In Your Face: When Street Photography Gets Too Close

In Your Face: When Street Photography Gets Too Close

A few weeks ago, an online mob doxed a street photographer for taking candid images at a county fair. The incident raises questions about where we draw the line when it comes to invading someone’s privacy in a public space.

As the photographer involved, Joshua Rosenthal, tellingly notes in his response via social media, “What one sees as being ‘wrong’ is not illegal” and he’s absolutely right. In a public space — where arguably there is no private space — a photographer is entitled to use a camera however he or she wishes. I’m very much an advocate of freedom to photograph in public spaces and I’ll earnestly defend any photographer’s legal right to capture images. However, just because something is legally acceptable doesn’t mean it’s ethically acceptable. I respect the right of a photographer to shove a camera in someone’s face, but I don’t respect the practice.

Looking at Rosenthal’s website, there is a large number of candid shots of people on the streets captured at close quarters, often isolated using a flash. The style is very much reminiscent of photographer and provocateur Bruce Gilden who pioneered this intrusive style in the 1980s.

Listening to Gilden talk about his imagery gives an insight into how he works. “I have no ethics,” he states brazenly in this video, as if that needed explaining, and demonstrating the degree of arrogance that informs his methodology. His style of image-making is part of a broader narrative within photography whereby a person of privilege takes an expensive, revered tool into the maelstrom of public life in order to capture “art” — something which they see as theirs. The camera becomes a passport for unethical, obnoxious behavior, and the photographs produced convey their sense of entitlement.

What’s convenient with this style of photography is that it depicts a person in the moment before they realize that their expectations of reasonable conduct in public space have been disrupted. The images do not contain the anger, embarrassment, and frustration that typically manifest immediately after a shot has been captured. The feelings of outrage are quietly ignored when the images are printed on the pages of books and hung on the walls of galleries.

Take the camera away, and the likes of Gilden and Dougie Wallace are effectively just walking up to strangers, shouting “boo!” and leaving them temporarily blinded by a flash. The question should be about how using a camera makes this acceptable, as if this is some noble endeavor that reveals previously unseen truths of what life is really about. While the person wielding the camera has the self-indulgent belief that this is something heroic — and the agencies, book publishers, magazine editors, and gallery curators are quick to endorse this notion — the truth is that these photographers are photographing little more than stories of their own egos.

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Paris. 2015.

A post shared by Bruce Gilden (@bruce_gilden) on

Gilden’s reasoning is paper-thin. In this interview with Martin Parr, he asks how his work is any different to a candid shot taken from across the street. While both raise their own questions regarding ethics, one is a depiction of life as it is seen, while the other is a depiction of life as intruded by a privileged person’s overblown sense of what it means to be a photographer.

To any budding street photographer who wants to ask awkward questions about where to draw the line, consider this first: do you want to document the world, or do you want to depict a world that is framed by your ego?

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47 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

"Ethics" and what's right or wrong can be subjective at a certain point. What's not subjective is the legal right to do something. It either exists or it doesn't. In this case the objective fact is that a photographer has the right to photograph people in public spaces as legally defined (in the States, that is). Any discussion beyond that is simply a waste of time in my opinion. People either have tact or they don't. Decrying this person with all the vitriol in the world will probably not change the behavior because the law is on their side.

In other words, at the end of the day, the whole discussion is largely pointless (other countries and their laws notwithstanding, of course).

Matthew Teetshorn's picture

While I appreciate your point of view, I entirely disagree with the conclusion. Ethics are entirely subjective, not just to a certain point. The only way for us as a community to decide what is ethical is to have the discussion. There's no discussion right now on the legality because, as you point out, it is legal, and no one is saying it shouldn't be.

I can't say the discussion on the ethical behavior of photographers is a waste of time because this is probably the most important discussion in street photography and maybe photography at large. There is almost no ethical concern in any other type of photography where no one else's rights are involved or they have been signed away by releases.

Daniel Medley's picture

How is it important if at the end of the day it's not going to change the behavior of those who lack tact and the law is on their side? I mean, we can all talk about it until we're blue in the face, the two people mentioned in this article aren't going to stop doing what they're doing.

Matthew Teetshorn's picture

I'm trying to maintain some hope that all is not lost in 2019 and that it's still worth discussing things with people and not just giving up on everyone. I'm probably wrong though.

The law being on your side isn't a lot of consolation if you get your ass handed to you!

Daniel Medley's picture

Except for the legal consequences for the person doing the ass-handing. Or, depending on the state in which it takes place, even heavier consequences.

Only if they're caught and even so, no consolation for the perp... I mean photographer.

Daniel Medley's picture

That's just goofy. Assault and battery in a public place is going to draw a lot more attention than some dude taking pics. Trust me, beating up someone in broad daylight will illicit a pretty heavy police response. Plus, again, in some states, it could very easily result in a legally justified retaliatory response ending possibly in death.

But you keep puffin' that chest out, John Wick.

John Wick? I'm not advocating violence and am not a violent person myself but I've seen people get beat up for far less. Some got caught and some didn't. The point is, regardless what happens to that individual, the person who only did what was legal, got his ass beat and nothing changed that.

Simon Patterson's picture

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. If you're being obnoxious but legal amongst strangers, you need to be aware that not all of them will react within the confines of the law.

The more obnoxious you are, the more likely it is that someone will nail you for it. Knowing that is a basic life skill.

"The camera becomes a passport for unethical, obnoxious behavior, and the photographs produced convey their sense of entitlement."

That is one of the best descriptions I have ever read for that kind of photographer. Well stated and an excellent article.

I was acquainted with one of those types back in 2012. The only difference was that he didn't use a flash. He'd rudely jump in front of anybody in his way, sometimes knocking into them while ambushing his subject without caring in any way how he was disturbing people. Of course he was no professional by any means, but he was the trifecta of annoying. An entitled loudmouth who knew everything. There was a group of us walking around Chicago's Museum Campus the day before the 2012 NATO summit and he was going off on anybody he saw about the security arrangements, the aircraft overhead spying on us and many other annoying things nobody was interested in.

After going through one of the security checkpoints, a very well armed Secret Service Agent saw my gear and commented in a very friendly manner about it and we got into a pleasant conversation. During that conversation, the loudmouth know it all barged in between us and did a spray and pray in the agent's face, knocking full force into my rig (Nikon D3x and the 70-200 f2.8 VRII). As I shoved him away (Hard, hoping he would fall down) the Agent took a step back with his hand on his sidearm and politely commanded him to delete every single image he just shot.

I was hoping the stupid loudmouth would have gotten arrested, but at least he was forced to delete the images which ruined his day. Of course the rest of the day was spent hearing him rant about how the agent was such a jerk.

Another photographer I used to know, who was an excellent street photographer changed my perception of him just from one little incident. We were walking around in the Chicago "Loop" area and he lined up to get a shot of a homeless woman who saw him and nicely asked that he please not take her picture. He ignored her plea and after walking past he said to me "F*ck her, she's out in public".

Not my style at all, and I'm no street photographer.

Terry Waggoner's picture

However, just because something is legally acceptable doesn’t mean it’s ethically acceptable"

It depends on who's dictating what ethically acceptable..............

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Clearly jumping at someone's head with a flash is agressive, don't you agree ?
What is the law about agressive behaviour in public space ?

Terry Waggoner's picture

Not as clear as you may think..............did you ever watch the "press' when covering an event? They tend to make the paparazzi look tame............would you restrict their activities??

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

Different situations and goals.
Beside, some journalists get punchs in the face, sometimes for a reason - legal or not.
"Respect" is the key word for any of these situations, I think.

Terry Waggoner's picture

"Different situations and goals".............But ethics should all encompassing not to be meted out piecemeal..........

Michael Comeau's picture

I'm a former street photographer. I always found it absurd that street shooters would pretend to be surprised that anyone would be annoyed at them.

Matthew Teetshorn's picture

No matter what side of the political spectrum people fall on, most seem to be united by a complete lack of self awareness...

Warwick Cairns's picture

“a broader narrative within photography whereby a person of privilege takes an expensive, revered tool into the maelstrom of public life in order to capture “art””

I absolutely buy into the general thrust of the article - shoving your camera into someone’s face and setting off the flash without asking can be obnoxious. What I don’t get is this stuff about ‘a person of privilege’ and the expense of the camera.
It’s just as obnoxious if a tramp shoves a thrift-shop camera into your face as it is if a billionaire does it with a solid gold Leica. Neither is any better, or indeed any worse.

Having said all that, here’s a picture I took by... er, shoving my camera into some strangers’ faces. Mea culpa.

Mark Wyatt's picture

Great shot! Love the expressions. This is real. I don't get into peoples faces too often, but suspect these two would not be too offended.

John Koster's picture

I do a ton of street portraiture but always ask for the photo first. If they say no, I move on. No need to piss anyone off,

Daniel Medley's picture

I, too, always ask permission. I like to do street portraiture; I get to know them a little bit, talk with them, and then take a real portrait if they agree to it.

But it's an entirely different kind of photography that results in a completely different kind of photo. A photograph of someone unawares or at the immediate moment is a far different photo than one that is posed and expected.

T Scarb's picture

Creepy... like most photographers. But they also push a button and call themselves artists... so.

Saying something is legal so you have the right to do it and it has nothing to do with ethics, is like saying you have the right to say whatever you want because of freedom of speech and your views are just as valid as anyone elses.
Yes you have the right to say whatever you want because you live in a country where that is legal. No one would ever take that right away from you because it also strips themselves of that right.
If you go around saying things that offend people just because you believe you have the right and it doesn't matter how the other people feel then fine. Those people and potentially a lot of society will judge you for it, as is their right.
If you go around invading people's personal space with a camera from a foot away or 50 feet away with a telephoto capturing them unaware then yes you have that right. No one would ever want to take away that right because it means not allowing everyone to take photos in public which would be absurd. But if you're offending people and you know you are then just be aware that you'll be judged for being that kind of person that nobody likes because you abuse the rights given to us all. Just have the same respect for everyone else that you expect people to give you.

If you don't want a bunch of strangers taking your photo while you're just trying to go about your day, then don't do it to others.

John Seigner's picture

What defines public? Photographing people in a certain context or situation could create a larger ethical conundrum. For example, if an AA meeting is "public" and you photograph someone there you are outing them as being an alcoholic. I work with vulnerable populations and I am scrupulously careful about photographing them in certain contexts which could lead to compromising their privacy and safety. Most public meetings now have notices stating that photographs or video are being taken.

Daniel Medley's picture

In this context "public" is generally publicly owned property; ie not privately owned. Think publicly owned streets, sidewalks, parks, etc., but not privately owned spaces that are open to the public; bars, stores, malls, churches, etc. Those places can dictate rules as to what is or is not allowed.

Even in the realm of "public" spaces there are expectations of privacy in some circumstances. Like publicly owned bathrooms or changing rooms.

It is good to avoid being a provocateur.

Making people uncomfortable is a bad idea all the time.

I would also say that certain people, homeless for example, are not in the position of giving that same general consent to be photographed as those who have alternatives to being out in public.

Simon Patterson's picture

Plenty of actions are obnoxious and legal. This is one of them.

You are free to be obnoxious if you choose to be, but you have to be prepared for the common human responses to your choices, whether those responses are legal or not.

Wayne Cunningham's picture

At the San Francisco Folsom Street Festival, the number of partially dressed and undressed people has drawn quite a few photographers. Now there's a general theme, communicated through buttons and other media, requesting that photographers ask before shooting. I respected that when I went last year, and got great portraits from people who were consciously posing. However, there are also people performing on stages and in other areas, which I take to mean they are okay with being photographed unasked. When someone participates in a parade or other performative manner in a public space, it seems they should be okay with being photographed (although not in an ambush style).

David Pavlich's picture

I lived in New Orleans for a little over 20 years. If ever there was a city that street photographers could do their thing and not be noticed, it's the Crescent City. Every third person is taking pictures. I walked through the French Quarter with a 5DIII, grip, and a 70-200 on it. The only person that approached me asked what lens I was using...that was it! Why such a lens? I was at the river front taking shots of the passing river traffic.

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