The Ethics of Street Photography

Street photography is one of the most popular genres of photography, both for professional and amateur photographers. Done well, it can produce art that not only tells a story about a particular moment in time but also provides us with a window onto the human condition. Questions have been asked, however, about the ethics of street photography, and whether photographers ought to be doing it at all.

Street photography involves capturing candid moments of real life, typically by photographing unsuspecting members of the public as they go about their day. Subjects usually aren’t asked whether they consent to being photographed, and many of them may not even realize that their photograph has been taken at all. Photographing people in this way is perfectly legal in many Western countries. However, the lack of consent that street photography often poses an ethical question: Is it morally permissible to take, and to publish, photographs of people without their knowledge or consent?

I’m interested in this question, not as a photographer, but as a philosopher who researches issues in ethics. Of course, lots of photographers also have an interest in the ethics of street photography, particularly street photographers themselves. Many of them have argued that there is nothing wrong with doing street photography and that street photographers can continue to do it with a clear conscience. Unfortunately, none of the arguments which I’ve heard used to defend street photography stand up to critical scrutiny, as we’ll now see.

The Arguments

As far as I can tell, there are four main lines of argument that tend to come up quite regularly. These are:

  1. Street photography is perfectly legal, and photographers have a right to capture images of the public if they so choose.
  2. Street photography has important value as a historical record. It creates a visual record of places, people, and events that would otherwise be missing from our social history.
  3. Street photography is art. Many truly great works of art have been created by street photographers, and it would be a massive cultural loss to prevent more of these works from being made.
  4. Street photographers don’t need to worry about consent because they are taking photographs in public spaces, and so, there is no violation of a subject’s privacy. It would be different if street photographers were peering through windows into people’s homes, but they’re not: they’re simply making a record of events that take place in public in front of whoever happens to be around.

Breaking Them Down

The claims made in arguments (1) – (3) are all true. Nevertheless, these arguments all fail to show that street photography is morally permissible, simply because they don’t actually engage with the ethical issues raised by street photography. Actions can be both legal and morally wrong (just as they can be morally right while also being illegal), and the production of a historical record or a work of art can also involve actions that are morally wrong. Saying that street photography is art, for example, tells us absolutely nothing about whether it is ethical.

Now, we could try to argue that producing art or preserving social history is actually more important than avoiding moral wrongdoing — that art (for example) should come before ethics. I think that this approach is pretty obviously the wrong one to take. After all, nobody thinks that it would be alright to torture or kill someone for the sake of an art installation, but if art really were more important than ethics, then there would seem to be nothing wrong with such actions.

Argument number (4) is much more interesting than the preceding ones and is worth spending a little bit more time on. This is because it actually does engage with the ethical issues raised by street photography. The idea here is that because street photographers are simply recording something which is taking place in public, there is no violation of the subject’s privacy. Taking a photo of someone sitting on a park bench is basically the same, according to this line of thought, as simply seeing them there — something which any number of passers-by could have done if they had been in the right place at the right time.

This is an interesting argument, but it’s not one that I find persuasive. To see why, note that people clearly remain entitled to a degree of privacy even when they are in public spaces. We recognise, after all, that it would be an intrusion of privacy to listen in on a personal conversation between two people in the park, despite the fact that this conversation is being conducted in public. So, the idea that if you’re in public, you simply can’t have your privacy violated, is a non-starter to begin with.

But of course, not every conversation that we happen to overhear when we’re out and about constitutes an intrusion into someone’s privacy — a parent scolding a child for crossing the street without looking, a couple trying to decide what to order on the table next to ours in a restaurant, one half of a phone call about the difficulty of finding a decent plumber — these are hardly intimate moments which we could be accused of eavesdropping on. Doesn’t the same apply, therefore, to photography? Aren’t there lots of moments that street photographers could capture without intruding on someone’s privacy?

Yes, there are. The trouble for street photographers is that it is incredibly difficult to identify these moments at a glance. The woman sitting pensively on that park bench could be thinking about the book that she has just finished reading. Alternatively, she could be thinking of a recently deceased loved one. In the first case, it might not be an intrusion of her privacy to take her photograph, given that the moment is not a particularly personal one to her. In the second case, however, the exact same photograph might reasonably be seen as an intrusion on her privacy, given the intensely personal nature of her thoughts at the time.

The point is, of course, that there is simply no way to determine this just by looking at the scene and so no way of knowing whether pressing the shutter button would be morally problematic or not. There are also additional complicating factors, such as the varying extents to which different people guard their privacy. Two people photographed doing exactly the same thing may feel very differently about whether that photograph constitutes an intrusion of their privacy, and again, this is something that the photographer cannot determine simply by looking at the scene.

So, what does all this mean for the ethics of street photography? Well, for a start, it means that none of the arguments I’ve discussed in this article are able to silence the ethical concerns raised by street photography. There is no simple argument that will make it acceptable, in every case, to take photographs of strangers without their consent. But as we’ve just seen, that doesn’t mean that all street photography is necessarily morally objectionable, just as not all overheard conversations count as intrusions of privacy. Unfortunately for street photographers, there is simply no way of being certain that the shot which they wish to take is sufficiently respectful of their subject’s privacy.

Whether or not a street photographer acts badly by taking a particular shot, then, is to a large extent a result of what is known as moral luck: factors outside of the photographer’s direct control, which nevertheless affect the moral status of their actions. Any image taken without a subject’s knowledge might constitute a morally objectionable intrusion of their privacy. This remains the case even if the photographer has done their best to make that image as tasteful and respectful toward their subject as possible. Street photographers, then, face a choice: either they obtain their subjects’ consent for each of the images they make (either before or after the shutter button has been pressed), or they live with the possibility that, despite their best efforts and whatever their noble intentions, their work might leave them open to legitimate moral censure.

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57 Comments

Gerry O'Brien's picture

You repeatedly mention questions of privacy, but in the United States, every federal court decision on the subject in the past 75 years has clearly stated that there is no expectation of privacy in a public space. In the United States, you are entitled to inveigh against these legal decisions, much like others rage against laws pertaining to reproductive rights, whistleblower protections, or the right to peacefully demonstrate. You are within your right to attempt to overturn these laws. And we are within ours to oppose you. But the fact remains: you cannot invade a privacy that does not exist.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi Gerry, thanks for taking the time to reply to this. Of course you are correct that there is no legal expectation of privacy in public places, and in fact I'm not trying to argue that the law on this issue needs to be changed. What I'm saying is that legality and ethics are two different things. Laws can be good, and actions can be in accordance with them, but that doesn't always make those actions right or good. Take the example of eavesdropping which I discuss. That's an intrusion of privacy in the basic sense that it's just none of the listener's business, no matter that it's legal for them to listen in. And the person being listened to is surely, it seems to me, wronged in some way by the eavesdropper (ask yourself - wouldn't they at least be owed an apology?). This is the kind of privacy which I'm concerned with here, and I think it's certainly something which street photographers ought to be very mindful of.

C North's picture

I can see why people would want to equate their personal preferences with the term ethics.....because by doing so, it lends false weight to their beliefs. It makes it seem like their personal preferences are solidified in something greater than just themselves, putting them on a high horse for nothing other than implying they are. That's one of the biggest social problems in society today, because it is abused in soo many ways soo nonchalantly, and people often don't even realize that's exactly what they're doing.

Every law can do good and cause harm, depending on the circumstances. Nothing is perfect. You're free to have personal ethics, but there is no point in arguing for it since the law is the law. Personally, I choose to respect peoples privacy, and for that, my photography suffers, I've missed many great shots. It's when your personal ethics bleed into trying to imply how other people should behave, is when it becomes no longer protected by the respect of being a personal ethic.

But even when I have respected peoples privacy, I've still been confronted. Just a few months ago I was taking a picture and a person who wasn't even in my frame at all, came up and confronted me, questioning me why I was taking pictures. I took one picture, and only had my camera out for a few seconds, and it wasn't even close to being pointed in their direction. They drove up to me from over a block away. Even if they were to end up in the frame, they'd have been soo small in the frame that they wouldn't have been recognizable at all.

I told them I wasn't taking a picture of them and they started getting angry, because in their mind, they already believed I was, and nothing was going to change that. I could have even showed them all my shots on the camera and they would have believed I was tricking them. At that point, that entire situation was unresolvable no matter what I did, despite the fact I was in a public place, and despite the fact that I clearly was not even pointing the camera near the persons position. This man was soo angry, he was literally holding up traffic on a street to harass me.

Another incident I had a few years back was when I was taking shots of a storefront display from a sidewalk. The owner came outside and she started angrily asking questions about what I am taking pictures for. I was there for less than 1 minute. I'm pretty sure she called the police after I left.

So you see, even despite "ethics", I still run into problems. So why should I care about "ethics" at all? Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only reason why I don't take pictures of people is not just because of how they might feel, but because I don't want to be harassed....even though what I'd be doing is 100% legal, and what they are doing is 100% illegal. And I think that's a good argument why people should NOT care, because it is ETHICALLY wrong to harass people for doing something that is legal. And that to me is a far more important statement of ethics.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Sorry to hear about these confrontations you've been involved in, I can imagine how unsettling they must have been, and you certainly shouldn't have been subjected to the sort of threatening behaviour you describe.
It's interesting to hear you equate ethical views with preferences. Personally I think there are certain objective moral/ethical facts out there, and that if someone disagrees with those facts they are simply mistaken (e.g. murder really is morally wrong, whatever attitudes people have towards it). I also think that people's preferences in how they, personally, are treated, have a direct bearing on the question of how we ought morally to treat them, which is really the kernel of my argument here.
Thanks for your reply, and for sharing your point of view!

Gerald Harden's picture

Is it the street photographer's duty to be mindful or the subject's duty to be mindful in public spaces?

Joseph Walsh's picture

Both!

Daniel Medley's picture

Ethics, like art, is entirely subjective. While, law is generally not.

Joseph Walsh's picture

I don't believe that ethics is subjective. There may be room for reasonable disagreement on some questions, but I think that on some issues it's possible to give right or wrong, better or worse answers.

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

It's a different discussion, but where does ethics come from if not from subjective opinions? Even the ethics of murder/taking lived is highly debatable.

Daniel Medley's picture

Unfortunately, I just can't agree. It's why it's perfectly ethical in some cultures to stone someone to death for committing adultery, while in others it's not considered ethical at all. It's why, for example, here in the states, capital punishment can be not only considered ethical, but even noble for some, but for others it's abhorrent.

Never mind that in any given culture ethics evolve over time.

Really, I promise. Ethics are entirely subjective.

Paul Roberts's picture

Of course ethics are subjective. You're showing how subjective they are in every single reply to these posts. What you find unethical, may not be found to be the same by another photographer, and vice-versa.

You are very adamant, that there are unethical practices in public areas, but many others would not agree, because their own individual ethical basis comes from a very different viewpoint. Ethics and ethical persuasions, are not linear, but can ebb and flow dependent on the situation at hand.

I'm afraid Joseph, you've got this one rather wrong.

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

I think you got it backwards, when someone is forcing you to eavesdrop on a private conversation, for instance someone arguing on their phone on a bus, is it really their privacy who is violated? I never agreed to participate and listen in on all kinds of disturbing stuff when I entered the bus.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

I really don't see the issue here. If you have an ethical issue with photographing someone or recording their conversation in a public place, then don't do it. For others that don't have an ethical issue, then they are free to do it and the law supports them.

If you don't want to be photographed in public, don't go out in public. I am sure that the act of walking to the store will get you photographed a dozen times by security cameras.

And I think that if "society" decided to outlaw street photography, then we are probably well on the way to losing most of the freedoms that make living in western culture worthwhile.

Charles Mercier's picture

Obviously with exceptions, people basically don't care. In fact, as long as you aren't taking advantage (deliberately making them look bad or personally profit) of them, most people would like to be part of either art or the historical record. One simply has to know about the selfie phenomenon.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi Charles, I think you're probably right that most people don't mind at all (though I think there's a world of difference between taking a selfie and someone photographing you without your knowledge). But some people will always find it objectionable, and others will find it objectionable at least some of the time. And unless you can tell at a glance which of those groups someone falls into (and let's be honest, you can't), then there's a risk that you'll take a photo which should have been left untaken. Now, I'm not saying that means people should stop doing street photography. But it does make it at least somewhat ethically risky, at least in my opinion.

C North's picture

Think of it this way. The government photographs you all the time without your consent/knowledge in public. So do private businesses. Why should a private citizen be any different?

Now let's do a thought experiment. If I have a 1400mm lens and I take a photograph of someone that isn't even aware of my existence, is it more or less ethical because they don't know? Is it more or less ethical that I am close or far far away, even if I'm getting technically the same shot? Is it only ethical with consent? Because again, we could go back to the first sentence, where you are already photographed in public all the time by government and private businesses. And giving them a monopoly on freely photographing people in public is in its own way, unethical.

How about if the news photographs you without your consent, and you end up being seen by hundreds of thousands of people without your consent? Is that unethical of the news? And they're straight up making money off of that in some way shape or form.

So why is it unethical for a private citizen to do so?

Joel Meyerowitz is a famous street photographer. I recall a documentary of him in the 80's, where he's walking down the street photographing this kissing/loving couple, and they actually didn't care at all. He didn't ask for consent.

In fact, I can link you to the exact scene: https://youtu.be/iHzk_9fizx8?t=1942

I posit that the problem isn't photographers, the problem is that people have changed, that people aren't desensitized to it as they were before. Back in the 80's and 90's, no one would really care if you went around with a film camera taking pictures. This photograph sensitization is actually a new trend. And I think what is partly fostering that is people not being desensitized to it due to not being used to being photographed in public.

I also think some of it is a persons own issues; people are generally less moral these days (maybe even less free in general due to more rules, more consequences, and harder to escape those rules and consequences), which is why people taking pictures of them makes them nervous.....do they have a warrant for their arrest and are afraid that their picture being taken is somehow connected to that? Have they done something wrong and are afraid a picture can be used against them? Are they a cheating spouse and don't want to be pictured somewhere they shouldn't be? The reasons can go on and on, but I think the lack of morality in society today plays a big role in people being insecure in being photographed in public. People are more isolated than ever, and have more insecurities than ever.

So think about that revelation for a moment.....street photography is less ethical today, because people are more immoral today than perhaps ever before. It makes sense, but it's also completely unfair isn't it, because the immorality and sensitivity of others affects others ability to do certain things around them. Isn't that itself a form of immorality and unethical of them? So which side truly deserves the "right of way"?

It all comes down to what someone else is lacking, rather than the photographer. Kind of like how someone tells you something that tells you more about themselves than what they're talking about....it's like that....where the reaction of the person to being photographed, or thinking it's unethical, tells you more about that person than the person doing the photographing.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

If you are personally profiting in the sense of using the image for commercial purposes, the subject may have an argument that they should be compensated that a court would uphold.

Mike Peters's picture

Yes, and everyone who shoots on the street knows, or should know, that you cannot profit commercially unless you have a signed release form. Very few people are making money at this.

There may have been a few like Philip-Lorca diCorcia who sold prints for $10,000 dollars, but he didn't sell them for any commercial usage. He also settled the case law for photographing in public places through a law suit that was brought against him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nussenzweig_v._DiCorcia

Perhaps some people make a few bucks selling books or prints, but no one is making big bucks unless they're already famous and agency/gallery represented.

James Cowman's picture

I wonder how Bruce Gilden would respond to these ethical arguments. With that said, I used to do street photography years ago. I never felt comfortable with it so I started doing documentary work instead. With documentary work I have permission.

Additionally, just because you take street photographs doesn’t make them art. Art has objective, traceable qualities and there is a huge difference between a photograph and a photograph that is a work of art. Anyone can take a photograph. Not everyone can create art.

Interesting article.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Thanks James - you're right of course, plenty of street photos don't qualify as art, and indeed that's not always the intention behind them. As for Gilden, well...somehow I don't think he'd be convinced!

Lee Sei-Macfhearchair's picture

Interesting article. I think some photographers play the legality card without considering the moral aspect. I'm from the UK and you have a legal right to photograph anything in public apart from some buildings that fall under the official secrets act, but if somebody asks you to delete a photo of them taken in public, it is basic manners to do so.

I currently live in Japan where the legal status is more of a gray area. You are free to take photos in public, but if that photo causes harm, the person is allowed to sue. For example, if a couple in a photo is having an affair, and your photo causes a divorce, they have the legal right to sue. I have never heard of this happening because Japan doesn't have a culture of personal lawsuits, but the law does make you consider the moral ramifications of your photography.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi Lee, thanks for your reply - I wasn't aware of the legal situation in Japan, it certainly sounds like an interesting approach, thanks for highlighting it!

J.d. Davis's picture

Joseph Walsh - In order NOT to be ethically or morally uncomfortable in public, I suggest putting down your camera, wrap your self in cotton and never - EVER go out in public again!!

SERIOUSLY, if it bothers you SO MUCH take up a different hobby or get a life.

Hector Muñoz Huerta's picture

In a time where governments and corporations record and exploit the identity and minute details of every person's life a question like this seems of minor relevance yet we would also have to consdier the same problem from the perspective of journalism and all literary genres which predate photography and are extensively more prevalent and massive than street photography in using the identity and facts of public (and frequently private) events without consent.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi Hector - certainly as citizens/voters we can ask all of those questions! As photographers, though, we have a particular need to ask about the ethics of what we do, just as programmers should have a particular concern for data ethics, and clinicians for medical ethics, etc.

J.d. Davis's picture

If you believe that elephants are sentient, by YOUR argument, it would be immoral and/or unethical to photograph them without consent!

What's next on the PC hitlist? Black coffee, white lies, Chinese food?

People need to grow up!

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi J. D., thanks for replying. I'm not sure how any of the outcomes which you're concerned about follow from what I argue, which, at it's most basic level, is simply that we should be aware of and sensitive to the ways in which our actions affect those around us. I don't really see that as being an issue of political correctness, but maybe I've missed your point...

J.d. Davis's picture

Knew you wouldn't !

J.d. Davis's picture

The ETHICS of programming -

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJHvSp9AKYg

Brendan Galway's picture

Interesting read, I don’t agree that it is an ethical issue, my argument is travel. What separates a tourist taking a photo of the Trevi Fountain, is there an expectation that no other person will be in the photo? Or is there an acceptance that people will photograph that and I will be in other peoples prints, with that of a street scene? Why is one an ethical issue and the other not?

Joseph Walsh's picture

Thanks Brendan, I totally agree that tourist photos like the ones you mention are a difficult case here. It seems to me that there's a distinction to be drawn in terms of the subject of the photos, and the way the viewer's attention is drawn to them - in street photography the subject is typically a person, in tourist shots it's normally a building or landmark of some sort. So maybe that's how to explain why one involves ethical considerations whilst the other does not. Something for me to think about, certainly!

Mike Peters's picture

I'm just curious as to why someone who does not shoot on the street would write an opinion piece on the ethics of street photography?

Joseph Walsh's picture

Well, I have a background in ethics research and an interest in and liking for street photography, so I thought it would be fun to combine the two and try to contribute to the conversation.

Mike Peters's picture

Fair enough.

There are so many issues with modern culture in general that are ethically and morally problematic. Street photography has always been that way, and in this day and age, it's become more fraught. Just as journalism, written and visual, has become questionable and suspicious to some segments of the population. Hell, even facts have become debatable. But I digress.

I think to debate a set of ethics or moral judgements on a photographer by who or what they photograph on the street is an interesting conversation, but one that breaks down once you get into generalizations. And it degrades even more when you get into specifics unless you can get into the mind of the photographer. When that happens, we're all in trouble.

An un-manipulated photograph can only portray a fact that actually occurred. Beyond the fact that in this light, this face, making this expression, at this time, in this place, wearing this hat, in this weather, actually existed for this fraction of a second, everything else behind it is a mystery. And that mystery is what draws us in and tickles our imagination. And that is the appeal and magic of photographing, on the street, or anywhere else for that matter.

When photographing people in any context, what you think you see in a portrait will not reflect the inner emotional state of the person portrayed. Especially when you see someone smiling their insipid social media grin that they show off every chance they get. So often when you see someone who looks interesting, and then you ask if you can photograph them, they break into the currently socially acceptable trap of "my life is great" smile, even if it's not. True happiness or contentment is one thing, but often their expression for the camera is an outright lie.

Ethics and art are strange bedfellows. History will always be the judge of what is ethically acceptable or repugnant. Even now, what was ok decades ago is no longer considered ok. As artists, I say do what you like and let the sorting happen later. And by later it could be in the editing process of the photographer, or in the courts of public opinion a hundred years down the line.

The duty of the artist is to make the art that they are compelled to make. Once you start censoring yourself, you become a boring hack. Art is about taking chances, pushing yourself and the people who look at your art into being uncomfortable. Art should do more than look pretty, it should make you feel something. Otherwise it’s just decoration.

I think the bigger issue with street photography is all of the truly vapid and uninteresting work that passes itself off as such. Random snaps of people on the street converted to black and white or rendered in eye watering HDR is a far more insidious problem than photographing a person who looks sad. There ought to be a law!!! Nah, just kidding.

David Pavlich's picture

I just posted a much more wordy response at DPR, but the long and short of it; a little discretion combined with the legal aspect and chances are quite good for a pleasant and rewarding outcome.

Joseph Walsh's picture

You're probably right David - I'll be sure to check out your response when I have a moment, thanks!

Ryan Prins's picture

I will give you that the legality is a moot place to start a conversation, so we can agree on 1 and 3. However, I find your starting place with points 2 and 4 to be problematic. You say they can fall into the ethical issues involved with street photography; without further clarification I must assume that you mean the problem you outlined when dealing with point 4, an intrusion of privacy. This assumes that the subject being viewed has the a priori moral highground as they, despite being in public, have the right to some degree of privacy. But this does not impose an ethic on those around you to uphold the degree of privacy you feel entitled to. If you are acting in a lewd manner in public, can you be upset by those not giving you the privacy you would like? If someone were to photograph you acting in this way, would you say the photographer is acting unethically by intruding into a private moment? You can see how the expectation of privacy in public quickly falls apart as it is highly subjective, nor can it default to the person who expects the privacy. So on what ethical grounds does the subject of a street photograph have to impose upon you their "right" to not be in the shot? The comparison to eavesdropping I find to be a faulty analogy. If you are eavesdropping, you walk away from the situation with the knowledge of what the person found intimate and personal about that conversation. But like you said, if you take a shot of a woman on a bench, you do not know if she was thinking about a book or recently deceased loved one. Because, unlike eavesdropping, that personal information is not inherently communicated in the medium. Because no necessarily personal information is gathered, nothing private has actually been infringed upon. The only way you would actually know if it were a private moment is if the subject actually told you that it was such. I would expect that you don't believe people act unethically when they unknowingly participate in something unethical (eg. someone gave you a necklace for you birthday, but they stole it. You didn't know that, so you are not ethically implicated in their actions). In the same way, if you do not know you invaded a private moment (without the subject telling you), do you not remain ethically justified in taking a sort of Schrodinger's photograph? If I photographed only blind people that never saw me do it, would I be able to remain morally right? I believe the better analogy is that of authorial intent. While the moment the subject was experiencing may have been intimate or personal, nothing to identify or disseminate that personal information in inherently in the photograph. Instead, the photographer may have imposed their own meaning through creative choices in making the photo, and the viewer may have yet a different reading of the photograph altogether. The original subject cannot argue the photograph is "about" whatever they were thinking/experiencing at the time; the meaning is not dictated by them, despite it originating from them. I believe these degrees of artistic separation and lack of identifiable private information absolve the photographer from any ethical breach. This is on top of the fact that the artist is already making effort to not intrude by being in places that are as public as possible. Now, if a person asks you to delete a photo they are in, you may make that choice based on your level of kindness. But it is not a question of ethics.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi Ryan, thanks for writing such a thought- provoking reply. I think there's no doubt some truth in what you say here, and that fact that a photographer might unknowingly intrude on a person's privacy could certainly mitigate any wrongdoing on their part. Even then, however, I think we should still be guided by how the subject themselves feels, or would feel, about the image in question, and not try to insist that our own interpretation of it is the best or right one. In which case, it's still possible to see even innocently taken photographs as being potentially better left untaken. Thanks again for replying - I'll certainly think some more about your comments!

Chad L's picture

The legality is moot? Why do you say that? I don't think it's moot, I think it's the most important thing. There are tons of places where street photography has strict rules one must abide by, and there are some where it's outright illegal -- in Japan for instance. In Japan, taking a picture of someone without their permission, and then using that photo for something is very illegal.

Edit: spelling/grammar

Joseph Walsh's picture

The law isn't the most important thing in a discussion about ethics. Lots of things are legal, despite being unethical. So just asking if something is legal fails to address the issue.

Hector Muñoz Huerta's picture

Most importantly you fail to establish why is it not ethical to take someone's picture without express consent.

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

In addition to the considerations of the laws in force it is a question of respect and respect must be applied in life and photography is part of this. As for the concept of art is a term now abused in photography, entertainment, music and so on, art is beyond, it is transcendence.

Jon Martin Solaas's picture

I don't think the camera actually can capture the subjects thoughts, even though I think one should respect this belief in certain countries/religions. In other words, I don't really think it matters that much what the woman in the park in a western, modern country has on her mind. I also do not think it is unethical in general to take pictures outside the studio. From the arguments of the author this would be problematic for any kind of photography, news, tourism, street, architecture etc.

Sean Fitzpatrick's picture

Something that is largely overlooked by street photographers is the unauthorized use of graffiti or murals in their commercial work.
What's your thoughts on that aspect if street photography?

Hector Muñoz Huerta's picture

Well, the lighting work of the Eiffel Tower is copyrighted, the tower itself is a public sight made available to the public. As long as you are not making business out of the specific and sole appearance of a copyrighted work it is ok.

Derek Smith's picture

The ethics behind street photography are a sociology topic not philosophical. You hinted at that in the beginning of your article speaking to different cultural aspects of taking pictures in public of the public. For me, that's the question, what are the ethics behind taking pictures of the public in public?

That's where the discussion should start, it's a question for the society not the opinionated assumptions of the street photographer or the philosopher looking at it from the outside in.

Being a street photographer there are lines not to be crossed when speaking to ethics. I don't take pictures of children without consent from a parental figure and I don't take pictures highlighting the opposite sex. So why is that?

It's down to the society and it's people. They are learned expectations of being in public with a camera. Not five arguments made in deep thought for a thought experiment.

I'd gladly take you on a street shoot for perspective and a revisit if you're ever in Cincinnati.

John Hutchins's picture

This piece simply assumes the answer to the problem it sets out to address. What is there — beyond you saying it is so — that establishes that the privacy violation you hypothesize is an ethical failing. Even allowing privacy in public some weight apart from the question of legal entitlement, why is it more than a social norm such that it is not just rude but immoral to fail to meet that norm?

And you fairly blithely dismiss the legal issue. You seem to see consent as a legitimate resolution to the privacy problem. But the problem is really one of how each of us may use public space. Do you have a moral entitlement to use it in a way such that I’m morally obligated to respect your privacy or an I entitled to use public space in a way that I find useful to help me and others understand the human condition with you having a moral obligation to not impose on me restrictions that impair the possibility of doing so.

To put out another way, what makes this an ethical problem at all and not a problem of law and manners — how public space should be used and even if there’s some ethical question, why does not the law — which is a result of a process of collective decision making — not resolve the ethical as well as the legal issue

John Hutchins's picture

What is special about photography that makes this an ethnically meaningful question? George doesn’t like being close to people. He doesn’t want people to be closer than fifteen feet to him. I walk past him within five feet? Have I been immoral? I know he doesn’t like people being close. Immoral now? He’s near a hot dog stand where I’d like to eat. Can I order one even though I have to get too close to do so?

I am in a park and see what I think is a breakup between a couple. I write a story describing what I see so poignantly that it’s published. Immoral? I write a story that’s entirely a work of my imagination but I describe the couple. Immoral? We can assume they wouldn’t like it. I wasn’t watching, I was one of the parties. I’m telling my story but know my partner wouldn’t like it. Immoral? The fight was in public and other people were watching.

When does my not liking something give someone else a moral obligation — as distinct from a legal obligation or a social obligation to not do the thing

I didn’t publish any of it. I just saw something that moved me and learned something about myself as a result.

I took a photograph and didn’t show it to anyone but I look at it once in a while to remind myself of how things can go bad and help keep myself focused on preserving my relationships.

I told the story to a friend. What are the morally relevant facts here that make any of this meaningful different from photography.

Joseph Walsh's picture

Hi John, lots of the questions you ask here are indeed ethical ones, and there's nothing special about photography which makes it any more or less fitting for ethical debate than anything else.
I think a large part of ethical behaviour is precisely about treating people the way they wish to be treated - so much so that I don't see how any plausible approach to ethics could really ignore such preferences. Certainly we can't always know what those preferences are at a glance, but we can always try to find out, so that we can be appropriately guided by them.

John Hutchins's picture

And if Ludacris is behind a woman on the freeway, do we just say “move, bitch, get out the way”? And if one person approaches another on the street, desperately wanting to engage in conversation when the other desperately wants to be left alone is there an intractable moral conflict with the first morally obligated to leave the second alone and the second morally obligated to make conversation? Or if one lives, as I do now, in a country where my grasp of the language is not yet good enough to carry in a conversation to find out how the people around me want to be treated. Or if someone wants to be treated in a way I think is disastrous for him — if my brother wants me to leave him alone while he destroys himself and those around him with his substance abuse?

Treat people the way that they want to be treated seems to me a pretty useless guide to moral behavior as it requires me to have information about the internal thoughts of others and it suggests a moral obligation to do things that all my instincts tell me are immoral — to allow the suicide to kill himself for example.

You certainly don’t make any kind of case for it — all you provide is your say so that what each person wants is the deciding factor.

To me the problem seems, as I suggested above, to be not really a moral one at all but a collective decision about entitlements to use public spaces. Do I have the right to effectively privatize the space I pass through by imposing moral obligations on other people in public to treat me as I’d want, or do I accept, by going in public and being a part of society, that I may be observed, described, photographed, appreciated, daydreamed about, disliked, subject to unwanted conversations, or ignored.

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