Some thoughts on the ethics involved in making Street Photography images.
I originally started to write about my approach to street photography and before I knew it I had started on the topic of Street Photography Ethics. As it is such big and for some contentious topic, I thought it deserved its own post, so todays article is on Ethics and Street Photography. I do not have any definitive answers and this is only my opinion on the subject. I know people/writers with far more clout/knowledge than me who have written on this subject. So here goes:
Up front, my position on Street Photography Ethics, is that I think that it is important to make images of our society, as it is, unvarnished, ie without the consent of subject. My reasons for this are quite simple and it has to do with if we do not make images, people in the future will not know how our time and things looked. For example, we cannot go back in time beyond the beginnings of photography, to see what life was like visually. We have limited ability to visualise what life looked like, painting kind of does, but not really show what life was like prior to the invention of photography. This is in part the nature of how paintings are made. In addition the people who commissioned most paintings controlled the creation of the type of paintings made. (See John Berger’s Ways of Seeing TV documentary available on YouTube), so that invariably when the people commissioning work are the subject matter, we invariably get a propagandistic view of how they wanted to be seen. This leads to the other reason that I think it is not a good idea to ask a person whether you can make an image that includes them, is that it leads to images that tend towards flattery as we photographers want our subjects to like the images that we make. Which, I believe is not always a good idea especially if we are attempting to make images as a critique of the society that we inhabit.
Another of the issues that photography in general faces concerns informed consent, how can the subject give their consent to the image that is made and its use. This applies equally to both street and documentary photography, As a photographer I can ask my subject, ‘can I make your photo’ and yet at the time of making the image, I have no idea how it will be used. ‘Can I make a photo of you?’ is a different question to ‘what will you do with the photo?’ This is the more important question that is often not mention by the photographer, primarily because they do not know where the image/s will appear and how it can be used after their creation. Often when I am on the streets of the City, I get asked what am I doing and I answer that I am making a series of images on the City of London, that I am working on an exhibition and looking towards getting a book published this seems to answer the question. But when I am elsewhere in London I making images I do not have a project, I do not even know if I will ever use the images. Sometimes I make these images for practice, other times because I found something of interest to me so I am making images, in these circumstances I do not have a satisfactory answer to this question. I can say that I might use the images on social media, but hardly anyone ever asks what sort of agenda do you have in making images, this I find interesting.
We also have to remember that all images can be taken out of context and used inappropriately, so it becomes a moral and ethical conundrum that is difficult to solve. I have decided that by myself I am not going to solve it. Yet I still feel compelled to make images, I justify this by it is just what I do, I am a photographer and it is what photographers do, we make images. Mimi Mollica has an interesting take on this, in an interview he did with Ben Smith, for his A Small Voice podcast. Mimi’s take is that we should do it, in part this justification comes also comes from the fact that every day we walk out our doors into a public sphere of the street where we are being watched by CCTV cameras. Here in London, we have more surveillance than anywhere else in the world, so our privacy has been completely eroded anyway and me photographing on the street is actually more visible, because when I am operating the camera, I am in full view of my subjects. If someone does not like my presence they can always turn away from me and the camera, thereby rendering my image a dud. Whereas, turning away from CCTV cameras creates suspicion that you are doing something wrong.
Joel Colberg has an article on his Conscientious website taking a different tack on this subject. I disagree with him on the idea that we have a choice about going into shops if they have CCTV, as it has become pervasive everywhere especially here in the UK. I do think he has a point about street photographers have a responsibility to the public in how they make images and to engage and even educate them in why we are making images. It is not just because we legally can what we do, but it is also because we believe that it is our moral duty to show what our world looks like that we do it. This means that if asked instead of saying I can legally do and nothing you can do about it, so if challenged it becomes an opportunity to have a conversation as to why we make images in and of public spaces with all of the people included in the frame.
Heather Shuker in an article titled “Street photography: rights, ethics and the future” explores the history of street photography and the ethics in a detailed article. I do however have problems with the two photographers she choses to use as case studies as these are examples of photographers whose work is not the normal approach for street photography, one photographer used long lenses and rigged flashes, the other uses a confrontational approach with flash on camera neither are typical approaches to street photography. Two aspects I think she has right are: “all of us have a moral outlook about what is right and what is wrong that guides our behaviour.” On Pg 10 and “Looking at the fundamentals underlying the ethics of street photography, the photographer is typically an artist whose goal is to capture an image that ultimately becomes an artwork and/or a record of social history. Street photographers work to an ethos of the right to the freedom of expression and enquiry to capture the world around them in images.” On Pg 12. I do like Shuker’s idea of taking from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics (see appendix 1 in her article) for photographers as a code of morale conduct. For more see: nppa.org/code-ethics
A recent book Street Photography: Creative vision behind the lens by Valérie Jardin. Their is only three paragraphs devoted to ethics, which I could summarise as, “in my opinion, certain ‘rules’ of ethics that derive from common sense, no matter who you are and where you live.” Is not a discussion of ethics or the idea that if you inadvertently photograph a subject in an embarrassing way, do not to post the image. A lot of contemporary street photography uses visual puns, making use of juxtaposition, this could lead to embarrassment and humour. She also uses a reference to cultural sensitivity of lovers not supposed to be together, but then how do we as strangers know if lovers are supposed to be together. I think this is a lazy example of exploring the ethics of street photography and is common in books on street photography.
Eric Kim is rather well known in street photography circles for his workshops and online presence in the street photography community in an interview for the BBC Religion and Ethics column, he has this to say: “I often think to myself: if I photograph a homeless person or a drug addict, am I doing it to reveal something positive about them? Or am I doing it because I wish to make an interesting and gritty photograph? I think that is a fine line that all street photographers have to be wary of.”
I find that it is hard to answer this one as by not photographing them, we render them invisible and that is also not ethical, as they need a voice in our society. I think it is important to think about why you are making an image and can you make one that adds to the debate, not create an aesthetically gritty image of life. Often when I was teaching, I would have students come in with street photography images of homeless people and I would ask them what where they trying to achieve with these types of images. If you do not have something to bring to the reason why you are photographing them on the streets then I believe that you should not be photographing them. And that I believe goes for everyone, yet recently I have been noticing that on the streets of London there are more homelessness than there used to be, so I am now thinking that I need to include this into my City of London project that I am currently working on, as it is relevant and whoever occupies the City is my subject matter, by not showing the homeless in the City I am rendering them invisible and that has its own morality problems.
Likewise photographing children, I believe we should and yet we have to be careful how we approach this, as I think we should see children in images and how their lives are currently being lived. Helen Levitt one of my favourite photographers, made images of children playing on the streets of New York in the 1940’s, showing how that world looked. We could not make these images now, as life has changed and we no longer live on lives on the streets like the people she photographed.
Eric Kim goes on to say: “I think the best way to approach someone is openly and honestly. This means if you take a photo of someone (without permission) you don’t pretend you didn’t take the shot. You then approach the person and tell them why you took the photo and what you found interesting about them. You then take a potentially negative experience and make it into a positive one.” This approach leads to conversations and that is what I like about using street photography to document the social landscape of our times.
I could go on about this subject for quite a bit as I think it is important, ethics need to be considered and you need to be clear what you think on the subject especially if you are going out into the world to make images. Think about why you are making the images you are, is it for aesthetic reasons only or do you have something else you are interested in, if you do, does this reason override the aesthetic i.e: I like this because it looks good reason. This is why I am interested in using street photography techniques in my social documentary photography as I do have something I am looking at and this informs all of my photography.
Consequently, I personally think it is important that we do make images on the street otherwise we will not have a record of what our time looks like. As I have already stated we only have a vague idea what life looked like before the advent of the camera, especially the small format camera that could be taken anywhere and used at any time of the day or night. I also think it important to engage others as to why we are doing what we do as street photographers otherwise we could in the future find that it is made illegal and that is not something that I want, because I want the future to see what our lives looked like.
Photography can be a democratic art form, anyone with a camera can make images. It is up to us to make sure we are comfortable with the type of images we want to make.
NPPA Code of Ethics.
- Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
- Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
- Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
- Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
- While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
- Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
- Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
- Do not accept gifts, favours, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
- Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.
- Do not engage in harassing behaviour of colleagues, subordinates or subjects and maintain the highest standards of behaviour in all professional interactions.
Links in this article
Heather Shuker. Street photography: rights, ethics and the future. Available online at: http://www.heathershuker.co.uk/street-photography/ accessed on 24th Oct 2017
NPPA Code of Ethics. Available online at: https://nppa.org/code-ethics Accessed on 24th Oct 2017
Valérie Jardin. (2017) Street Photography: Creative Vision behind the lens. Focal Press. Available online at: Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1138238937 Accessed on 22th Oct 2017
Ben Smith. Mimi Mollica Interview. Available online at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/mimi-mollica Accessed on 20th Oct 2017
Jörg M. Colberg (3rd Apr 2013) The Ethics of Street Photography. Available online at: http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/the_ethics_of_street_photography/ Accessed on 20th Oct 2017
BBC Religion and Ethics Q&A with Eric Kim: The ethics of street photography. Available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/21532400 Accessed on 24th Oct 2017
John Berger (1972) Ways of Seeing, BBC TV series. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk Accessed on 24th Oct 2017