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How to Overcome Guilt in Street Photography

One interesting thing I’ve noticed in a lot of street photographers which debilitates them from shooting street photography: the feeling of guilt of photographing a stranger without their permission, the feeling of guilt that they are “bothering” or “upsetting” their subjects, and the feeling of guilt that what they’re doing is inherently wrong or “evil”.


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Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography

Become the best street photographer possible by picking up a copy of Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography. This book is full of all my distilled knowledge and wisdom on street photography over the last 10 years, crafted specifically to empower you in street photography.

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What is guilt?

To start, let us analyze guilt. What is guilt, where does it come from, and how does it manifest in our lives and in street photography?

Guilt: a painful psychological spur that embeds itself into our mind; a self-inflicted punishment that we have done something “evil” and “wrong”.

Now, I think that guilt is something that is more socialized than something that is biologically embedded into ourselves from birth.

For example, in different societies and cultures, notions of “good” and “evil” are different. By doing something “evil” in a certain culture, you’re trained (by your parents and society) to feel bad, or to feel guilt.

For example, Asian Confucian cultures have trained you to feel guilt for disobeying your parents. But in the rebellious and individualistic culture of America, to disobey your parents seems to be the norm, and not that big of a deal — almost to be expected.


Ethics are socialized

Anyways, this notion of photographing people without their permission to be a “bad”, “rude”, or “evil” thing is totally socialized. In some cultures in the world (Southeast Asia, India) people don’t really care being photographed. In fact, your problem is having people not pose for you in the photos.

In the Western world (America, Europe, Australia, etc) there seems to be more paranoia about being photographed. There is a fear of pedophiles, fear of privacy, etc. But these are all socialized modern concepts. The camera hasn’t existed as an instrument for very long — and it seems that we are still quite unsure how to feel being photographed.


You don’t harm people by making their photo

Let us consider the physical fact of making a photo.

You lift up a little metal box, and you press a button. That’s it. What is so offensive about the action motion and act of making a photograph? Nothing.

Yet of course, people are more offended that somehow that you are “taking” or “stealing” their soul or image by using a photo capture device. And if we think about the physics, who owns the photons that bounces off their bodies?

Anyways, you’re not harming anybody by making photos of them. You’re not physically touching anyone when you take their photo. The only perhaps aggressive thing that can “harm” someone else is shooting with a flash at full power at night, when the harshness and brightness of the flash can cause visual pain to the eyeballs of your subjects. But otherwise, taking a photo of someone without their permission does them no physical harm.


Why do your subjects get upset or offended?

I’ve noticed that sometimes people get angry if you take their photo, if that individual has something to hide.

Man with hand over face. Tokyo, 2017
Man with hand over face. Tokyo, 2017

For example, let’s say you make a photograph of a nice coupe in the streets (a man and a woman). But what if the man is cheating on his wife with this woman? You’ve just captured “evidence” that he’s cheating on his wife. Thus, the man might get aggressive and threaten you, and try to get you to delete the photograph, because he (of course) doesn’t what the “proof” that he is cheating on his wife to somehow exist in the world.

Tokyo woman with hand. 1.2 meters, flash, Kodak Tri-X 400, Leica M6, 35mm
Tokyo woman with hand. 1.2 meters, flash, Kodak Tri-X 400, Leica M6, 35mm

Also sometimes when I photograph certain marketplaces, people don’t like to be photographed because what they are doing is illegal (like selling puppies, birds, etc). Or sometimes some people are illegal immigrants, and they are just afraid that you might be some undercover immigration officer or something.


Prepare for the worst case scenario

Japanese suit with hand on face. Tokyo.
Japanese suit with hand on face. Tokyo.

Also realize in street photography, sooner or later you’re going to piss someone off or offend someone. It’s like driving a car, it’s not a matter if you will ever get into an accident or not, it is a matter of when you will get into an accident.

Man with hand in light. Istanbul, 2014
Man with hand in light. Istanbul, 2014

Thus the practical advice is this:

Prepare how you are going to respond to an angry subject when one day you do piss someone off.

For myself, when I get people who confront me in an angry or aggressive manner, I will generally just apologize and just keep walking on. At this point I don’t feel any guilt for photographing a stranger without their permission, because I know I’m not doing anything wrong. Yet, I still apologize, because it makes others feel better. And I just walk on and keep moving, because if you stand still and apologize too much, some people will use this opportunity to try to bully you, threaten to call the cops, or try to force you to delete the photo. But realize, it is your legal right to photograph anything and anyone in a public space. And if people put a hand or finger on you, they’re breaking the law, and you can technically sue them.

Jazz hands. Hollywood, 2011
Jazz hands. Hollywood, 2011

That means often it is good for you to stand up for yourself. Be nice, and say something like, “I’m sorry that I offended you and upset you. But I don’t delete photos.” That’s it. No need to overly apologize. And if they threaten to call the cops, stand your ground and let the cops come. You’re not doing anything wrong. I’ve had the cops called on me a few times, and when the cops come, they tell the subject that I’m in the legal right to photograph them, and they tell us just to move along.

Man with hand on face. Prague, 2017. Shot on Leica M240
Man with hand on face. Prague, 2017.

Never let anyone bully you in the streets, especially considering the fact that you’re an artist. You’re capturing and documenting beauty in the streets. You’re doing a good thing by shooting street photography. Don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty for shooting street photography, and certainly don’t feel guilty yourself.


How do you feel being photographed?

Macro mode. Cindy with hands on face. Red, Kyoto 2017
Cindy with hands on face. Red, Kyoto 2017

If you feel guilty photographing others, ask yourself:

“How do I feel being photographed?”

If you don’t like being photographed, ask yourself,

“Why not?”

Abstract. Cindy with hands on face. Red, Kyoto 2017
Abstract. Cindy with hands on face. Red, Kyoto 2017

Do you not like the way you look? Do you dislike the proportions of your face? Do you not like your body image (you don’t like the excess body fat on your body?) Do you not like the way your eyes, teeth, cheeks, forehead, chin, or something else?

If you don’t like being photographed, you’re going to make the wrong assumption that others don’t like being photographed. Because the truth is, there are many people in the world (like myself) who like being photographed.

Cindy with hand on chin. Red. Kyoto, 2017
Cindy with hand on chin. Red. Kyoto, 2017

Most of us follow the “silver rule” of ethics: Don’t do unto others as you don’t like others doing unto you. Which means, if you don’t like being photographed, you’re going to assume everyone else doesn’t like to be photographed.

Abstract. Cindy with hand on chin. Red. Kyoto, 2017
Abstract. Cindy with hand on chin. Red. Kyoto, 2017

But this line of thinking is wrong, because you assume that everyone else in the world thinks like you. And the truth is, we all think differently. Therefore you cannot always use your own mind as a reference point for the thinking of everyone else in the world.

Cindy with framed hands. Saigon, 2017
Cindy with framed hands. Saigon, 2017

I’m lucky because I like being photographed, and I generally assume that others don’t mind being photographed. Of course I know that there are some people who don’t like being photographed, but I still shoot anyways. Why? Because I feel that my duty as a street photographer of making beautiful and important photographs of modern society is more important than (slightly) annoying or offending someone else.

Hand tattoo. Amsterdam, 2017
Hand tattoo. Amsterdam, 2017

Therefore another practical idea:

To overcome the feeling of guilt of shooting street photographs of strangers, realize that your DUTY as a street photographer is more important than the (slight) annoyance you might give others.

Woman with hand. Green, red. Chicago, 2015
Woman with hand. Green, red. Chicago, 2015

And once again, this is an ethical thing. For myself, I believe that the collective of humanity (and the future of humanity) is more important than the individual.

For example, if I could make a photograph that inspires 100 people but mildly upsets 1 person (the subject), I can still sleep at night.

Man with hand on face. Sapa, 2017
Man with hand on face. Sapa, 2017

But this is just ERIC KIM ethics. Follow your own code of ethics in your street photography and life. But if you feel guilt in street photography and no longer want to feel that guilt, just follow my lead.


Creating your own code of ethics in street photography (and life)

Yellow Man with hands in prayer. Wisconsin, 2017. Pentax 645Z.
Yellow tones. Man with hands in prayer. Wisconsin, 2017. Pentax 645Z.

I am anti dogma, and anti tyranny. Which means, you MUST create your own code of ethics for your street photography and life. There are no ultimate “right” or “wrong” in ethics.

Suit in the bathroom washing his hands at whole foods. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Man washing hands in bathroom. Yellow background, and face obstructed.

As the “invincible order of Assasins” (an Islamic sect founded in the eleventh century) once said,

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

Which means, there is no ultimate set of “right” and “wrong” or “true” and “false” in life. Rather, we must dictate our own personal ethics and rules of good/bad, right/wrong.

Don’t feel guilty

New Orleans, 2017.
New Orleans, 2015

Thus to conclude, realize that you shouldn’t feel guilty for shooting street photography. Realize that feelings of guilt come within yourself, and you have the power to change your own code of ethics.

Hanoi, 2017

Whatever code of ethics was thrust upon you as a child, realize you have the control to challenge, evaluate, and change your code of ethics.

BE STRONG,
ERIC


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Master Street Photography

Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Mastering Street Photography
Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography

Become the best street photographer possible by picking up a copy of Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Mastering Street Photography. This book is full of all my distilled knowledge and wisdom on street photography over the last 10 years, crafted specifically to empower you in street photography.

For more free resources, presets, and PDF visualizations on street photography, join my free ERIC KIM NEWSLETTER to stay inspired and empowered.

Also join ERIC KIM EXPERIENCE if you want to take your street photography to the next level and conquer your fears and meet new peers.

To join a positive and passionate community, share your photos in ERIC KIM FORUM. Look forward to having you friend :)


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