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Is Street Photography Ethical?

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A young woman walking on the sidewalk past the now demolished Trail West building in Nashville

The Fine Art Photography Podcast Episode 32

We examine the ethics of photographing strangers on the street without their consent

Full Podcast Transcript

In this episode — is street photography ethical?

Hey everybody Keith Dotson here. Street photography is one of the most dynamic — and I think most difficult — forms of photography to do well. All you have to do is look at the work of the very best of this breed of photographers to see what a terrific exploration and expression of humanity it can be.

But watching the photographers in action, and seeing some of the work that is done, it makes me question — is street photography ethical? I don’t mean is it legal — in most countries it’s perfectly legal to photograph people in public places, where they have no expectation of privacy. But just because you can take someone’s photograph without their permission, does that mean it’s OK? And what about those photographers who approach their subjects aggressively?

As I was writing and researching the script for this episode, an opinion piece was published in the NY Daily News by a woman who has been repeatedly photographed by aggressive street photographers. She has called the practice — and I’m quoting, “a vehicle of gender-based violence in public places.” end quote. The author of the op-ed equates encounters with allegedly invasive photographers as an assault. She’s even calling for a law to protect women against such photography — a law that’s highly unlikely to be enacted and even less likely to survive constitutional scrutiny, but that illustrates how strongly she feels about her experiences.

You may have heard the news earlier this year that Fuljifilm removed one of its ambassadors –Tokyo-based street photographer Tatsuo Suzuki — from its X Photographer program because of his aggressive style. Suzuki had been featured in one of FujiFilm’s promotional videos, and his way of getting in people’s faces without permission or warning created a backlash of negative feedback. Even among the street photography community, opinions were divided on Suzuki’s technique.

Suzuki’s method is reminiscent of New York street photographer Bruce Gilden, whose in-your-face style can be witnessed in the documentary film Everybody Street. It was seeing Gilden at work in that film that became the kernel idea for this podcast. He gleefully prowls the crowded streets like a predator, and often steps into people’s path, startling them as he shoves a camera in their face up close, using an off-camera flash. In one sequence you can see him get into an altercation with a young woman who doesn’t appreciate having her photo taken.

Interviewed in the film, even Gilden himself says with a grin that it’s good that not every street photographer is like him, or they’d probably ban photography. He said that he has to jump in people’s faces to isolate them from the background. He says that if a photographer tries to become invisible, using small cameras and less aggressive styles, they’re just a sneak. 

I suspect this style of aggressive street photography may be primarily a New York City phenomen, but Suzuki has shown it can take root even in more polite places like Tokyo. By the way, Bruce Gilden is a Magnum photographer and a Guggenheim Fellow.

Everybody Street is an excellent documentary of New York City street photographers and it can be watched in full on YouTube. Link in the write-up. 

This episode isn’t about any particular photographer, but I’m going to start by talking briefly about Vivian Maier. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve heard the incredible story of how her work was discovered. I would love to do a whole podcast on Vivian, but there’s already so much great stuff about her work, I don’t see the point of me retreading it. But on this point, there’s no question that Vivian’s tremendous body of street photography has added and is continuing to add to the art world discourse. She made some of the most brilliant, sensitive, insightful street photographs ever taken in my opinion.

Street photography is not about standing on a corner and snapping off pictures of random passers-by, although I see that kind of thing very often. It takes a skilled eye and exquisite timing to find the decisive moment, the scenario that has some special twist or item of interest that makes the shot extraordinary.

Vivian Maier seemed to do this effortlessly! There is example after example where she identified and captured intriguing people and situations on the streets of Chicago and elsewhere. Many of her subjects were aware of her and seemed to be posing or allowing the photograph with either expressed or implied permission. I would argue that women probably have an easier time with approaching strangers on the street to ask for a photograph — they may be perceived as less threatening or suspicious. There are many stories of male street photographers being met with confrontations or even violence while trying to take photographs of strangers.

In other of Maier’s photographs, the subjects were clearly unaware of the fact she was photographing them. She shot people from behind or from side angles. She shot people through windows. She shot people in cars. She shot parts of people like their legs, their bums, or their hands. She made a series of images of drunks or homeless people that I would call pretty invasive. The subjects were often sleeping or out of it enough to be unaware of her. She shot a man stretched out, fully dressed, sleeping on the beach — but from behind so he is unidentified.

On the whole, Vivian Maier’s work was done sensitively and beautifully and I’ll admit I’m a member of the cult of Vivian, so I think her work is among the best photographs ever taken. The more you look at it, the more you come away thinking she was a bit of a genius. But here’s the thing, Vivian Maier didn’t post her photographs to Instagram, or anywhere else. She didn’t even develop the bulk of her film. Yes, she made unflattering images of some people without their permission, along with her delicate and gorgeous street portraits of others — but she didn’t put those photographs into the public eye. Others have done that since her death.

And that’s the crux of my question — is it ethical to photograph people and use their likeness in exhibitions, or on Instagram, or in a book, or wherever?

I began learning photography in junior high school and in high school I was a school yearbook photographer. I had my own camera and would often use my free time to wander the hallways and the campus looking for people or activities to photograph. One day, I approached an acquaintance — a guy I knew — and raised my camera to snap a portrait. Before I clicked the shutter, he told me not to take his photograph. I lowered the camera and kinda laughed him off , but he said he was serious, explaining that he had the same philosophy as Native Americans that having your photograph taken steals part of your soul, and he didn’t want his photo taken. First of all, I don’t know for sure that Native Americans actually had or have that belief — there are lots of portraits of Native Americans from history. But anyways, that was my first encounter with someone who was confrontational about not wanting a photograph taken, and I let it go. But that was a long time ago and the experience still stays with me.

Of course Vivian Maier is one of many great photographers who do their work on the streets of New York or other cities. Joel Meyerowtiz, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Daido Moriyama, Henri Cartier Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, and Bill Cunningham are just a few of the names who have elevated the form to a true art.

I don’t question the value of the art of street photography, but I still ask myself where is the ethical line — or is there an ethical line? If I’m remembering my college ethics class correctly, there are two opposing thoughts here — does the end justify the means — in other words, does the creation of art outweigh the rights of the person being photographed? Another basic tenet of ethics is based on the idea that it’s not ethical to use another person to accomplish our goals. I’m sure there are many more ethical theories to support arguments on both sides of this issue.

Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki is famous for his series called The Park. For various reasons, in the 1970s there developed a subculture of couples meeting for intimate encounters in the urban greenspaces of Tokyo late at night. In grainy black and white night photographs, Yoshiyuki made a series of images of the couples in the act, lying on the ground in the bushes and foliage of Tokyo parks, often surrounded by male spectators. Faces were often obscured or turned away from the camera but still…

The late, lovable white-haired fashion photographer Bill Cunningham said the fashion show is on the street. He specialized in shooting the vibrant street fashion scene on the streets of New York. He shot fashionable people with and without their knowledge. In the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, we see Cunningham, slim and spry in his 80s, dodging and weaving through crowded streets to get the shots. One well-dressed person caught unaware by Cunningham’s lens said in the film that a friend called him at home to tell him there were 17 pictures of him in the New York Times. His reaction was positive — saying he was walking on a cloud for weeks after that.

In the movie, we see Cunningham shooting film with lightning speed. Getting captured by Cunningham, who died in 2016, may have been a special case — even the ordinarily sullen editor of Vogue, Anna Wintour smiled exuberantly in an interview about Cunningham — saying he had documented her looks time and again on the streets since she was 19. She said he always snaps off two quick shots, or sometimes he ignores you which is death — her words. So being shot by Cunningham is seen by many as an honor, even if you wind up in the newspaper without knowing it.

But even Cunningham occasionally got pushback from pedestrians. In the course of the documentary, we see Cunningham stop his bicycle to photograph two women walking down the street. And the women don’t appreciate it – with one of them saying “don’t take a picture of us, I’ll break that camera.”

In the documentary The Times of Bill Cunningham, Cunningham said he found it hard to go onto the streets because people’s privacy is involved. He said he often saw photographs that he should have taken but that he didn’t take. He said he had been accused of a lot of things on the streets, even once accused of stealing someone’s purse, but actually the only thing he ever stole was their shadows.

What’s the takeaway? Like all photography, different street photographers approach the genre with different approaches. What’s your opinion? Is it OK to make a photograph of someone on the street without their permission? It’s not legal to use someone’s likeness for commercial purposes like advertising without their explicit permission, but there’s more latitude for purposes of art or editorial work. A person’s likeness may appear on a photographer’s website, or on Instagram, or in an art gallery exhibition, or in a newspaper spread, without their permission.

What about the more aggressive shooters — is it OK to get in a stranger’s face with a flash, if it results in a great photograph? Does the end justify the means? I’m not passing judgment — just asking the questions.

What’s your opinion? Go to my anchor page and send an audio message, and your message could appear in a future episode.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening, everybody – I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links

Bill Cunningham New York, 2010 documentary film directed by Richard Press and produced by Philip Gefter

Cool Hunting, 13 New York Street Photographers Profiled in Everybody Street

Everybody Street, full documentary film

PetaPixel, Fujifilm Drops Ambassador After His Street Shooting Style Sparks Outrage, Feb 08, 2020, Michael Zhang

PetaPixel, Controversial OpEd Calls Candid Street Photography a Form of ‘Gender-Based Violence,’  Oct 21, 2020,  D.L. Cade

Input Magazine, Fujifilm dropped a top street photographer, but did he cross a line?

Hosted by
Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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