I get asked this question more often than one might think “Do you ask someone if you may photograph them?” The TL;DR version: No. But I’d still like to speak about this grey area of street photography.
So for those of you who would like to know my opinion on this (if you’re bored, killing time, or genuinely interested) here we go.
I don’t see what we as street photographers do as invading personal space, I don’t see what we do as a violation, I don’t see what we do in any way or form in a negative light (if done tastefully). Street photography (for me) is about capturing a moment that I find some sort of beauty in, whatever I deem that beauty to be. It’s about the raw essence of a person who doesn’t know that they are being seen. Or on the flip side, the expression of someone seeing me. It’s about capturing the little and big things capture my eye – this by no means has to be limited to shots with people in them.
It’s about preserving a moment that will never ever be again. Street photography is a way preserving a bit of history through my own eyes, in my own way.
I see the street differently now to how I did 5 years ago when I first started shooting. I unconsciously frame things while I walk or drive, a thought provoking expression on someone’s face, a beautiful moment through a window, an ironic street scene that makes me laugh. When I start shooting, I start slow, and before I know it I’m lost in it, totally absorbed by the streets, it becomes a stream of gut instincts as I make my way through the streets. Hours pass before I’m drawn back out form it all.
Street photography has been around since the camera became semi-portable. The first photographs of people were of people in the streets, so one could say that in essence the birth of photography was also the birth of street photography. Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz wrote an incredible book titled “Bystander: A History of Photography” in which Westerbeck writes the following:
“For the most part, however, the photographers discussed in these pages have tried work without being noticed by their subjects. They have taken pictures of people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer’s presence. They have made candid pictures of everyday life in the street, that, at its core, is what street photography is.”
There are some really incredible articles online about the history of street photography, but for the most part I want to write about where I think the ethical grey zone is with taking photo’s of people without their permission.
Taking photographs of people is not new, in-fact people sit at the core of all photography mediums from street photography through to photojournalism. It’s not unique to a specific genre, nor do I perceive it to be more acceptable in one than in another. Without taking photo’s of stranger’s how would one be able to show the world what’s happening? How would one be able to show an honest raw moment as you see it when you have to constantly intervene in that moment to ask if it’s okay? The answer is simple and obvious, one can’t.
I always ask myself. “Does taking this photo feel right?” If it does go for it, if it doesn’t don’t. It’s so important to have respect for the people who we photograph, homeless people as an example is often a moot point, with some people feeling that it’s an acknowledgement while other people feel it’s a violation of the very little privacy that that individual still has left. I honestly prefer to not take candid pictures of the homeless, it doesn’t sit right with me. There are however times that I do photograph them, as an example:
This is Tom, we bumped into him in Chinatown while he was quietly singing. I greeted him as I crossed the road, we briefly got chatting when he asked if he could sing us a song. I said that I’d like that very much and asked if he would mind if I take his portrait while he sang, to which he said yes. We gave him a couple of dollars after he finished his song (which was great, btw). After which we spoke for a brief while longer before we thanked him and went on our way.
Now I know some people will ask the questions “why don’t you treat everyone that way?” Because it’s situational. I think we live in a time where the general population is extremely sensitive, overly so in my honest option. We’re in this horrible space where everyone wants to have an opinion on a subject, but nobody else is allowed or entitled to their own. You’re either wrong or right, there’s no room for you to debate and ultimately agree on disagreeing. We see this more and more in politics, in reporting, and most of all on social media. So let me be clear, you may not share my (and copious amounts of other street photographer’s) view on these matters, and that’s okay. If someone takes your photo and you prefer they don’t politely ask them not to, or if you see your photo online politely ask them to remove it. But be prepared that may not do so, as according to the law one may take photos of anything or anyone in public unless it is prohibited in that area by law.
To summarise for everyone that has asked me what my opinion is, especially to those who are just starting out. Bottom line is this. Be respectful to your subjects, be tasteful in how you capture them, and be true to the situation. Follow your gut and don’t do stupid shit that can get you into trouble, both with the law as well as your personal safety.
Enjoy what you do, love it, get lost in it, and most importantly learn as you shoot. Explore both your own limitations and those of the cities in which you photograph, but do so wisely and with a certain level of discretion and consideration for you subject.
PS I have previously posted a guide to street photography and how to get into it – incase you’ve missed that!
If you have more questions feel free to drop them into the comment section below 🙂
All Images Copyright© Michelle Viljoen – Papercitylife 2018