Street Photography 101: Should I take that photo?

Street photography is primarily about making images of people in their surroundings. Usually these are in our cities and towns but they can, of course, be anywhere people work, play or generally congregate and hang out together.

When taking pictures of people, sometimes without them being aware, most photographers will, at some stage in their life, have ethical and moral dilemmas about whether or not they should be taking that image.

The word ‘taking’, rather than ‘making’, which I usually prefer, is very pertinent here. When you are photographing people in their surroundings you are literally freezing a part of their life forever, taking if you will, a fraction of a second of their life and committing it to some form of storage whether it be a print, in a book or stored as binary digits on your computer or in someone’s cloud storage.

So what are the ethical and moral principles we should adopt when taking such images? The first thing to say is, no one can tell you what you should or should not be making images of unless, of course, it is outright illegal!

Please note that anything written here cannot be constituted as being legal advice. You need to check the laws as they exist at the time in whatever country you plan to photograph in. Here’s a place to start in doing that.

Here in the UK, where I do most of my street photography, it is perfectly legal to take picture of people in any public place. Even photographing children is allowed though in this case you need to be especially sensitive to the prevailing moral and ethical climate of the time.

You also need to appreciate that sometimes what appears to be a public place is actually privately owned, most shopping malls and retail areas fall into this category for example.

You can use photographs taken in public places for artistic purposes, without the need for a model release. However, you cannot use these images for commercial or advertising purposes without a model release of any person in the image. 

Setting aside the legal aspects of street photography, what are the ethical and moral implications of the photographs you take on the street? As a case in point should I have taken this image?

“The Kiss”, Venice, Italy, 2014 (Olympus OM-D E-M5, M.ZUIKO 25mm F1.8, 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 200)

This photograph is from a trip to Venice in 2014. I was walking around some of the narrow streets away from the usual tourist spots and turned into this particular street. This couple were some distance away so this is a cropped image. It was the briefest of embraces that I captured here but does, I agree raise a few questions. Is it right to photograph such an intimate moment? What if this couple were lovers and this was an illicit liaison? Maybe it’s just a couple kissing good-bye when one or both are off to work, but does that mean it’s then okay?

The law on street photography in Italy is similar to the UK, shooting and publishing candid pictures is legal as long as they are taken in public spaces, not for profit, without damaging the dignity of a person or endangering public safety and moral.

Of all the above points I guess it’s the last one about “endangering public moral” that is most contentious. In theory, if this was an illicit affair going on and one of the couples partners saw this image it could have caused serious repercussions. However, given this is the first time I have actually published this image that would be impossible, at least up until now, seven years since I took the picture.

I believe that all you can hope to do when making street images is to be as honest and ethical as you can and ask yourself, if someone took a similar image of me would I mind? This picture was taken in an open public street in one of the busiest cities anywhere in the world so the couple must have known they would be observed. Besides which, for me, this picture is so typically “Italian”. Italian people are very passionate, fashionable and stylish and I think this image nicely captures these attributes.

Another fear of street photographers is what happens if you get challenged for taking images – either by the person you are photographing or by police or security guards. The prevailing advice during such a situation is usually to stay calm, state your rights and, above all, be polite.

If someone does confront you asking why you are photographing them just be honest and tell them you are a photographer and you liked the way that person looked, was dressed or you thought it was a wonderful moment that you wanted to capture. A few complements can go a long way.

As the great street photographer Joel Meyerowitz says:

“I think of myself as a kind and gentle person, but I use these tactics on the street because compliments go a long way. So, go out there, follow the light and learn to get close to people. Your life as a photographer will be richer for it.”

How I Make Photographs – Joel Meyerowitz

Go to previous Street Photography 101 post.

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