Expression Always Has Costs: The Issue of Street Photography and Ethics

"Hollywood Boulevard"  © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand
“Hollywood Boulevard” © 1984 The Estate of Garry Winogrand

Eric’s Note: This article is written by Mike Aviña, a street photographer based in the Bay Area. You can see his work featured on the blog here and an article he wrote about shooting street photography with the iPhone 5

Mike: The street photography blogosphere has been buzzing lately with discussions about ethics. A recent review published by the San Francisco Chronicle started much of the fire. Jorg Colberg posted his own rant. Street photographers responded on their own blogs and online forums. The debate settled into two general camps and shots were fired between the two. Some argued that we should be more sensitive in how we approach people, others ranted that because the law protects us (at least in the United States), we can do as we like. There’s a bit more going on here and at stake. Street photographers, the art world, and the public at large must remember why photography in the public space is protected expression in many countries.

The long line of thinking is this: freedom of expression is both rooted in our individual freedom and that expression provides something good to society: a range of ideas. The wider the range of expression; the wider the continuum of ideas that are available.

This is not news; but I think there is a point that is being missed. Photographs form part of the continuum of ideas; if we as photographers restrict the way we shoot in public, or allow society to restrict our work, we all lose.

Two of the most important functions photographs serve within the realm of ideas are their power to depict political and emotional experience.

For example, Winogrand’s shots are distinctly political: they show the upheaval and tensions in our society at his time. This example from Los Angeles (“Hollywood Boulevard” in the title of this post) provides a stark comparison of the complacent and fortunate members of society and the less fortunate. If Winogrand used a more “respectful” approach; an approach perhaps favored by Millner, he would not have left us this image.

Other shots that may be “intrusive” or “disrespectful” according to Millner and Colberg actually show us how things feel. When I watch Gilden’s “The Rat Story” (video embedded above) I always think “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels…” the glare, content, and angle of his images correspond to the texture of emotional life in big cities: stressful, disjointed, at times harsh. These kinds of expressions would not be possible, would not have as much fidelity to how things actually look and feel, had Winogrand or Gilden used a different approach.

Expression always has costs; for a photograph made in a public space those costs are carried in part by the subject. Other forms of expression have associated costs. Millner clearly takes issue with Winogrand; as the subject of her rant his work bears a certain albeit incalculable cost. In the United States, these costs have been balanced carefully against the value of expression. Courts have decided that expression in the public space outweighs the individual’s interest in privacy because expression is so valuable to society.

While each photographer has to decide how best to work, we would all do well to keep in mind the larger values at stake. I do not want to encourage anyone to use an aggressive approach or antagonize the people in their images. I do want to provide a brief reminder of the function of photography, as a form of protected expression, and how that expression balances against the concerns Millner and Colberg raise.

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What is your take when it comes to street photography and ethics? How do you view Winogrand’s work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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