Are There Any Ethics in Street Photography?

Recently I made a post on my Facebook fan page, asking the community what they wanted me to write about. One of the topics at hand which was popular was the ethics of street photography. I intend this post to showcase some of my thoughts, and also open up for discussion to the rest of the street photography community.

“I have no ethics”

I’d love to start off this article with a quote from Bruce Gilden from this video in which he says, “I have no ethics.” If you see his in-your-face style of shooting in the streets, this quote may not come to any surprise to you. He is famous for getting extremely close to people and taking photos with his wide-angle lens and flash. If you look at his images, he takes an array of photos of people in society from Japanese Yakuza Gangsters to people in Haiti.

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JAPAN. Asakasa. 1998.

When people watch videos of Bruce Gilden’s in-your-face street photography, the majority of people feel offended. People think questions along the lines of, “What right does he have to get in people’s personal space and take unsolicited photos of them?”

However I see the issue much differently. Bruce Gilden is not a “creep” nor does he intend to. In this interview with American Suburb X, he says ” I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.” This shows that Gilden isn’t out on the streets with any ill-intent to “exploit” people in any way–rather to become closer to them (mentally and physically).

Plain-du-Nord, Haiti. 1985.

When Gilden blatantly stated “I have no ethics”, I think he didn’t intend to tell the rest of us that he is a blatant asshole. Rather, he doesn’t let the sociological concept of “ethics” get in the way of him to capture the souls of the people around him. If you do a simple google search for “Bruce Gilden“, you can see none of his photos “exploit” his subjects. He doesn’t simply take photos of homeless people and frame it. Rather, he is sensitive about the context in which he captures his images. In a photo assignment in which he shot photos of downtrodden homes in Detroit titled: “Detroit: The Troubled City“, he took images of the local people in such a way to highlight the difficulties they were going through in a tasteful manner. Which gets to my next point…

Photos of homeless people isn’t art

Kirsten Bole. A photo that looks a bit “snapshotty”, but sends a strong message.

I see many aspiring street photographers on the web who merely take photos of homeless people down on their luck and label their images as “street photography.” I feel bad for these aspiring street photographers, as they simply use images of people who are experiencing poverty as a crutch for their own photographic shortcomings.

Don’t get me wrong– I do not believe that all photos of homeless people are distasteful. Sometimes it is necessary for there to be images of homeless people to raise awareness of some of the atrocious conditions that people live in. Therefore what I am stating is that if you have good intentions about helping take photos of the homeless, that is okay by my standards. However if you are shooting homeless people to simply be “artsy,” shame on you.

If you decide to take photos/portraits of homeless people, try to get to know them as human beings. Don’t look at them as “different” or strange, but someone equal to you. Have a conversation with them and lend an ear to them. I have had many conversations with homeless people on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and many homeless people just have made some poor life choices or lost their lives due to health problems, family issues, or even mental problems.

Taking photos of children doesn’t make you a pedophile

Eric Kim. I shot this from the hip with my 24mm while in Venice.

Nowadays in America with all of the scandals within the church, within the classrooms, and in public– the public is hyper-paranoid about the threat of pedophilia. If you are a male street photographer, you might have hesitated to take photos of children in the street–worried that by-standers might call you a creep, pedophile, or even call the police on you. Trust me, this is not a crazy concern. Recently I heard in the news a story of a father who was taking photos of his kids at the park who was reported to the police of being a suspected pedophile.

I personally love taking street photos of children. They have a pure soul and are seemingly oblivious to the camera. In-fact, Robert Doisneau also loved shooting photos of children in the streets of Paris, having all sorts of fun (and trouble).

Robert Doisneau. Shooting a photo like this can now get you jailed.

However how can you deal with the issue of being suspected as a pedophile when shooting in the streets?

  1. Ask. If you want to play it safe, you can always ask the parents for their permission and explain that you are a photographer (even offer to email them the photo).
  2. Don’t dress like a creep in public and shoot with a telephoto lens. If you are wearing dark clothing, have a scruffy beard, and a 70-200 lens, don’t expect if people think you are a pedophile.
  3. Act calm. Shooting street photography is 80% mental. Have the mindset that you are shooting to capture the pure emotions of children, rather than trying to be a creep. This will have a dramatic effect on your posture, pace of walking, as well as your other body motions. You will be surprised how less threatened people will be around you when you do this.

Only you can define “ethics”

Matt Stuart. Do you think this is an “ethical” shot? It’s your opinion.

For everybody “ethics” means something else. If you ask an lawyer what “ethics” means, he or she would probably bust out a legal book and give you a very lengthy and official answer. However ask it to the average person, and they would give you an answer which co-incited with their personal upbringing/culture/heritage.

Ethics is in the eye of the beholder. If you take images which you feel are exploiting of other people, it is. This is because you are the final person in determining what is and what isn’t exploitative. Do you get up in peoples’ faces like Bruce Gilden and take photos of them when they don’t want you to but don’t think it is exploiting? If your intent is to showcase the people in your everyday life doing ordinary things, it isn’t exploitative.

So the next time you are shooting on the streets, think deep and hard about your mission as a street photographer. Are you trying to exploit the people in the street, or capture the their beauty and soul? You always have the final say.

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