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The Uncomfortable Truth About Street Photography

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
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.

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