The Subtle Ethics of Street Photography and Why You Should Think Twice Before You Do It

Street photography is a peculiar genre in the ethical questions it carries with it. This thoughtful video essay examines questions that go beyond simply wondering if you should do it at all.

Almost every photographer tries street photography at some point. Most do it when they're first starting out, as it offers a veritable plethora of readily interesting subjects and requires little equipment. But as Jamie Windsor points out, the ethical questions of the genre go far beyond simply wondering if you're exploiting your subjects. I particularly appreciated Windsor pointing out the dangers of leaning on the legality of street work to bypass the ethical questions. As he points out, even if one is not explicitly intending to exploit their subjects, there's a problem of representation, namely one's ability to represent a subject they hardly know and how one deals with the disconnect of photographing people that may come from vastly different socioeconomic circumstances and how this then translates into their ability (or lack thereof) to represent their subject with the requisite empathy so as to not inadvertently exploit them. It's a fascinating subject that's well worth thinking about; check out the video above for Windsor's full thoughts. 

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JetCity Ninja's picture

odd to see this juxtaposed with a polish photographer's collection of snapshots featuring japanese salarymen, drunk and passed out, on public streets.

Rob Davis's picture

Imagine how much less context we would have in our history books if anything that might cause embarrassment were left out.

JetCity Ninja's picture

agreed. and while one may argue that a photo of a jobless, homeless person may be exploitative, some of the most famous photographs feature a subject who is just that (afghan girl on Time magazine, depression era woman with children)

and it's that way because one doesn't always know if the photographer had permission or not. besides, if one has the moral ambiguity to photograph a homeless person for exploitative reasons, they most likely wouldn't have an issue with lying about it, either.

besides, one person's exploitation is can be another's enlightenment.

however, being japanese-american, having lived in both countries as both a child and an adult, i find the photo gallery of japanese salarymen to be wildly exploitative, especially since no one knows if any or all have a drinking problem that's destroying their families. there's also nothing to be learned or gleaned from the collection because "japanese men are overworked" isn't exactly breaking news. furthermore, the photos themselves lack any artistic value with most seemingly just cameraphone snaps and some with embarrassingly low resolution. should it be taken down? nah. but i don't see why fstoppers has chosen to feature it.

Rob Davis's picture

Does the context the photographer puts it in make it any better?

It initially reminded me of Tim Hetherington's sleeping soldiers.

JetCity Ninja's picture

no, because as i said, it's not news.

there's also a huge difference between sleeping and passed out drunk. only one is potentially life damaging from the circulation of the image.

in a society where honor and image is everything, if any one of those men whose faces are clearly visible were to end up circulating in the wrong place at the wrong time, they could face termination from their job, divorce from a spouse, bullying of their children, or all of the above.

Rob Davis's picture

It brings up an interesting ethical dilemma. I tend to be in favor of the images. One, if these employees are being exploited, doing nothing only protects them from one type of abuse but maintains the other. If, as is the case here in the United States, there is a particular additional stigma for men suffering from mental/emotional illness, this could be the only way to enact social change.

Two, I'm sitting at work right now and can see at least 4 books based upon Japanese corporate culture (Kaizen/LEAN). I see these and wonder, "Is this where we are headed too?" Without these pictures, these men would be reduced to a statistic on a balance sheet with no mention of their humanity or suffering.

Now if it's grossly exaggerating or mischaracterizing a situation that is definitely a problem.

Jamie Windsor's picture

This is an interesting point and one which I was going to originally address in the video, but it was becoming too long so I cut that section out. However, I don't think my video contradicts this. As time goes on, the rights and feelings of the individual in the photo become less important. But this raises the question of whether the end justifies the means it becomes a problem that moral philosophers have never agreed on. This is why my conclusion is that there are no easy answers and it much be judged by each person on a case-by-case basis. As I say in my video: If you believe you motives are good, then go for it because street photography is important.

Rob Davis's picture

I also have thought about shooting whatever I want and simply embargoing the images for ten or maybe even 20 years. Age usually only enhances street photos and greatly reduces the possibility of any social repercussions.

Thanks for sharing it.

Some interesting points, although I don't think that asking a few questions to a stranger will give you enough insights on who he or she is in order to have a better understanding of them when you're taking their picture.

Moreover, I believe the issues discussed are more relevant to a portrait type of shooting (which is the case of the author of the video), and I think street photography is not just about that. Surely, there are different aspects of a photograph which can lead us to different problems. One approach can focus on the form, another on the feeling and so on.
In that regard, I consider the work of Fan Ho or, for instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson focused on a problem of form as opposed to, say, Garry Winogrand who didn't care much about the composition rather more on capturing the expressions and gestures of people.

Just my 2 c.

Michael Comeau's picture

Oh can we please stop this puritanical horse sh*t?

Art - both the process and the end result - is not supposed to please everyone.

Alex Cooke's picture

I've worked with horses for three decades and can definitely confirm this is not horsesh*t.

user-156929's picture

I have no opinion on this subject but that was funny! :-)

> Art - both the process and the end result - is not supposed to please everyone.

Which is an imbecilic thing to say. Yes, everyone knows that. But so what? Politics isn't meant to please everyone - that doesn't mean there aren't moral questions.

Jamie Windsor's picture

What's interesting is that I don't actually dictate what I think people should do and not do in terms of what photos to make. I just tell people to be honest with themselves about their motives. Which part specifically have you taken to be puritanical?

Ronald Hewlette's picture

Cant wait to try this street photography

this is unnecessary worry - it will interfere with the need to press your shutter at the decisive moment - or it will stop you publishing your best most interesting or challenging work.

Phill Holland's picture

There's also the counterpoint, people like Dorothea Lange, using the power of photography for social change, taking pictures of down and outs during a time of recession, to demonstrate a point and highlight the issue. Motivation and empathy are extremely important for a street photographer. The aim isn't to annoy people, or to violate their privacy, it stems from a natural curiosity and a love for people on the street. A lot of street photographer's have that motivation, they love people and the energy and the chaos.

In other comments I've also seen mention of this article being listed next to the pictures of drunk Japanese business men sleeping; you could read this in many different ways, as a work of exploitation, or as a work of empathy for somebody that cares about society and negative byproducts of social norms.

Do you take pictures of homeless people because they're the most interesting characters on the street, or do you take pictures of them because you care and wanna try and help do something about it?

I was watching George Zimbel's documentary recently, quoting the irony of people getting upset and angry at somebody taking pictures when there were CCTV cameras everywhere, what harm can a camera do? It hasn't always been like this.

I don't think you can take good street photographs without loving your subject, again motivation, empathy and intent are important.

Dorothea Lange posed her subjects. She hardly could be put in the street photography genre. She was hired to document poverty in America by the government.

Quentin Robertson's picture

The use of street photography is a type of social journalism. It can be joyful, insightful and occasionally shocking but it always informs us of something. We may have a problem or event highlighted that we were not aware of. If a problem of homelessness or desperately overworked men is highlighted and it leads to a change in circumstances for these people then that is a positive thing.