The Uncomfortable Truth About Street Photography

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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.

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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.

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