The Ethics of Street Photography

I wrote and published a post about the ethics of street photography over the weekend but the guy whose site I linked to objected to the manner in which I linked and credited his photo which I used on site so I deleted the post and he’s lost the free publicity my site was providing to him. It’s not a complaint I would have made but as this is my site, he’s out and I’ve redrafted the ethics post because I think you deserve to see it.

So the blog is about the ethics of shooting strangers in the street with your camera.

So what is street photography?

It’s often considered real-life photography of street scenes and people. The concepts of freedom adopted in western society allow street photographers to photograph subjects on public property without permission or approval.

This is of course the basis of news photography. If news photographers had to ask permission of everyone they shot, there wouldn’t be any photos of people (okay few photos) in our newspapers and on TV.

Here’s how it works: Western law presupposes that there is no assumption of privacy when you’re in a public place. This applies equally to you and me and Madonna and all celebrities (and even politicians and criminals).

Now if you’re in a private place like a shopping mall in Canada you’re likely to asked to leave if you’re shooting with what looks like a professional camera. Point and shooters taking photos of family and friends aren’t likely to be bothered by security.

Same thing applies when you go to a rock concert. Everybody takes photos with their cellphones but don’t whip out a pro- or semi-pro camera as you’re likely to get shown the door. The Olympics in Britain has all sort of weird rules about who can shoot with what kind of camera. Also the rules change based on which buffoon in security you’re dealing with. A buddy of mine was shooting all day at a rib fest without issue and got hassled the next day.

Now notice I said above “Canadian” mall. Rules in the U.S. of A. are more on the side of photographer but this is a moving target.

Same moving target concept applies to what you can shoot from a public place if your subject is in a private place. You might get a hassle but no enforcement if you’re shooting someone on a patio bar from the street. You wouldn’t want to test the law if you shot your neighbour inside their own house from the sidewalk. This is especially true if whatever you shot was considered an invasion of privacy.

And the laws governing (or allowing) street photography are different in Quebec (with laws based on the Napoleonic code) and you can find yourself sued if your photo holds the subject up to unreasonable ridicule or public derision.

When it comes to news photography you can photograph anything you can see from a public place (and private when you can away with it) including shooting photos of juvenile offenders or people in the act of breaking the law. Having said that you’ll get hassled by cops who don’t understand the law (nobody can force you to delete your images especially in this day of instant WiFi uploads) and so long as you don’t enter into a big argument you can usually walk away with your images intact.

Notice I said you can photograph juvenile offenders. You can shoot them but you can’t publish the images. News photographers have no idea how old or young of the people they shoot at the time of the event. The newsroom figures that out later. Also, if the kid just shot the mayor his photos is going to get published regardless of his age. Illegal yes but newsworthy and worth the risk? It’s a tough call by the editor.

So let’s get back to the concepts of ethics.

Ethics are the moral philosophy that according to Wikipedia involves systemizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour. So when it comes to the ethics of street photography I humbly offer:

There is no such thing.

What one person finds offensive, another finds artful. Where one person finds the photographer to be intrusive, someone else may deem the interaction appropriate and in the service of the higher good.

It’s like the old argument around the paparazzi. Many people think these photographers go too far but I bet all or most of the complainers watch “Entertainment Tonight” and read “People” magazine at the hair dressers.

Now special event photography is street photography with a purpose 🙂 (These are some of my shots from Midnite Madness which took place on Friday night here in Oakville. Over 50,000 people showed up. Now that’s street photography.

I shoot a lot of special event photography and some of it looks like street photography and I love it.

Why don’t you get out and see how it goes for you?


1 thought on “The Ethics of Street Photography

  1. Great post Peter. It’s good to know the guidelines of the law when applied to street photography. I would have to say when it comes to special event/street photography you are one of the best.
    Also, IMHO the guy who protested your linking to him etc. is an Idiot with a capitol I. (this is me shaking my head at such nonsense)

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