Why you shouldn’t do street photography: the problem of ethics and representation

Nov 23, 2018

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Why you shouldn’t do street photography: the problem of ethics and representation

Nov 23, 2018

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Street photography is important, versatile, and in my opinion – one of the most challenging genres there is. But there are some problems with street photography that largely revolve around ethics. In his latest video, Jamie Windsor talks about these problems and discusses the situations when it’s best not to pick up your camera.

YouTube video

Jamie argues that, in the modern era, candid street photography can be a powerful tool to strip the façade we build about us on social media. It can show the society as it is, without filters, without faking. It is also a documentation of history, of particular places and particular periods. These are some of the reasons why street photography is important and why we should do it.

However, there are some issues that go hand-in-hand with street photography. The issue of privacy is often debated, but a more serious matter is ethics and the representation of our subjects. It’s legal in most countries to take photos of strangers in the street, but just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it’s always ethical.

Jamie gives a few great examples of street and documentary photography, and they include the works of Fan Ho and Nan Goldin. These photographers have lived the lives they’re portraying and they embed their personal experiences into their work. So this made Jamie wonder: can you accurately represent a culture that you’re not a part of? How much of an insight can you actually offer? This raises the previously mentioned question of the representation of our subjects of street photography.

An example Jamie relies on is a recent viral video, and in his opinion, it sums the problem present in a lot of street photography works. In this video, a man is shaving on the New York subway and it may seem like a humorous situation to the viewer. However, the truth behind the “funny” video is that the man was trying to clean up after spending a few days in a homeless shelter.

YouTube video

According to Jamie, this video is the essence of what can be a serious problem with street photography. When we see the person for a fleeting moment in the street, we know nothing about them and their life story. We’re limited by our own experiences. The assumptions we make could be completely wrong. So, Jamie believes we should try and get to know our subjects and form an empathetic connection with them. This could give us a more accurate representation of their personality.

Finally, Jamie believes and I agree that empathy is the greatest tool we can use to determine what’s ethical and what’s not. We need to put ourselves into other people’s shoes before making assumptions and snapping a photo based on them. Ask yourself what your motives and if taking that photo will make you feel uneasy. Be brutally honest yourself with the answer. And if your gut feeling tells you not to do it – then it might be best to just put your camera down.

[Why you SHOULDN’T do STREET PHOTOGRAPHY | Jamie Windsor]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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20 responses to “Why you shouldn’t do street photography: the problem of ethics and representation”

  1. Richard Doktor Avatar
    Richard Doktor

    I highly doubt, that photographing people on the streets is “legal in most countries”. On the contrary. It is rather the case that it is banned in most countries because it violates the privacy of individuals. With a few exceptions.

    1. Freddy Avatar
      Freddy

      All the countries I can think of it is legal.

      1. Richard Doktor Avatar
        Richard Doktor

        If you just look inside the US you are probably right. But “the world” is not the US alone, although some people may believe this.

        1. Freddy Avatar
          Freddy

          I’m not from the US and that is only one country I thought of.
          I’m from The Netherlands, and here it is legal also. Surrounding countries also, even though there are some rules (which are vague, so of little influence)

          1. Richard Doktor Avatar
            Richard Doktor

            Just to avoid possible misunderstandings: In most countries you are allowed to photograph people, but under no circumstances may you publish these images without their permission. But even photographing people without their permission is forbidden in some countries (e.g. Germany).
            There are exceptions where people do not need to be asked for permission, if they are just accessories in a picture. Also crowds are OK, as long as no single person is ” elevated”.
            I haven’t found anything about the Netherlands in a hurry, but I assume that German/European law applies here as well. So no picture publication of persons, whose agreement you do not have for it.

  2. Göran Jarmar Avatar
    Göran Jarmar

    In Sweden street photography is legal, it´s also legal to take photos for example on beaches. But if the person (persons) is/are in an embarrissing situation it´s not legal to take a photo

    1. DJ Kassettenrekorder ® Avatar
      DJ Kassettenrekorder ®

      what about street-miking when you are in public, lets hear, what you say

    2. Freddy Avatar
      Freddy

      Well, that might turn out to be quite difficult then. When is something considered embarrassing? Who is to judge this?

      1. Khürt L. Williams Avatar
        Khürt L. Williams

        The court.

        1. Freddy Avatar
          Freddy

          So you’re saying the decision whether a particular scenario is forbidden to take photos of, is judged after the photo is being taken? And also, each judge can have a different perspective on this? You see the problem here, no?

          1. Jamie Windsor Avatar
            Jamie Windsor

            There are a lot of laws based on subjective terminology. This allows laws to remain while cultural grows and adapts with new technologies/attitudes etc. So it comes down to using your judgement every time. If only someone would make a video about it…

          2. Freddy Avatar
            Freddy

            My judgment can be very different from a court’s judgment.
            Hence the reason why I state these “only if not embarrassing” rules might turn out to become difficult to follow, and therefore hard to judge.

  3. Aka Billiedale Avatar
    Aka Billiedale

    Jamie Windsor is a wus. Street photography helps preserve our citizen protected rights and liberty. It even keeps law enforcement honest and helps keep the police from giving us unlawful orders and acting like tyrants. We need more informed photographers and the general public to get out and shot street photography.

    1. Khürt L. Williams Avatar
      Khürt L. Williams

      I think you have missed the point of the article. It’s about ethics.

  4. Alpha_artist Avatar
    Alpha_artist

    In the age of film, in Quebec, Canada, a student sued a student publication that included her image. She brought the case to Quebec Superior Court and won. For a while, candid photos of people in their private space in the street were no longer sanctioned by provincial law. Then guess what? The digital revolution occurred, and in the age of photo sharing, everyone forgot about the previous law.

    We are no longer talking about ‘street photography’ but street smartphone video recording that has nothing to do with photographic aesthetics. I am not sure what the purpose is of shooting a candid video of someone. The still frame can be magical. Video, not so much in the vernacular. There is a difference in practice between single image street photography and pointing a camera at a stranger because well, you can.

  5. Freddy Avatar
    Freddy

    “We’re limited by our own experiences. The assumptions we make could be completely wrong.”

    So? Its about what the photographer sees, right?

  6. A_B Avatar
    A_B

    So, now photography also has become identity-based? My biggest take-away from this is that we can only photograph people like us or people with whom we share or have shared lifestyles or situations. What happens to showing other cultures or places to people who might never experience them in person? Without this type of photography, many problems and injustices in the world would never have been brought to light outside of their indigenous cultures. And, yes, lowly street photography can do this; it doesn’t have to be delegated to the high-and-mighty photojournalist.

    1. Jamie Windsor Avatar
      Jamie Windsor

      It’s not that being an outsider looking in is wrong, it’s just to be aware that your perspective will be different.

  7. Jamie Windsor Avatar
    Jamie Windsor

    This article isn’t quite right in accordance with what I said (or at least meant) with my video. I’m not saying that we should always get to know our subjects and never shoot strangers. I’m just saying to be aware that the perspective is a very different one from the outside looking in.

  8. John_QPublic Avatar
    John_QPublic

    Not taking a street photograph is allowing a moment in time to disappear. Of course we cannot capture all moments in time (some cities like London catch quite a bit and no one complains), but if a photographer captures an interesting moment in time of a real person doing what real people do, this is worthwhile. Pictures of objects are fine, as are landscapes, etc. Posed pictures are often only real within the context of the person being conscious of themselves and appearing as they think they should appear rather than as they actually appear. The world is full of people, and people make the world interesting. That building is interesting? Photograph it, but remember people designed it and built it and hopefully inhabit or use it. Candid photography captures mostly insignificant bits of real history, but it captures something real if done well. Future generations will appreciate seeing what real life was in our time. They may enjoy all the posed pictures too, but likely pose for whatever medium currently exists, and realize that posing is posing.