A Lot of Street Photography Is Just Bad and Exploitative

A Lot of Street Photography Is Just Bad and Exploitative

Street photography is a particularly tough genre to achieve success in: it takes a combination of a quick eye, good instincts, and a dose of bravery, and even then, a little luck certainly helps. Personally, I think that even with that taken into account, a lot of street photography is simply bad photography and exploitative of the subjects.

Before I jump into this, let me be clear that there are absolutely some street photographers whose work I adore and have nothing but the highest artistic respect for. There is the underappreciated work of Helen Levitt, which is a gorgeous, instantly nostalgic look at life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century with a particular penchant for humanizing its subjects. There is Elliott Erwitt's work, which often takes a refreshingly lighthearted approach to the genre.

Circus, Budapest, by André Kertész (public domain)

There is André Kertész, whose work is the sort that makes you stare at an image for minutes at a time. And of course, there is Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photography is absolutely a genre that when done right, can produce stunning works of art that can teach us a ton about photography. Unfortunately, it often seems to go wrong, and those photographs still somehow get elevated.

Exploitative

Of all genres, street photography probably is (or has the most potential to be) exploitative. This is because it is one of the few genres in which the subject often does not give explicit (or even implicit) consent to having their photo taken or might not even know it is being taken. For example, photographing the homeless is almost never advisable. One could argue photojournalism falls into the same categorization, and it does on the surface, but the motivations for photojournalism are much different.

If you look at the work of the best street photographers, you will not find telephoto lenses. It is always a 35mm lens or something similar. Such a focal length does not allow the photographer to spy from afar. Rather, they have to be among those they are photographing as a part of their environment. This encourages the photographer to do a better job of empathizing with and humanizing their subjects. It generally forces them to interact with those whom they are photographing, and that can result in not only better photos, but less exploitative, more symbiotic, and more respectful interactions. Using such a focal length generally forces the photographer to make their presence known and to address the concerns of their subjects. And if we are going to use people for our art, isn't it only fair that they at least have a say in that? 

Reactive

This is the sort of street photography I hate the most. It is more an assault than it is photography. What I am talking about is the sort of photography where the photographer intentionally invades the subject's personal space in a brash way so as to provoke a reaction. I am talking about the Bruce Gildens of the world. You can see what I mean below:

Of course, if you intentionally surprise someone by jumping in their face with a camera and flash, you are going to get a reaction. What is that accomplishing, though? The photo you caught is not genuine. It is not the person in a state natural to them. It is not the person interacting with their surrounding environment. All you have captured is the person reacting to being harassed by you and your camera. What photographic value does that have? What artistic value? I know this sort of photography has some sort of audience, as it still gets views, but I personally hope that the test of time is unkind to it and relegates it to a footnote that says it was more about harassing people for pictures than any sort of skilled photography.

Legal But Not Right

This builds off the previous point. Under American law, essentially, if you are in a public place, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy and are fair game to be photographed. This is often used as a fallback justification for people taking photographs in questionable situations. But you do not have to be a student of history to think of plenty of examples where legality did not coincide with morality. 

There are plenty of situations in which it is legal to photograph someone, but it is not necessarily right. Of course, every person has their own set of moral guidelines as well as a range of behavior they deem acceptable, but there are certainly situations in which I think the majority of people would agree that using a camera is not right. I personally don't like any sort of photography that makes unwitting people uncomfortable for the sake of the photographer's art, though I understand that in a genre like street photography, there will be situations where that happens inadvertently despite the best of intentions, and in that case, it really comes down to a photographer's ability to be empathetic, diffuse a situation, and show respect. Rather, I am talking about more blatant acts — things like photographing a car accident when you aren't a photojournalist or standing at the edge of a playground with a long telephoto lens. 

Lacking Empathy

This is probably what all my gripes with a lot of the genre come down to. Being empathetic means understanding that many people do not share our level of comfort with cameras, particularly in environments where their presence is not expected. It also means acting in a way that respects that level of comfort — or lack thereof. To ignore this in the pursuit of one's own creative endeavors is inherently selfish. Of course, what level of this is acceptable is an individual decision, but I think street photography often falls on the wrong side of the line. The truth is, I do believe that street photography is a really important genre, especially as it acts as a document of everyday life. But I also believe it needs to be done with respect for its subjects.

Conclusion

Yes, I spent this article on a moral high horse, and you are perfectly within your rights to tell me I have no right to sit there, lobbing moral judgments at an entire genre. It is just my opinion at the end of the day. What do you think?

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66 Comments

Andy Day's picture

Loved this vid from Jamie Windsor a few months ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoze3Q8bZ-M

Philip Philippidis's picture

I think this one is more appropriate for the article:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E10Z5_3C19s

Troy Straub's picture

Both great videos and are definitely worth a watch, but I agree this one is more appropriate for the article.

Christian Durand's picture

I agree 100 %

Myles K's picture

Street photography is whatever one makes it out to be. It has no fixed way of executing, no strict requirements, void of ethics and morality. That is its gift and its curse. And what separates it from documentary photography or photojournalism. The street photographer chooses their own parameters.

There were never any “unwritten laws” that dictated that it had to be or should be documentary-esque, humanistic, natural-looking, non-reactionary, not exploitative or even empathetic. The way Gilden does street photography is as much of street photography as Bresson, neither of them can truly be called right or wrong but merely different variations, ends of the spectrum you could say.

Ryan Davis's picture

Scaring old ladies is wrong, for reasons that have nothing to do with photography.

John Stone's picture

Street photography these days means anyone with a camera - or smartphone - can stick the thing in front of you and take a picture, then upload to Instagram and say what a great photographer am I, no thought or style.
At least in Europe, there is this law - the GDPR - General Data Protection Regulation - which means one has to have permission - the person has to give consent - in order to publish any data/image of the person in question. Permission/consent being the keywords here!

David T's picture

And the consent has to be given before the personal data is captured.

Exceptions for freedom of press still apply though.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I speak only of UK law - others I don't know about...

But there is a misconception that GDPR is an all-encompassing data rule that requires consent to use someone's image in a photograph. I had to do a bit of research to check up on it some time back, (so I forget the official terminology for the moment).

Fortunately it isn't as cut and dry as that, and the law also includes a clause where intended use is a function of how GPDR works. So a photograph which effectively gives information of "this person was here" does not contravene GPDR, but if it was intended for certain other uses there could be an infringement. This is all important to the street photographer because it mean street photography doesn't infringe on GPDR rules. (Imagine if it did... we'd never be able to take a shot of anything with anyone without reams of paperwork. Holiday snaps anyone...? :) )

Now public consent rules may vary from country to country, but at least in the UK we're free to document life as it is.

Rayann Elzein's picture

No that's not what the GDPR is about. The GDPR does not overrule the fact that if you are in a public place, you accept being filmed/photographed. GDPR is a good thing, but it's not a magic wand either.

John Stone's picture

If a person can be recognised, then there could be a problem. That person could have a legal case, especially if it is used commercially or publically.

Jan Holler's picture

The GPDR of the EU (which is not whole Europe) does NOT address this matter. In fact it talks about personal data and how to handle and store it and NOT about a photo taken of a person (not in a single remark). Please read yourself: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation

John Stone's picture

This includes photos of individuals - that in itself is personal data. This can actually be a legal nightmare! So, to be safe one should have with them consent forms - model releases for the person to sign, especially if you want to post them publically or use them commercially - such as selling them on microstock sites.

Jan Holler's picture

"This includes photos of individuals - that in itself is personal data." It is, but first of all: private photos are not covered by the GDPR, second, national law is still valid. Germany, e.g. has its KUG (Kunsturhebergesetz). Have a look here: https://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/faqs/DE/themen/it-digitalpolitik/date... There is this answer:

"Die Annahme, dass die DS-GVO dem Anfertigen von Fotografien entgegen stehe, ist daher unzutreffend." - "The assumption that the DS-GVO precludes the taking of photographs is therefore incorrect."

"Die Datenschutz-Grundverordnung führt zu keinen wesentlichen Veränderungen der bisherigen Rechtslage im Umgang mit Fotografien." - "The basic data protection regulation does not lead to any significant changes in the previous legal situation regarding the handling of photographs."

Your claims are misleading and not correct in the context.

Btw. street photography is not model photography for a stock site. This is not "such as...".

Philip Philippidis's picture

GDPR has nothing to do with that.
What you're looking for is personality rights aka the right of publicity.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality_rights

Venson Stein's picture

Seems like most modern street photographers are hell bent on NAZI / Gestapo-like rules. Can't do this, can't do that, "that's not Street Bruh." Probably explains why 90% of modern street photography is absolute trash.

Juno Morrow's picture

The best photographers are the ones who make their own rules, not follow arbitrary stuff from others like "no telephotos."

Jason Frels's picture

This is kind of like the "go to a third world country and take portraits of old people with bad teeth smiling" photography. I guess you convince yourself that it is documentary photography.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think the reality is that people enjoy photographing things that are different. Different cultures offer different images and that's usually the attraction.

Bela Acs's picture

Mr. Gilden is a Magnum photographer chosen by the best photographers in the world. Millions of new street photographers try to just copy him with not much success. He looks for characters, not the everyday cliches that these new YT photographers do. Sure, respect is important, but my knowledge, it has to be earned.

Jan Holler's picture

As soon as I read Bruce Gilden I knew this is just another of those innumerable articles with the same arguments over and over again which appear regularly since many years. And it sadly is!

Lee Christiansen's picture

I shoot street work and have been doing so for many years. Eventually there'll be a book with my work - only another 20 years to go... ha.

I shoot with all sorts of focal lengths and whilst I enjoy the dynamic that wider lenses offer, I also want to document life as it is, without changing the behaviour of those I photograph. So many times I'll be shooting at the long end of a 200mm.

Alas some feel that I'm almost settling the souls of those I photograph. There is a worry that I'm invading their privacy, when of course public spaces offer no such thing. It seems I can look, but I can't photograph. What next - I can look but I can't remember, or I can't tell someone what I saw?

I dosage intensely with the notion that good street work can only be with wider lenses, as much as I disagree with the notion that street work infringes on some unreasonable right never to be observed.

I'll be careful never to make anyone feel uncomfortable of course. My rights don't mean I have to trample over peoples' feelings. And I'll be careful what I photograph won't unreasonably reflect badly on someone - an image usually isn't important enough to exercise hurt.

It's strange - I don't like the approach of "confrontational" street work, but I often find myself appreciating the end results. I'm glad I am not one of those that does it and I'm sure it causes offence quite often. But objectively, do we balance that fleeting moment of intrusion against truly amazing images? Given that it doesn't cause lasting suffering or heartache, I surprise myself in accepting this sort of work - if the images are great.

The second we ask permission, is the second we lose the moment. And it is the second we lose any spontaneity. That's fine for some images, but not so much for observational work. I've asked for permission on a handful of images. Half of those that I have, I've completely lost the moment. The other half have rewarded me with great shots. But I still prefer to document a world not aware of my presence.

Street work is important because it documents life as it is now. Billions of images are taken every day by a phone-camera mad world, but alas most of these have little creativity, and most don't offer an insight into society. And sadly most of these images will never see the light of day or even be found in years to come. It seems the more pictures we have, the less we have... Before I fade away, I plan to archive several hundred of my pictures as fine art prints and hope they'll be accepted by somewhere who will keep them safe.

So I see quality stereo photography as an important social document. I sometimes reflect through my collection and see a world passing me by. Without this documentation we'll just end up with iPhone snaps.

Quality work requires a great deal of skill and a fine eye. It can be one of the hardest genres to master.

Juno Morrow's picture

Well said! This resonates with my street photography philosophy.

Carlos Diaz's picture

"The second we ask permission, is the second we lose the moment." Completely agree.

Jonathan Mark Hedrick's picture

When you brought up Bruce Gilden and described his technique, I immediately thought of Richard Avedon and the Windsors. Do you know the story? For those that don't, Avedon invoked a response from the Windsors to get an authentic moment from them. The expression that he captured was speaking to the sadness and weariness that existed beneath their facade of affluence and excess. I can't know what Gilden's motives are but perhaps there is a reason for his style. Maybe he selects certain people to photograph instead of arbitrarily "ambushing" people. Just based on the authentic product of Gilden's work, it has weight IMO. Gilden's work sparks a response, of anger, disgust, empathy... No-one is hurt, people move on. I feel that your statement speaks to and holds a noble ideal. However, if all that existed was one ideal, art would be dead.

Hector Muñoz Huerta's picture

You have to break some eggs...

Juno Morrow's picture

Thank you for sharing this perspective!

Martin Parnell's picture

With bird photography, I've noticed you'll sometimes get shit on if using 135mm or shorter lenses!

Irish Streetphotographer's picture

Great read.. I had the pleasure of meeting Jill Freedman and we spoke briefly about Bruce Gildens work.. She deplored the way he takes photos which surprised me.

Marek Stefech's picture

Snowflakes, snowflakes everywhere :D

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