will not accept as an explanation documenting of city life.

Thus, here there is a greater necessity to ask permission if there is a possibility of confrontation.

I think it would actually be better if I looked a little more like a tourist, but that would make me more of a target for thieves, and having been robbed once already I don't think I want to repeat the experience.

In the end it will come down to each photographer's motivations and philosophies. There just is no easy answer to the question of what is the right way.

Who is "Bongo?" No bio on website. Wonder how he/she gets those wonderful colors? In camera? Photoshop?

Above, Steve Jacob said "What the law implies (U.K. and U.S.) is that people cannot object on privacy grounds to having their photo taken in public," which makes a lot of sense. In Canada it's pretty much the same, with the exception of Quebec, where I live. In Quebec there was a landmark decision in 1998 (Aubry v. Éditions Vice‑Versa) based on a case where a young woman was photographed sitting in a doorway on a public street, and when the photo was published in a local cultural tabloid she sued the tabloid, saying the photograph "embarrassed" her. She won.

You can read the judgement here: http://csc.lexum.org/en/1998/1998scr1-591/1998scr1-591.html

(Note that this is a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, but it only applies in Quebec.)

An excerpt: "Here, the dissemination of the respondent’s image constituted a violation of her privacy and of her right to her image."

Technically, it was the "dissemination" (publishing) of the image that caused the violation, but some people interpret this such that even taking the photo is illegal. As you can imagine, the street photography culture here in Montreal is almost non-existent. (Which is too bad, as this city has a vibrant arts scene and hosts an biennial "Mois de a Photo," etc.)

That was one of the cornerstones to an experiment I started a few years ago in which I took a rather clandestine (which is to say, sneaky) "from the hip" approach to street photography. On the associated web site I'd only show images in which there were no recognizable faces, which pretty much flies in the face of conventional street photography.

After grinding those theoretical gears for a while I decided to loosen up and allow (some) faces and to not limit myself to just Montreal as a backdrop. But I'm still feeling my way through the whole "from the hip" style. As you can imagine, I'm very much in agreement with the people who feel that street photography is all about the unposed "found" moments.

This is what I usually do around the city in Bogota, Colombia. And I love it! Look at my photoset in flickr: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/lggomez/sets/72157625855785375/

This is my take on street photography;


Mike, as you wrote about pit bulls a couple of posts ago, photographers have similarly become a bête noire of our age. I would ask Kelvin above exactly how Cartier-Bresson was ever a "dick" while making his iconic photographs. Who did he hurt? Who did he deprive? Thinking someone a transgressor doesn't make it so.

The naysayers (even here on a photography website!) are labelling street shooters as ego-trippers, invaders of privacy, exploiters, poverty tourists... Again I say, prove it. Where is the actual harm? Is taking pride and satisfaction from an artistic endeavor now a sin? Is photography unique in this among all artistic undertakings?

If you go to Calcutta without a camera are you somehow a better person than someone who chooses to record the experience? The plight of human existence is one of art's grand themes - it's going to get photographed and we should be thankful for that. Though taking your camera to the developing world doesn’t mean you have to bring back misery. Personally, I look for uplift where I can find it, and strangeness, and affirmations of commonality.

The onus shouldn't be on photographers to stop what their doing and justify themselves. It's really nobody's business. Privacy is a two-way street. Reading through the replies of the last couple of days, it's clear the street-shooters here get it - be polite, don't crowd or embarrass or ogle, allow for opting out, be up front. These aren't rules or guidelines, they're markers of courtesy. (I'm not broaching the question of payments and royalties here - that's another realm with a different set of concerns.)

The bad apples out there do not spoil the barrel. They are who they are, everywhere in life unfortunately, but they’ll get flushed out. The rest of us should carry on with the project without apology. To the churlish few who disapprove, street photography, as a way of describing our history or just for fun, is just as valid and no more harmful an activity than kayaking or tai chi or a Sunday watercolor circle.

I’m making a separate comment to address the issue of Quebec. I confess I was blissfully unaware, having lived in Magog and Montreal from 2007 to 2010, because I was shooting assiduously in public as often as I could, not only covering events like the Winter Carnival on Lac Memphremagog, summer music festivals in Montreal, the launch of the Bixi bicycle system but also wandering freely throughout downtown and the Plateau-Mont-Royal district, shooting everything and nothing. I also helped as unofficial photographer for an urban farmer’s market that was in its early days. In these, I must have shot thousands of people, never asking permission, and posted hundreds of pictures on my website. I never employed subterfuge. I never had grief from the police or authorities. Only one person ever asked not to be included in my shots. That was fine, I worked around him. My blog was just a small thing, but I took pains to make as many relevant subjects aware of their inclusion as I was able. Never got a nasty comment or email; only praise and thanks.

So I question the draconian interpretations of the Supreme Court decision touted here by a couple of commentors. The street photography scene isn’t “dead” at all, I certainly wasn’t the only one walking around with serious gear. A commercial publication with a wide audience is in a different category from us private enthusiasts recording the avenues.

Aaaah, so that's why I never knew what Quebec looked like on the street level. Oh, well.

Good street photography isn't easy, but bad street photography is apparently an infinite resource as so many people use the genre as either an excuse to take bad photos or not take any photos at all.

@Ryan & Mike:

Irony doesn't work in pictures!

the depiction of a young woman in a victim's pose will remain as the (strong) visual message ...

i am always, repeatedly, mildly surprised when i see or hear about people who 'hate' street photography per se or think there's something inherently wrong, exploitative, or immoral about it. i guess on reflection i can come up with a variety of reasons for such an attitude, but they never seem very convincing, and then the next time it arises i am surprised afresh.

as a matter of courtesy, i am more than willing to let them have their opinions, in the same way that i am willing to accept that some other people believe in a particular religious faith. in other words, i generally think they are being silly, but as long as it's no skin off my nose, no problem, and i don't mind erasing the occasional photo if it is a problem for someone i take a picture of any more than i object to not shouting in a church.

but while photographers can sometimes be pests, or bad at it, or both, banning street photography because of that is a little like criminalizing islam because a tiny fraction of muslims are terrorists; it doesn't really get at the heart of the matter, and it isn't fair to the rest of us. and pedophiles aside, i honestly don't see how taking photos does people any undue harm. sure, it could conceivably get a cheating husband caught, or cause someone to finally confront the fact that they will never succeed as a leading man in hollywood, but these are essentially risks we accept whenever we step outside. public life does not have to be, indeed should not be, certified as free from any possible discomforting or even embarrassing encounter; part of the point of having a public in the first place is to get exposed to different ideas about living. 'man in the street' interviews are supposed to be bracing because of their unvarnished candor, after all.

photographing someone literally does them no harm. (admittedly, the experience of being picked out, especially over and over by naive photo students for instance, because of one's appearance or because of some stereotype is vexing, and in extreme cases could contribute to psychological harm, but technically, it isn't the photo that's the problem there.) if the photographer does nothing but reproduce a person's likeness, then sure, they're appropriating that person's image and there's exploitation in that (but that's also basically poor photography). even in cases where someone feels that something about their religious beliefs, for example, is violated by being photographed, it isn't taking the photo that causes the distress, it's the person's attitude about it. as i said, in most cases i have no problem accepting that attitude as good enough cause to avoid a fuss, but fundamentally, it's not me, it's them that has made the problem. it's hard not to just have the reaction to get over it, already.

conversely, for people who think offering destitute folks some money is somehow better--i doubt it. in some cases, it might be the right or the decent thing to do, but as a reflex, it is at least as exploitative, maybe more so, than just snapping a free candid. if the person really needs money, then they aren't in a fair position to say no to the photo; plus, you've just forced them into complicity with realizing that powerlessness.

personally, i prefer to de-couple the two issues. when people ask me for money, sometimes i give them some, but i don't make it contingent on posing for a photo. when i am taking someone's photo, the going price of dignity is more than i can afford in cash; on a good day, i can come close, though, through respectful interaction and sometimes making a worthwhile picture.

as for concerns about 'exploiting' subjects because you might make money from the photos--you're not taking money, or anything else, away from the subject. for people who argue that you're infringing on the person's control over their likeness, i am sorry, but provided no major changes were made to the photo, that person had their chance to exert control over their likeness when they appeared in public while the photo was snapped. (all these cranky remarks, naturally, are simply opinions, not meant to be some kind of statement about legal matters.) and give the viewing public some credit--by and large they do understand that photographers choose moments, perspectives, and framing contexts.

in the long run, it is in the public interest for there to be a public sphere, and to have photographers document it. doing so makes the public stronger, and produces some great art.

This is a really interesting debate. I think there's a place for both and there's definitely something beautiful in the careless obliviousness of T.R. Smith's characters. But asking permission can also yield great beauty if there's a rapport between the subject and the photographer - I'm thinking of my favourite street photographer, Shot By Shooter.

That Canadian court decision is egregiously unjust. First, it gives the woman control over what the photographer has created, which is a violation of property rights. Second, natural justice and common sense indicates that no one who is in a public place has a right to privacy regardless of what they do (of course, decency and consideration for others may preclude photographing some actions or events).

Persecution of photographers by police and public is extreme and oppressive in the UK, with terrorism and paedophilia as the usual justifications for tyranny.

Photographers must exercise their freedoms and defend same in order to preserve them for as long as possible.

Further to TR Smith's comment: when I'm creating street photos and someone asks why I'm taking photos I just smile and say "for art". So far it's worked every time.

I do take photos of children in public places. On occasion I have asked the parent first and have never been refused (I am a male and could never be mistaken for anything else).

I prefer street photos that are unposed, but I don't mind an occasional shot where someone has stopped and looked at the camera. Those who act up for the camera can give a picture that has bags of character.

If someone asks me to email a photo to them I'll give them my card and tell them to email me, as long as they don't set off my internal alarms. So far no one has ever emailed me.

In New Zealand there are no restrictions on taking photos in a public place and publishing them, unless they contain easily recognisable faces and are used for advertising.

A New Zealand police sergeant has told me that pedestrians are not obliged to answer questions put to them by a police officer unless the questionee is under arrest (then it's name, address, date of birth, shut up) or the officer is invoking drugs or firearms laws. If a police officer asked why I was taking photos in a public place I would take his details and respectfully* refuse to answer any questions (including giving my name etc): it's all about defending freedoms and the officer would have no legal or moral justification for the questions. I do not have to justify my legal actions and attempting to do so is effectively giving up the presumption of innocence (which is gradually being removed in the Western world, eg in hate speech laws). Follow this advice at your own peril.

* in my book such an officer would not be worthy of respect, but I'd be respectful for my benefit.

Nice follow up, and some good photos to boot.

Those glasses are amazing. As soon as I'm able, I'll be buying a pair. Great photo prop. Actually, I hope they're real - they feel April Fools-y.

I don't see the difference between the "we should take pictures of unaware people because climate change will change things" and the "we should take pictures of unaware people because they might be terrorists" justification. If I was the subject, it's equally invasive to my privacy, weteher you feel righteously justified or not.

I don't adhere to any strict semantics regarding street photography, although I reckon I am somewhat involved in the style in its broadest sense. I go outside and take photos of things that are visually interesting, or at least, that's the premise. Nine times out of ten, the photographic outcome is far less compelling. In any event, I happen to live in cities, so I end up walking along streets taking photos that sometimes include humans.

For the most part, how the person graphically interacts with his or her surroundings is what often inspires me most to press the shutter release. This is often a fleeting moment, one that cannot be repeated let alone posed. I do have some personal restrictions that have evolved over time; no one sleeping, no one eating, no children, no down and out, and such. Basically, I ask myself, would I mind being photographed if I was the subject---the Golden Rule. Again, these are personal, and I would not impose these on others. I could never follow Bruce Gilden's approach, but I do enjoy some of his photos.

I would hate to think that the photographic history of humanity should comprise only posed shots, and while developing a relation with the subject is certainly an effective way of getting excellent photos, it is not always applicable or even possible.

Anyway, thanks to all those 'dick' photographers who produced some of the greatest photos I will ever see.

In countries like the USA and Canada ‘street photography’ is being increasingly restricted because its inhabitants, especially in the big cities are no longer members of a community. They don’t belong and they don’t share and thus guard their inalienable personal sphere and personal rights as a dog guards a house. All the others are intruders. In that particular setting photographers take something away that does not belong to them. Go and travel and discover a better world.

Discussion aside, I love the TR Smith photo in the article.

The more I think about this, I wonder if this growing paranoia about being photographed in public has any connection with the trend of being able to carefully craft an online persona that is all most people see, as well as only participating in those parts of the Internet one chooses too, rather than being out in the middle of everything. Having grown to being who they imagine to be online, being perceived a certain way, and only talking to those of a like mind, surely all of that can be ruined with one snap in The Real World. In the past, this wasn't a big deal, as the real world was all we had, but things are different now.

Peter, what you said rings true to me, and that alienation is part of what I'm exploring with my "from the hip" street photography. (Just sayin')

In response to Michael Farrell's comment:

What I was trying to say (perhaps unsuccessfully) was that people's perceptions of a photographer does not always match the photographer's intentions. I am guessing that Cartier-Bresson had no intention to do harm, and probably didn't cause harm; I was wondering whether his approach would have been interpreted as rude and intrusive by his subjects. Contrast his images to photographers like Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. You could probably call them 'street photographers' as well, but they give the impression of having looked their subjects in the eye and established some form of 'emotional contract' with them. It didn't seem to lessen the impact of their images, although different in style to Cartier-Bresson's.

I hate coming across as the nanny in this discussion, I really do.

I love street photography passionately. I think it is by far the least contrived and most honest form of photography there is, because the interest derives purely from a frozen and unpredictable moment over which the photographer has no control. What makes a good street photograph is harder to define than any other, but when it works it forces your imagination to add narrative and this keeps your attention.

Nor do I think photographers should be apologists, though I do think they should be thoughtful and polite.

But I am not at all surprised that some people are becoming more protective of their image, especially when it's captured by a complete stranger.

I think Poagao and Peter have good points, but it goes further than that I believe.

Our identities are increasingly valuable to others and increasingly hard to protect. We can be traced by our mobile phones, have our credit card details stolen by malware or hijacked websites, appear on hundreds of CCTVs every day and (on a bad day) a speed camera. We can even have our passports duplicated, our websites hacked, our Facebook profiles hijacked, our email accounts used for spamming and find ourselves libelled on Twitter. So much for the digital revolution.

When someone took your picture in 1960, they could print it, but the only way they could mass produce it would be to sell it to a paper. Now, your image can appear on Flickr or Facebook within seconds of capture. There is a much greater likelihood that someone you know will see it. If you are not looking your best, or not where you said you were, or with someone you should not be, this could prove embarrassing at least.

And your deception may be justified. You may be at a job interview and didn't tell your boss, you may be avoiding an abusive partner, you may be dating a girl your parents don't know about.

Besides, why should you trust the photographer's motives? We don't trust the government or the police most of the time, and we don't trust Google. When they did street photographs for Google Earth, they fuzzed out faces and license plates. Why? To protect privacy of people in public.

Again, I am not attacking photographers or street photography. I actually think the candid capture of humanity being human is immensely important for posterity as well as being potentially great art.

My only point is, when someone says "NO" I really do understand and I am happy to comply and I sincerely hope with all my heart that we don't end up like Quebec.


The one thing I'd question about these comments is the idea that today's street images will be of igreat nterest in 100, 200 years. I was at the Street Photography exhibition in London and the interest level, it seemed to me, was greatest in the images that were just before out own time - approximately the mid 1960s back to the 1940s. In short, probably the era when most of the visitors I saw's parents grew up.

I'm guessing that if you go back to times that look too unfamiliar most folks can no longer relate to them and they lose their appeal. So I'd suggest that the timescale to focus on is 25-50 years hence.

I wonder if this might be part of the success of the Vivian Maier images?

As some people have pointed out, there is no "one size fits all" answer to the issue of privacy and permission when it comes to street photography. For some, street photography is very much about things like candid portraiture, catching amusing moments where people and action collide, etc. Those are very outward-facing approaches to street photography. They have almost everything to do with the subject and not so much to do with the photographer (aside from the skill and talent the photographer brings). By that I mean we shouldn't expect to find much about the photographer him- or herself in the work.

Then there is the work of people by Gary Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander, etc. A lot of that work focuses on what could be called "banal" or everyday scenes. This work is very inward-facing. By that I mean the photographs are as much about the photographer as they are about the scene depicted. The message isn't so much "here is a scene" as "I am in this scene" or "here's the scene as I saw it."

Friedlander's street work is particularly like this, as his own shadow is prominent in many of the images.

This kind of photography relies less on the One Big Wow moment as on building up a thematic body of work over time. You can't just look at a Winogrand, Meyerowitz, or Friedlander photograph on its own and see it as a complete stand-alone image. They all are part of, and are informed by, the entire body of work by those artists.

With that inward-looking kind of work it is a lot more difficult to be concerned with issues of privacy and permission. When Kirk Tuck took that photograph of the woman on the Spanish Steps in Rome, it was almost entirely about her, so it is natural that he would be thinking about privacy and permission. But when Lee Friedlander was walking behind a woman in New York in 1966 and took this shot (http://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/11621 ) I doubt very much that privacy and permission were anywhere in his mind. The woman in front of him was part of the tableau that he was immersed in. Asking permission of her probably felt as unnecessary as asking the City of New York for a permit.

In that case there's also the fact that Friedlander's woman is not really recognizeable. Frankly, it was images such as that one that made me realize there is such a thing as street photography that's not just about people's faces; that the street, the environment, and my view of it, are the subject, and the people within the photographs are players that bring that view to life -- whether or not you can see their faces. That was the original basis behind my "From the Hip - Montreal" project (street photography with no visible faces); the search for legitimate street photography that didn't break the law in Quebec.

I have since evolved that project to include other cities and to not worry so much about including faces, but the overall idea remains the same.

I'm not saying that other style is not valid. It's very valid, and is probably less "been-there-done-that" than the work I'm doing. But I'd like for people to realize that getting permission and worrying about privacy is not somethimg that can be front and center for all styles of street photography.

I would suggest that the photographers who have major issues with "street photography" are largely photographers who don't do it, or it would be agreed upon by those who are committed to the pursuit, don't do it very well. My point? A thoughtful person examines their choices and lives according to their own judgements on the matter whether approved of or disapproved of by their audience. "Consequences" and "rewards" equally embraced. Is there really that much more to it? I believe it was Becket who said "I don't go on I go on".


You said "I'm not saying that other style is not valid. It's very valid, and is probably less "been-there-done-that" than the work I'm doing. But I'd like for people to realize that getting permission and worrying about privacy is not somethimg that can be front and center for all styles of street photography."

Agree 100%. Most of my "subjects" are part of a tableau. Their faces are barely recognisable and totally irrelevant. If I want a particular face/character to be part of the photo, I usually ask (or at least ensure some level of agreement even it's being ignored).

My last "child" photo is this one:


But I would always respect someones choice not to participate.

I must admit I am a lot braver in other countries than I am at home and especially in the UK where there does seem to be a certain paranoia about dslrs for some reason. On my honeymoon in Italy last week I went out with an old K24 on my K-5 and had a blast, I was just catching moments where I could. A few examples here:

My impression is, that most of the discussion here is almost exclusively concerned with the questions surrounding the act of photography itself; which is of course appropriate given this (great) venue.

However, I think that the issue many people take with being photographed in the street does not come from the question whether or not somebody may or may not take a camera and document everyday life in the streets. Rather, I would guess that the uncomfortability is to a large part caused by the fact that today everybody can publish almost everything almost instantly without any redaction (by themselves and/or others) and, crucially, without any thought about possible consequences of the publication for everybody involved.

I would guess that many people, who dislike being confronted by their colleagues and family about some photo on the Internet some wannabe-Winograd took yesterday, would feel much less affronted if a photo involving them were to appear 2 years after the fact in a professionally curated photography book or exhibition. In particular, since the photo on the Internet will stay there forever, possibly tagged with the name of the subject and thus searchable for everybody on this planet until the end of time ...

Although there are times when a more posed photograph can have impact it's the candid shots that I always love the most as they convey the true human element and surely that's the point.

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