Street photography? No thanks

In contemplation, Street, Urban Exploration
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In Noto one evening a few years ago, while I was enjoying the golden Sicilian light on the Baroque architecture, I noticed someone taking photos. And not of the architecture. He was taking pictures of me and my family, from a few feet away. I was outraged and approached him. “What are you doing? Delete those photos!” I demanded. He asked why — were we not in a public space, where he had every right to take pictures? I disagreed, because we had not granted consent, and I pressed him to delete the images immediately. I don’t know if he did. My family didn’t discuss the matter any further, but it tainted our evening in one of my favourite places. And it reinforced my disquiet about “street photography,” which I interpret to mean taking pictures of people, in public, without their consent. 

Self-portrait on a street (Noto, Sicily)

My disquiet goes back a long way. A few years ago, when I was contributing to another group blog, we were all challenged by one of our collective to take a “street photography” image for a group post. Given that I am a doctor and used to interacting with strangers, I found it interesting to note how much I dreaded this new interaction with people I did not know. I found that I was putting off doing it, and wondered why. Was it just that I did not want to take a picture of someone without their consent? I could ask for consent, but how could I be sure it was given freely? Might people feel pressured to say yes? Should I offer payment, or would that make it worse? I thought about situations where a subject might feel coerced, like if they wanted to say no but were in an enclosed space with nowhere to escape from the photographer.

Street food, but not street photography (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

I had further reservations about street photography. When I picture “street photograhy,” it often features people in impoverished situations, “othering” them while glorifying the intrepid photographer who ventures to a distant land, or a poor neighbourhood.

If I posted the image, who would see it, and would that require consent too? (The legal situation turns out to be very complex, particularly now that “publication” on the web means that images can be seen in any country, including in countries where publication without explicit consent is not allowed.) Who was I to make such decisions and potentially invade people’s privacy? This was very much not my jam.

Beach, not street photography (Hastings, England)

At the same time there are some amazing photographers, whose work I admire, who took pictures of people in public, presumably without permission for the most part. Think of Henri Cartier-Bresson with his decisive moments, Vivian Maier (though she dodged many of these questions because much of her film was processed after her death), André Kertész or Elliott Erwitt. Why do those images not trigger the same visceral dislike I feel towards modern street photography? Is it simply the passage of time?

Having thought about this a lot, I think there are several overlapping things going on. With those great photographers of the past, with their old cameras and grainy film, it can be difficult to identify individual people in their images. And they sometimes took pictures in ways that obscured people’s identity. Kertész liked taking pictures of people’s silhouettes or shadows, for example. Modern digital cameras produce pin-sharp images in which people can more easily be identified, so arguably the potential invasion of privacy is greater.

I think attitudes have changed. Imagine Garry Winogrand taking some of his more aggressive photos nowadays — I can easily see him being either being punched or arrested pretty quickly. He was much more intrusive than most photographers are now and that was well before social media, which adds a whole different dimension. Today people understand that an image of them can travel around the world in minutes.

Street at night (Alexandria, Egypt)

Also, some of those famous images (eg Winogrand’s image of spectators watching an Apollo space launch) are not “street photography,” but show people at a public event. For such events, such as music festivals, beauty pageants or protest marches, you can argue that different standards apply, particularly when photos are being taken for editorial use (though people may still prefer not to be photographed). But classic “street photography,” for the most part, does not fall into this category. Being surreptitious (or “candid,” as street photographers like to say), and taking pictures without people’s knowledge, let alone permission, is part of the point.

Speaking of which, the vocabulary used by street photographers also makes me cringe. They use words like “snatching” photos, and seem to treat their subjects like animals being hunted, people being robbed, or dupes being tricked. It is not just macho, it’s creepy. I even cringe when a camera review refers to a feature (such as a flip-up screen) that makes it easier to take pictures of people without their knowledge, as if that’s a good thing. It’s trickery that facilitates dishonesty and exploitation. No thanks.

Chairs (Paris, France)

Putting all this together, you will have gathered that I personally do not do “street photography,” and when I do take pictures in public I either ask for explicit permission, or ensure that individuals cannot be identified, or both. More fundamentally, and going back to that evening in Noto, I aim to treat people as I would wish to be treated myself — a principle (the golden rule) that applies to far more than just photography. You may disagree, but that’s my view. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



  1. Oh yes! I agree 100%. The few times I’ve tried taking photos of strangers I’ve felt sneaky and almost as if I were capturing their inner secrets. I love your street and city images exactly because they are not about individuals but the places and spaces they inhabit. xo

    • Agreed! It can feel so sneaky and leave an unpleasant taste, right? Thank you for your lovely words about my images. x

  2. My opinions have shifted and changed over time, or perhaps I’m more thoughtful with age. But in addition to the things you mentioned is the advent of facial recognition technology. Not only does the internet broadcast street images more broadly but now people can identifiable even to those with no way of knowing them.

    • This is so true! When I was looking through my images for the post I could definitely see fewer and fewer of my own images that contained strangers. And facial recognition is definitely a thing too. Thank you for the reminder!

  3. “When I picture “street photograhy,” it often features people in impoverished situations, “othering” them while glorifying the intrepid photographer who ventures to a distant land, or a poor neighbourhood.”
    This is something I have often felt uncomfortable with, when looking at some street photography.

    I don’t feel at all comfortable photographing strangers.
    And I think your photos of these iconic, green, parisian chairs are as, or even more evocative of the soul of the city than they would be with people sitting on them.
    It also allows my imagination to fill them with whomever I want.
    But… I have to confess that one of my own favourite photos is one I took of a stranger at the terrasse of a café in the 4th arrondissement and I did not ask for permission.

    • Thank you!
      But I know what you mean. I think I have become more uncomfortable over the years about photographing strangers.

  4. A very difficult subject indeed… Here in Germany it is illegal to take people pics without asking consent first; unless you’re in a situation where you point the camera into a crowd at festivals or gatherings and not at someone in particular.
    I’ve heard professional street photographers say to either ask consent ahead of shooting but then the moment is basically gone, or take the shot, then show it to the person and ask their consent retrospectively.
    I have a people category on my blog, and my people pics are mainly either of people in the street who actually asked for their pic to be taken, or where you can not see their face completely. However I also have few where I just pointed the camera and shot. No complaints so far but it still produced a weird feeling in my stomach while shooting.

    What people don’t consider though: how often do we ourselves end up on someone’s phone pics? The general public doesn’t seem to mind those as much as when they see a big black camera pointed at them.

    In both cases, phone and DSLR, I try to duck and hide when I see them pointed at myself ☺

    • Gosh! I did not know that. But it sounds sensible to me! I wonder if we will have the same laws here in the future.

      In the meantime I would definitely duck and hide too.

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