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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.