The Uncomfortable Truth About Street Photography

The Uncomfortable Truth About Street Photography

0Comments

Smiley Face, SoHo, NYC.

As someone who has photographed people candidly since I first picked up a camera over 15 years ago, there is something that needs to be said to everyone that is interested in street photography.

Yes, what we’re doing has importance, whether through the angle of documenting history, noticing interesting moments, fostering ideas, or creating art. These photographs will have cultural value to them in the future, and most of us capture culture and humanity because we like them. We like people. We like to people watch.

Many photographers have been drawn to this genre before even realizing that it has a name, and this helps us realize that this way of viewing the world is instinctive to some people. It comes naturally. I remember picking up my first camera in New York. I could have easily looked up at the tall skyscrapers and epic architecture, and I did and still do, but the people walking around seemed just as fascinating.

Duck Face, SoHo, NYC.

Yes, it’s legal, at least if you’re in the United State and Britain. Yes, it’s within our rights to do this in public, and to share these images as art and for cultural purposes. No, it doesn’t make us bad people.

Street photography will make some people uncomfortable

But no, everything that I just mentioned does not completely free us from culpability out there. We have to consider that the practice of street photography can be inherently uncomfortable to our subjects. Some will understand what we are doing, but others will be weirded out by a stranger capturing a photo of them suddenly in public, whether it is in an obvious or a more candid way. Morality, cultural importance, and the good things that we are trying to create should all be put aside here, so that you realize there is a tradeoff going on. We are creating uncomfortable situations for others.

Student, Broadway

Some would even argue that it is a virtue to create a little uncomfort out there, and that we all need to be thrown off balance every once in awhile. I agree with this statement, but I still realize that there is a negative side to what I am doing.

Some people do not like that we are taking their photograph. Some would not be happy seeing the photograph afterwards. No matter how hard you try, you cannot avoid those people through your daily shooting.

Love, Midtown

This is something that you will have to come to terms with if you practice street photography. You can have a smile on your face and talk to anyone who seems uncomfortable with your presence with a camera. You can tell them that you did not mean to make them uncomfortable, and you can even offer to delete a photo if the person really doesn’t like it. You can do all of those things, but still you need to know that you are making people uncomfortable.

Yes, you.

I’m not saying that this should stop you from doing it, or slow you down, but it should be in the back of your head. It’s a privilege that we are allowed to do this, and we need to respect our subjects in the way that we shoot, even if there is no choice but to occasionally make someone uncomfortable. You can choose who it is you photograph, and the way and situations in which you photograph, but you will never be able to completely get rid of this.

Broadway Joe, SoHo, NYC.

Learn to live with it and accept it as you photograph people, but don’t ignore it.

Do you do street photography? How do you handle this uncomfortable aspect of this kind of photography? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Robin Hart-Jones

    I love Street Photography but I am a coward so mostly do it secretly with a telephoto. The only time I do it openly is at public events where people are in costume as anyone dressing up to appear in public is usually happy to be photographed (though that does not necessarily apply to people dressing in outre clothes just to walk down the high street)

  • Joel

    Yes, street festivals are the best! Great opportunities abound and you’re right, people love to be snapped while they are in costume. Great pic!

  • James Jensen

    Ya always a good idea to tie law enforcement with your crazy ways..

  • James Jensen

    how ignorant

  • Bubba Jones

    “…It’s morally wrong on so many levels to take a persons photo without their permission no matter how “interesting” you find them…” Please explain why?

    As we all walk down the street, there are a gazillion CCTV cameras from businesses capturing folks outside on the streets as well as CCTV cameras inside businesses. Also, as we drive our cars there are businesses, and private homes constantly capturing images of the inside and outside of their homes which includes streets. Because of those cameras and private citizens with cameras many a perpetrator has become apprehended. All those captured without permission, are those morally wrong as well?

    Without the people images from Vivian Maier, Mathew Brady, HCB, Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Frank Capa, the list goes on, all contributed to the view of the past, we would not have historical images of places activities and people.

    Sir, you are very uninformed, too thin skinned, and too sensitive. Now, if you do not like your image captured I can live with that, but truly nothing to get your Bob’s in a wad over. Oh yes, I would welcome you following me around the street, you could learn something useful; how to be rational.

  • Nuno Moz

    I think it is a privilege. How I handle it? Has I handle life.

  • Eduardo Acosta

    Lol! That will make for great pictures so go ahead.

  • Gireesh Chandra

    Very interesting artcle and comments. I think it is not one individual or a group of people that a street Photographer is after, it is the story that is unfolding in a street that he is seeking to capture. Recently I was having dinner at a Tibetan restaurant in Ladakh in Kashmir with a lawyer friend (both of us are Indians). I wanted to take a picture of a six month old baby sitting at the cash counter while his mother was seen in the background, face partially visible, giving instructions to a cook through a counter which also revealed part of the kitchen and a steaming pot in the stove. My friend suggested I should take permission and I said I was capturing a story, not any individual in particular. None of the persons seen in the frame could anyway be identified. My friend said opening a restaurant implies invitation to come inside, but to do business, and it would make sense to take permission if it involved taking pictures. I still do not have the answer but as others have pointed out here, would act as per situation…by the way I did not take the picture as I got distracted by the discussion. My loss. Discretion is key..

  • Gireesh Chandra

    Very interesting artcle by James Maher and equally interesting comments. I guess it is not one individual or a group of people that a street Photographer is after, it is the story that is unfolding in a street that he is seeking to capture. Recently I was having dinner at a Tibetan restaurant in Ladakh in Kashmir with a lawyer friend (both of us are Indians). I wanted to take the picture of a six month old baby sitting at the cash counter while his mother was seen in the background, face partially visible, giving instructions to a cook through a counter which also revealed part of the kitchen and a steaming pot in the stove. My friend suggested I should take permission and I said I was capturing a story, not any individual in particular. None of the persons seen in the frame could anyway be identified. My friend said opening a restaurant implies invitation to come inside, but to do business, and it would make sense to take permission if it involved taking pictures. I still do not have the answer but as others have pointed out here, would act as per situation…by the way I did not take the picture as I got distracted by the discussion. My loss. Discretion is key..

  • Old_Time_Hoosier

    To me, street photography is like wildlife photography. If your subject(s) know you’re there the photograph is ruined. Blend into the background. Sometimes, though, it helps to be obvious. An example of each https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/491a50eaf3813336092001f3d338631845e0c5e0582bc0049d8e1d17f572b295.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c25e4994d9fbcfd10898787eb2329bad35a899d58bb421751cb59618e34e7155.jpg

  • On people getting angry when I take there photo candidly – I have had that happen to me a few times. Of course their angry attitude make me less responsive to their demands. Now if people do not want their photo taken, and ask me not to, I will comply. Of course once in awhile, I will get the “middle finger” from someone – which makes me laugh and think, you just made my photo even more interesting 🙂 The most important thing I have learned, do not argue with people, you will never win and they will never understand – walk away……

  • Please! Calling would 911 would surely get you in trouble with the police – that is for real emergencies. Do you call the police when you go into stores that have security cameras everywhere 🙂 Those camera are watching even move you make!

  • I love when people give the “one finger salute” I just look at that as people saying I’m #1

  • Geoffn

    I never ask permission, James. To me that’s the whole point: capturing a natural, unposed scenario. Fortunately most of my targets aren’t aware that they’re the subject matter; that’s a question of technique and experience. As ‘traveller 66’ suggests being stationary and allowing the subject to move is one way to deflect attention. Also situations where cameras are everywhere – like markets, tourist attractions or city centres – help mask your intentions.
    But for me most good images need to be confrontations of one sort or another. A rear head shot, or a figure walking away, just doesn’t do it for me. So there’s always the possibility that you’ll be observed and that’s something you have to accept and deal with. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ede3b524d7546ce21539f3a1464d82d8f0575e6d54266843b9cb1abc3d336afe.jpg

  • graham hutton

    I haven’t done any yet, but now i’ve gone and got myself a mirrorless M5 it will make it a lot easier. I live in UK and intend to just sit on a bench in the town centre to see what comes along. I take photographs of people all the time, but they are on stage playing geetars etc. different situation, but still people.

  • Name Berrie

    I only started doing “Street Photography” after I got fed up with people walking into my photos….You know, the ones of churches, castles, and nature’s beauty. Ever since then, when someone “catches” me photographing them, I act as if they were the ones ruining my photo. It seems to work. Cheating, I guess…..but that is how it all began.

  • Phil White

    You are quite right 😉

  • Phil White

    It depends what you point at a person. I have experimented with my small mirrorless camera as well as my iphone. Nobody takes any notice of the iphone because it is a something people are socially aware of but a camera always receives a different reaction, not always negative but people are more aware of you when you are holding a camera no matter what it’s size is.

  • Phil White

    Do you own a mobile/cell phone? if you do you gave up your right to privacy long ago. Google and the like know exactly where you are and what you are doing. I find most people actually like having their photo taken. Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame and find it flattering when they realise you have taken their picture. If the person isn’t impressed and questions me I remove the photo and respect their wishes. Basically some people are easy going and some people are highly strung and miserable.

  • Phil White

    I find the busier the place the easier it is especially if the place has many tourists who are out and about taking photos, it’s easier to blend in as a tourist.

  • Phil White

    That is a good idea, I might get some cards printed myself.

  • Emmanuel Nambu

    Check out this collection of some awesome lightroom presets of popular photographers here’s the link http://oke.io/N8OGVKWg
    You are welcome

  • Please bear with me, this is relevant; have been reading about what is probably one of the most significant events in the history of the 20th Century – the “Norway Debate” of 8th May 1940. Essentially, this was a British Parliamentary session in which it became clear that the current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had lost the confidence of the House. It paved the way for Winston Churchill to become our war time leader.

    Photography (I told you) was banned in the House of Commons but it did not stop John Moore-Brabazon from sneaking in a Minox spy camera to take some pictures of this incredible point in our history. The pictures are technically bad; out of focus, underexposed, etc, but they are the only visual record.

    We rely on photographs now because we have over a hundred years of candid photography that gives us a wonderful insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people. In a modest way, they are remembered and perhaps cherished.

    Street photography, is by its nature, spontaneous. It is almost artistically impossible to convey the same authenticity if it was otherwise. By all means exercise discretion and sensitivity, but if, somehow, this activity was banned, we would lose a wonderful gift to future generations.

  • Suuz

    I find the lack of concern for privacy in some of the comments worrying. That is not to say that street photography is per definition bad or that we should stop altogether. I too do not go up to every single person I photograph, although I do when they are clearly recognizable. Globalization, TV, social media, in my opinion these have changed everything. You cannot say in my opinion that someone who enters the public space gives up all their right to privacy. I don’t ask to be recognised in China or whoknowswhere just because I go grocery shopping in my neighborhood. Just because legally you’re allowed to do a lot, doesn’t mean it is always ethical. That you do not always ask for persmission is one thing, that you do not care for someone’s privacy and get offended when someone is rightfully angry at you is another. It is up for everyone themselves to decide how they view this, but I think privacy is important and it is fair to either keep your distance and photograph people unrecognisable or ask permission (aside from those people clearly involved in public performances or speeches etc.). Someone mentioned “but there’s cctv everywhere anyways”: yes and they’re mostly in the hands of the right people and not publicly available. When you publish your photograph it becomes publicly available.

    So in conclusion for me; it’s not about comfortable/uncomfortable. I just want people to at least think about the ethics of their photos and their actions and how they may affect people in different ways (someone mentioned witness protection as an example, but also more generally, whether this person might want to be found anywhere and everywhere, looking like they do in that very moment).

  • Michael Gaskell

    In Europe you are allowed to take photographs of people in the street without their consent as long as they are not the primary subject, which seems reasonable to me.

  • Jeri Baker

    You are so right on.

  • Jeri Baker

    Better option is grab their camera and chuck it down really hard on the ground and say I thought you were going to attack me. Some of you folks need to have to replace or repair a few cameras and lenses once in awhile.

  • Name Berrie

    I started deliberately taking pictures of people in public places when I found that every time I tried to photograph something, sans people, some person walked right into my frame. So, in essence, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. So, if you walk in front of me, be prepared to be photographed….if you are in the least bit interesting looking.

  • And OK for editorial reasons.

  • Very true…. Seems people want to do their street photography on the sly. The worst thing you can do in street photography is be sneaky. If they see you, give them the thumbs up…… or just pretend you are shooting beyond them.

  • Yes, now that is a bad photographer….I never follow someone and keep snapping and snapping. There is many more interesting people and situations to shoot most of the time.

  • That will surely get the photographer calling 911…. and maybe you arrested for assault.

  • Very true…. The police have solved crimes that have been committed, with the help of photographers, who had taken photos during the time of the crime.

  • When I’m out and about most times snapping photos, people are way to busy to notice me…….on their cell phone and jabbering with their friends. I would guess most people do not even notice you taking their photo… or think you are shooting something else.

  • Very true!

  • Gireesh Chandra

    We take pictures to tell a story. It is the story that is being told in a photograph, rather than capturing or disclosing a person’s identity. Photographers should ask themselves this question-what is the purpose of the picture. In a story, there would be several elements including people. So long as our focus is the story and not the people, even if they are in the frame, I think we have the right to take that picture. One example–a baby sitting in the cashier’s seat in a restaurant while it’s Mom and elder brother or sister seen in the background working in the kitchen. But making clear your intention to take a picture will make people relaxed.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed