Photolosophy 101: Don’t Photograph Others the Way You Wouldn’t Want to Be Photographed

The silver rule of ethics in photography: Don’t photograph others the way you wouldn’t want to be photographed. Much thanks to Nassim Taleb (Skin in the game book) for the idea and inspiration.


According to Nassim Taleb, the Silver Rule (Don’t do onto others as you don’t want others to do unto you) is better than the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you want others to do unto you). More info in his book, “Skin in the game”.


Well, the golden rule of ethics assumes we all want to be treated the same. And that’s not true. I personally love fatty lamb racks, and according to the golden rule, I would want to give everyone delicious fatty lamb racks. However this isn’t smart, as I shouldn’t superimpose lamb unto my vegetarian or vegan friends. But also similarly, vegans and vegetarians shouldn’t superimpose their eating habits unto omnivores like myself and others.

The silver rule isn’t perfect, but it’s more robust and better as an ethical rule. We generally don’t know how people like to be treated, but we often know how people don’t like to be treated.

With ethics in my real life with Cindy, I follow the personal rule for myself:

Don’t do things unto Cindy which would annoy me, if she did it to me.

Or also,

If Cindy does something that annoys me, I should never in any circumstances be petty and vengeful, and do it to her as well.

Now these ethics get very interesting when it comes to photography, especially street photography:

Don’t shoot others the way you wouldn’t want to be photographed.

For example, if you were homeless — would you like someone photographing you without your permission? If I were homeless, I wouldn’t like it if they showed my face. But if a street photographer photographed me not showing my face, I wouldn’t mind. Also, if the photographer talked with me, engaged me, and treated me as a human being, I wouldn’t mind being photographed.

A few years ago, I did a video with Kaiman Wong on Digital rev, shooting street photography in Hong Kong. I dressed like a pirate, and tourists photographed me on their phones. I actually liked the attention and being photographed! Therefore I have no ethical qualms photographing others with or without permission.

So friend, to conclude — don’t shoot others how you wouldn’t like to be shot.

Our ethics are all different — so simply, try to put yourself in the shoes of others.

If you’re a street photographer and you don’t like being photographed yourself, I encourage yourself to confront yourself, and understand why not? Do you not like your own self image, or are you self conscious for some other reason?

No right or wrong answers here — just be brutally honest with yourself.

Also, never let anyone superimpose their photographic code of ethics onto you (ethic tyrants).


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