The Uncomfortable Truth About Street Photography

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 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.

  • traveller 66

    I am 70 years old and became seriously interested in photography, especially the black/white street variety about three years ago.Generally speaking, I try to melt into the back ground when in the city and have found it to be a useful strategy to stand in a single fixed position on one side and let the people traffic move towards and around me, as opposed to marching forward and thrusting a camera into faces. I have found that when my subjects move, as opposed to me moving, it helps to diffuse negative reactions as others are moving into ‘my space’ as opposed to the opposite.

  • Gunnar FN

    With an open heart and always knowing all won’t be happy. To me it’s social interaction process and it’s a mutual thing in between people…

  • Cathy

    Great article. I love street photography but hate to make people uncomfortable so occasionally hold back. What rights do you have for use of these photos without a model release?

  • I’m personally quite socially awkward around strangers, so I really don’t like street photography (doing it, not looking at photos that were taken that way). Moreover, I know there was some kind of big controversy about it where I live, so it makes me uneasy to even try it. I prefer flowers and leaves, they’re usually pretty okay with me stepping in their bubble.

  • Archie Macintosh

    Man to Winogrand: “Don’t take my picture!”
    Garry Winogrand: “It’s not your picture: it’s my picture”

  • Irene Pomianowski

    I try to pretend I’m focusing on something else, such as a piece of architecture, but it doesn’t always work! Fortunately as a non-threatening older woman, I usually get a positive response. The photo below is an example.

  • David Moh

    Well… in some cases… after or before I am busted, I will just ask to take their photo.

    After that, I’ll try to take the candid which is the photography I’m looking to actually capture.

  • sjusju

    I actually like the last one the most. A bit of interaction with the subject can do no harm. 🙂

  • jernewm

    It’s interesting that the various tutorials I’ve seen either advocate asking permission and shooting close or not asking and shooting from a distance. I do some of both depending on the situation. If there is someone who is particularly interesting to me, I’ll ask their permission to take pictures of them and am rarely refused. If I feel I got some good shots, I’ll sometimes ask if they would like me to email them jpegs or sometimes they will ask for a picture. As an example, I met this fellow on a walk and he saw my camera and asked me to take his picture and send him a copy, which I did.
    Most of my shots are not close up and done without notification to the subject(s) unless I can 1) I think it is going to be a great picture and 2) I can find or get to them. The second picture was taken in St. Petersburg Russia, without the young woman’s knowledge.
    At events or “newsy” happenings I assume the speaker is aware they will be photographed and I usually do not inform them. If it is an audience member, I do try to get permission.
    If someone objects to being photographed, I always offer to delete the picture out of courtesy. One person angrily asked if I knew if they might be in a witness protection program. Most appreciate being asked and say it’s OK.
    When ever I photograph children, I always, always find the parent and ask permission. Sadly I have some pictures where I didn’t ask and I’ve been advised not to show them. Unfortunately that includes my favorite picture of a young girl fascinated by a butterfly.
    I enjoy street photography even with it’s potential issues. People are always fascinating.

  • Alex harrison

    Honestly as layperson with a interest in photography I’d be really creeped out if you did this to me. It’s morally wrong on so many levels to take a persons photo without their permission no matter how “interesting” you find them.

    People have a right to dictate whether or not they are photographed (and in this case have said photos publish on the internet) and not be followed around by some “non-threatening older woman” stalker. It’s just creepy what you do, and if you did that to me I’d call 911 in a heart beat. Now I’m gonna go grab my camera and follow YOU around on the street.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Call 911 because someone is armed with a camera? You’d be told to deal with it. I doubt that you’d follow anyone with a camera, but nice try.

  • CoffeeNut98

    You’re still ignoring that mans right to privacy. Following people around without their knowledge and or consent would warrant a restraining order in most states so why is it ok in this case? Is it because she tried to be a “photographer” and “Cartier-Bresson” like?

    (of course these photos were taken on the street but still most people forget who they see in a heart be where as these digital photos will last indefinitely)

  • There is a street photog in my city who once followed me several blocks taking pictures. I was so pissed. I found his flikr and all the subjects of his photos have the same irritated expressions on their faces.

  • Irene Pomianowski

    As you can see from the smile on the young man’s face, he was amused rather than frightened by an elderly woman with a camera. Incidentally, I did not “stalk” them, but happened to notice them as I walked down 34th Street. Street photography genre has been practiced for many years by outstanding photographers, with their photographs in museums, art books, magazines and newspapers. Would you apply the adjective “creepy” to them?

  • Irene Pomianowski

    Thanks for your comment. I may just have to test the “Call 911” if CoffeeNut follows through on the threat “I’m gonna go grab my camera and follow YOU around on the street.”

  • Irene Pomianowski

    Thanks. There is often a connection that will show in the photograph.

  • Irene Pomianowski

    I’ve done a little better than “tried to be a photographer.” I’ve actually had photographs accepted for juried exhibitions. And yes, I admire the work of Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand, Raghu Rai, Lee Friedlander, etc. …all those “creepy” guys!

  • Apostolis Tsi

    Most of the times I try to avoid photographing people. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable and it’s something I wouldn’t want them to do to me. In the rarest of the cases when I do, I black them out so as not to show any details, as below.

  • Vaun Fiedler

    I occasionally do street photography. I have only been using my smartphone so it is a little less noticeable. But sometimes the subjects still notice, and you’re right, it does make some people uncomfortable.

  • ItIsMe1979

    Nice try CoffeeNut, but you clearly know nothing about the law.

    You have zero right to privacy when on a public street. You can’t get a restraining order because someone took your picture either. If you call 911 because someone took your photo, you can actually get yourself in legal trouble for using 911 in this instance when people have actual emergencies and need help.
    And no one here is “following people around”, so you also don’t know crap about street photography either.

    What a totally knuckleheaded rant you’ve gone on. None of your righteous indignation has a single thing to do with the law, so find another way to try to make your point. If you can find one.

    An Actual Lawyer

  • Chip Albritton

    I disagree about the “right” to not be photographed. I feel if you are in public you have given up that “right” …follow me if you wish …you will most likely get bored LOL

  • Yalpri Img

    I get prepared to shot, if they don’t see me, I shot, if it caught my attention enough, I keep shooting. If they see me and smile or do something approving, I keep shooting; if they make a disapproval face I stop, race my hand and say sorry. When its about small children and they are with parents or someone who looks in charge, I ask for permission verbally or showing my camera.

  • Joel

    Sometrimes it’s better to just stand back and let it happen.

  • Cindy

    Many years ago I took a photography course and was taught that anytime you photograph people, you MUST get a model’s release first if you intended to use that photograph for anything but personal reasons. This, of course did not include your own family photos. But now it seems that nobody is talking model release with taking photos of people. Personally, I don’t care for street photography, and I generally do not like people in any of my photos, but I do realize that sometimes having people in a photo can enhance something in the photo, such as dimension of objects or mountains, etc. But because of prior teaching, and part of this comes from the desire to sell photos, any recognizable person in the photo needs to sign a model release prevents me from ever having people in my photos. So, what is the truth about this?

  • If you do not have a model release you can only use the images for personal use (website, facebook page), editorial (for a magazine story) or educational use. You cannot sell it for stock or use it to sell a product.

  • Exactly people give non-verbal permission too. If they do not put up their hand (or one select finger) then they likely do not mind. If people express discomfort or ask you not to take their photo – then don’t. It’s that simple. No police need be involved and yes that is a waste of 911 time and resources.

  • that’s a bit extreme most don’t do that

  • Thanks for the comment! Yes it helps so much to pick a spot and let everything happen around you. People notice and care so much less that way and you’re also able to pay attention to your surroundings more.

  • Yup! I mean we do this cause we like people, right?

  • To further Darlene’s comment, this also depends on the country. Check your laws. In the US and UK you have these rights but I believe it is illegal entirely if the person is noticeable in France and Germany.

  • It’s not an easy practice – both to do it well and to get comfortable enough to do it.

  • “Now you’re famous” 🙂

  • Yeah I’ll do the same sometimes. Look up at a building and then bring my camera down after and take the photo, for some situations. Most people out there are fine with it when they understand what you’re doing.

  • These photos are very important to capture life and culture around us. What would we do without old photos where the people are part of them? In the US there is no right to privacy in public, but even moreso you can’t expect that you will not be captured walking around in public.

    Following is one thing but just capturing an image is not that bad.

  • Following around is completely different from taking a picture. And we’re doing this because we like people and people watching. This does not have to be a bad thing.

  • 🙂

  • Thanks for the explanation but make sure to say this is for the U.S. (and UK). The laws are different in Germany and France and some other countries.

    Some of the most important photos in history were taken because a photographer happened to be out walking in public! They are important.

  • Yup – take the photo and then ask!

  • Thanks for this comment – I think most people teach to get close and to try and be candid, but it’s really up to the photographer. No right or wrong way. Look at Saul Leiter.

  • Yikes! That’s horrible.

  • A lot of people do it with phones, but there is the tradeoff that if you get caught taking a photo with one it can look even creepier than with a camera 🙂 I just like to carry business cards should I need to explain myself.

  • In the U.S. or U.K. you do not need a release for artistic or education purposes. For commercial and advertising purposes you do. You can sell these as art without a release.

  • Rita Hogan

    Maybe the irritated expressions on the faces were his goal…maybe that was the look he was shooting for!

  • waynewerner

    You do have the right to dictate whether or not you’re photographed – it’s called staying inside with your windows closed 🙂

    In the United States, at least, if you are in a public place you can photograph anything that you can see. If you’re walking down the street, and you see someone in their house, you can legally take a picture of them.

    Is it creepy, and possibly unethical? Sure! Illegal? Not a chance!

    It’s legal to go around photographing whomever you wish, and post those photos online. If it weren’t then there’d be no such thing as the paparazzi, because it would be illegal.

    But it would *also* be illegal to take a photograph that had anyone in it if you didn’t already have their permission. So if you wanted to take a cool picture of a building, or the front of a coffee shop, and someone was in the reflection, or you could see them through the glass, wuh oh. No can do. So it’s probably a *good* thing that we can take photographs of people.

    The only caveat to this is that you can’t use them as advertisement without a release. So you can’t take a picture of 100 people drinking Coca-Cola and then make an advertisement for Coca-Cola out of those people. That’s a no-no.

    Of course, IANAL, this is just what I’ve read on the internet.

  • waynewerner

    Adam Magyar’s website helped him only have to deal with a $25 fine, rather than being arrested as a terrorist:

  • waynewerner

    There’s a creepy camera guy on YouTube that basically does the same thing. They’re all about violating social conventions and pushing what the law allows. Personally, it would annoy me and probably creep me out a little bit. The easiest way to stop it happening, of course, is to just go into a store/other private place. If they *still* follow you, then I *would* probably call the cops.

  • Valmie

    I do street photography and have come across such uncomfortable situations often. In most cases this is not required but in case the situation demand then I smile and greet and may ask for permission and shoot. Most time you are successful. You may check website

  • Possibly – not a way to make friends that’s for sure.

  • Robin Hart-Jones

    One thing nobody has mentioned is competitions. In the UK at least it seems it is OK to use a picture without a model release to win a prize in a competition. There have been court cases where the subject has tried to claim the prize should go to them but none have won. There was even one quite recently where someone won a prize with a photo of a horse looking over a wall with a humorous expression then the owner of the horse tried to get the prize by claiming that they had trained the horse to make that expression. He lost. Of course, some competitions want to use the winning photo after so may make it an entry condition that there are model releases where appropriate.

  • Robin Hart-Jones

    I believe (and someone correct me if I am wrong) that the need for a release in a commercial photo usually hinges on whether the person is the main subject and reason for the photo i.e. it is OK to use a photo of a building or event in an ad campaign if there are by-standers also in the shot. You are also allowed to use a picture in which a large crowd is the main subject, such as at a concert, even if you can recognise some faces. If a person is the main focus you need a release if the model is recognisable even if only by silhouette, tattoos, birthmarks etc. This also includes recognising people based on context ie unique clothing or location so claiming that the picture of the 90 year old lady wearing a crown on the balcony of Buckingham Palace does not show her face just wont cut it 🙂 Main subjects under 18 in the UK will always need a release even not recognisable. To be clear, all these rules only apply to commercial use. It is still OK to use them for personal use and editorial use.

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