Is It Time To Change the Laws on Street Photography?

There’s been some intense discussion in recent weeks as to whether freedom of expression gives photographers the right to be intrusive and disrespectful towards their subjects when photographing in public. Do the laws governing street photography need to be addressed, or does any change pose a threat to the First Amendment?

Tony and Chelsea Northrup dig deep into the topic in this video, exploring the practicalities of changing the law and the inadequacy of legal measures when it comes to governing ethics.

In 2016, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided that it was legal to take upskirt images in public spaces, prompting lengthy discussion of what constitutes the “reasonable expectation of privacy” described in the laws surrounding voyeurism. While upskirt photography clearly isn’t street photography, any rulings that address this definition could have implications for future decisions.

Personally, I believe that the legal issues should be secondary to a discussion about ethics and photography’s tendency to ennoble and celebrate intrusive photography on the grounds that it is justified as art or documentary. What happens in a public space must always have the potential to be documented, but this should not be an excuse for photographers to exploit vulnerable subjects simply because they can.

For me the question shouldn’t be “Do I have the right to take this photograph?” Instead, photographers should be asking “Do I respect the people that I’m photographing?” And if not, why not?

I look forward to your comments.

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Alex Gordon's picture

Bruce Gilden could well be close to the line in many places - English law does not require any physical contact for an assault. The answer may be that there's no answer - if one's purpose was to threaten and intimidate (eg to get them to pay the rent) then it could be assault.
Giving permission can't be the answer either. Of course there are times when it's a good idea and also the way to get the best picture. But there are other times when it is not. It would remove spontinatey from photography and turn it into a series of cheesy images.
Also if Bruce Gilden is the wrong side of the line, how about Martin Parr? Given the choice, I'm not sure I wouldn't rather be in one of the former's pictures and is the latter seriously meant to say
"excuse me, vomiting woman at Oxford Ball, would you mind awfully...?
Because if so, that does seriously impinge on free expression. I don't like the photo and I wouldn't have taken it. It was a serious comment on society at that time. Give people a right to sue because - essentially - they don't like how they were looking in public that day and our whole world will start to look very different.
I would ban "perp walk" pictures for entirely different reasons - they prejudice a fair trial and are done to make us think that those who have yet to be tried are, indeed, "perps". If someone has has tried to get away and has failed, fine. But tipping off the press first and then hauling non-violent suspects in handcuffs from their office for effect when they would have volunteered themselves voluntarily seems wrong. If you want to have pictures of him in handcuffs, after conviction fine. Doing it to make a conviction more likely seems unfair.