Sometimes you might feel guilty photographing your subjects. Sometimes it feels wrong. Sometimes you feel wrong and dirty.
What is the most “ethical” way to shoot street photography?
For a quick summary, I think street photography comes down to the golden rule: don’t photograph others as you don’t want others to photograph you.
What does it feel like on the other side?
For me, ethics is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and be able to sleep at night. To be “ethical” is to not treat others how you don’t want to be treated.
I know a lot of street photographers who don’t like having their own photograph taken.
What is the problem of this?
Because they don’t like having their own photograph taken, they feel guilty when they photograph others. They assume others will be as offended as they are. Therefore, these street photographers feel a deep sense of guilt or shame taking a photo of a stranger without their permission.
Have you ever had a street photograph taken of you?
Personally, I take photos of strangers with and without permission, and have no problem falling asleep at night.
I like having my photograph taken — with or without permission. I feel comfortable in my own skin. And I find it hilarious when others photograph me (either candidly) or when they approach me.
A lot of it has to do with my personality. I love to be the center of attention. I feel flattered when others shower me with attention or interest. I’ve had random strangers take photos of me in public, either when I was dressed normally, or when I was dressed like a pirate in Hong Kong (in my episode of Digital Rev with Kaiman Wong).
However there are many situations where I don’t feel comfortable photographing strangers candidly. In these situations, I feel like I am potentially exploiting them. For example, I don’t like to shoot candid photos (without permission) of homeless people or people who look destitute (or under their luck).
In situations when I’m not sure whether I feel “ethical” photographing someone, I ask for permission.
This gives the power back to your subject. If they say “yes” — they’ve made that decision. If they say “no” — then you respect their decision, thank them for their time, and then move on.
But isn’t street photography only supposed to be shot without permission?
I think the biggest misconception in street photography is that it has to be shot without permission, or candidly.
I falsify that claim by stating the (very big) list of street photographers who have photographed their subjects with permission. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following photographers and images:
- Henri Cartier-Bresson (photographing the 3 people in the streets of Seville, Spain)
- William Klein (his famous ‘kid with gun’ photo— he told the kid to, ‘look tough!’)
– Robert Frank (his famous ‘bored lady in elevator’ shot in his ‘Americans’ book — he asked her to pose for her, just see the contact sheets)
– Diane Arbus (famous ‘kid with grenade’ shot in the park — you can see how she directed him all throughout the park in her contact sheet)
I feel that generally street photos are more interesting when shot without permission (because they don’t look as ‘posey’). However you can get a very interesting photograph of a stranger (shot with permission) that doesn’t look ‘posey.’
Why this bias against asking for permission?
Unfortunately many of us still shoot like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who said that we weren’t allowed to interact with our subjects, or “modify the scene.”
However even he has interacted with subjects in the streets— as you can see in several of his photographs. I’m not sure what he said exactly to his subjects, but if you observe his contact sheets (his behind-the-scenes shots) you can see how he’s taken many different photos of his subjects from different angles, perspectives, with the subjects well-aware of the camera.
For behind-the-scenes of street photography, check out the resources below:
- Free E-Book: Street Photography Contact Sheets
- Debunking the “Myth of the Decisive Moment”
- How Studying Contact Sheets Can Make You a Better Street Photographer
- Book Review: Magnum Contact Sheets
I personally felt like this for a long time. But when I saw Bruce Gilden, Charlie Kirk, and Martin Parr directing their subjects in the streets— I started to experiment and do the same. And honestly, some of my best shots have been shot with permission.
Why are you shooting street photography?
Also when it comes to ethics and street photography, a question to ask yourself is: “Why do I shoot street photography?” Are you shooting street photography to empower people on the streets, to show the beauty in the mundane, or to just photograph a homeless person and try to present it as ‘art’?
No matter how good your intentions are, you will always get criticism. However my suggestion is to trust your own conscience and personal sense of ethics, rather than feeling guilty about what you’re doing.
After all, if you have all the right reasons for doing what you are doing — you are doing your job as a human being to push the human race, society, and art forward. Other nay-sayers don’t know what you’re trying to do. And that is okay.
Any great art has caused backlash. The surrealists weren’t taken seriously. The impressionists weren’t taken seriously. The cubists weren’t taken seriously. And many street photographers weren’t taken seriously, until more recently.
Show the textures of humanity
Unfortunately the world isn’t all roses. There is some pretty horrible shit out there, as well as uplifting things.
I feel our job as street photographers is to show a wide-gamut of society. Not just the good, not just the bad — but the in-between.
Personally, I feel like there is already enough photos of pain, misery, and depression in the world. Moving forward, I want to create more happy, uplifting, and empowering photos. For some reason, photographers have a bias for photographing poverty, suffering, and the pain in the world.
There are very few optimistic street photos out there. Perhaps we can push forward to make these types of images?
Stay true to who you are
Ultimately your life experiences are unique. Follow your own heart. Don’t compromise your ideals. Stay true to who you are.
Photograph in a way that feels ethical, respectful, and honest to you. Listen to your own conscience; do what feels right.
And if you don’t feel comfortable street photography — either change your attitude or how you shoot.
Assignments to feel more comfortable shooting street photography
Here are some brief assignments I can think of to feel more comfortable shooting street photography:
- Feel comfortable being photographed: If you don’t like having your own photograph taken, but you photograph others, that is hypocritical. I learned this tip from the photographer Sara Lando — practice having your own portrait taken. Ask a friend, or pay a professional to do so. What makes you feel comfortable being on the other side of the camera? What makes you feel uncomfortable? Learn these lessons, and apply it on the streets.
- Talk with your subjects: You might think that your subjects on the streets don’t like having their own photograph taken. You might be wrong. The only way to know is to talk to your subjects. Practice shooting street portraits of strangers with permission. The more comfortable you are talking with strangers, the more comfortable you will be photographing them.
- Shoot self-portraits: Similar to the first assignment, but learn how to photograph yourself. Photograph yourself in the mirror, of your shadow, or with your camera on a tripod. Feel more comfortable with your own image, and then you will be more comfortable photographing others.
- Show your subject the LCD Screen: People love seeing photographs of themselves. After you photograph your subjects in the streets, show them the LCD screen. Show them what you’re trying to do — which is create art (not make fun of them). Make them a part of the shooting process. And furthermore, offer to email them a copy of the photograph (ask them which photo they like best).
- Bring your subject (or send them) a print: This is the ultimate. My friend Neil Ta once printed a photograph of this old lady in NYC, and it brought her so much joy — it brought tears to her eyes. Know that photography is a gift. Share that gift with others. When you share the gift of photography (via prints), it brings a deeper emotional reaction to your subjects. Bruce Davidson also brought prints when he was photographing his east 100th street project in NYC, of impoverished people in the housing projects. It helped build a sense of trust and community between him and his subjects.
Lastly, smile. Your smile, genuineness, and love will be your best tools when photographing in the streets.
Conquer your fears in street photography
If you want to build your confidence in street photography, read the articles below:
- Shoot What You’re Afraid Of
- You Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself
- How to Channel Your Fear into Bravery in Street Photography
- Don’t Be Afraid
- How to Overcome Your Fear in Street Photography with “Rejection Exposure Therapy”
- How to Harness Your Fear to Become a More Confident Street Photographer
- How to Avoid Paralysis by Analysis in Street Photography
- How to Become a Fearless Street Photographer
- How to Become an Invisible Street Photographer
Also read my free ebook: “31 Days to Conquer Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography.”
If you’re hungry to learn more about street photography, check out: Street Photography 101 >