Street styles and ethics

There are many different styles that fall within the realm of street photography, and some raise ethical questions.

In a previous post, I talked about street photography in general terms. This time I’ll dive a bit deeper into what I consider to be the different types of street photography and the questions they raise.

There are some purists who argue that street photography must always include identifiable people, as in this example:

Is this one “real” street photography?

There’s some motion blur on the subject, but I think in this case it helps to give a sense of movement in the cyclist.

If that’s your definition of street photography, I understand that, but I think it’s reductive. I’d argue that a street photograph can equally be about light and form, as in this example:

The people are a small but essential element in the composition

I have absolutely no qualms about the second type of street photography in which the people in the shot are elements in an overall composition. Critical elements, certainly, but not necessarily the main subject. I also don’t have a problem with shooting from behind, another thing that purists try to avoid. Shooting from behind is seen by some street photographers as showing a lack of confidence. If you’re doing it properly, you’re in front of the subject. I disagree.

I think shooting from behind, and preserving the anonymity of the subject, sometimes helps to keep the viewer’s eye on the overall scene. As soon as we see a face in a picture, it draws our attention, and can be distracting if the shot is mainly about the light:

Perhaps not the best example, but this one is all about the light and shade

…and this one is about the reflections. It’s not essential to see the person’s face, but they are an important element in the shot:

The subject here is really the reflection

In this one, the individual may be recognisable, but they are a relatively small element in a shot that’s about the composition, with the loops of the rollercoaster echoing the wheels of the bicycle, and the way that the colour of the cyclist’s jersey matches the rollercoaster:

It’s all about the shapes and colours

The less anonymous the photo, though, the more that ethical questions need to be considered. Simply put, is it OK to take pictures of people going about their day without their consent? It may be legal, but that doesn’t automatically make it right.

Every photographer has to draw their own line.

At one extreme, there are photographers who get in close and take pictures of individuals. The most extreme example is probably Bruce Gilden, who is known for jumping out in front of his subjects and taking a shot, often with flash. I’m actually amazed that none of the New Yorkers he photographs have ever taken his camera and stuck it where… well, let’s just say where it would be dark enough to need the flashgun.

I’m not going to post examples I’ve taken in that style because I haven’t got any, and never will. Although he seems much admired by many street photographers, I think it crosses a line. For me, there is validity in taking slice of life photos that show people going about their day, but disturbing people is a step too far. The best street photographers are invisible. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz talks about not “bruising the scene”; as soon as people are aware of you taking photos, their behaviour changes and you no longer get truly candid shots.

The reason that I don’t have many examples of any kind of candid shot is that I’m still wrestling with both the confidence to take them and the ethical questions that arise. Although it’s common to see them in street photography circles, I think it’s legitimate to question why. Why would you take a picture of someone you don’t know, especially if they are the main subject and not merely incidental to the scene?

If there’s something specific about their look, would it not be better to actually engage them in conversation and ask for a picture? Street portraiture is a different, but equally interesting, genre, exemplified by Joel Sternfeld’s book “Stranger Passing“.

To put it another way, if you don’t feel you have a good reason for asking someone for a portrait, why are you taking a candid shot of them?

I don’t have a definitive answer. I think there is value in true candid shots, but there has to be something more that elevates them from being random snaps. Something has to be happening, an interesting juxtaposition or interaction. For me, personally, if it’s just about the light and the composition then I think it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, for the person to be reasonably anonymous. It’s not a hard or fast line, though, and ultimately it depends on the shot.

When people are clearly identifiable, a core ethical consideration has to be of their circumstances. It’s not uncommon to see pictures of homeless people, or people who are clearly struggling. They can be a cheap win for getting shots that have an emotional punch or make a statement about the world. Again, I’d avoid those kind of shots. It’s one thing for professional photographers working on projects that are explicitly about drawing attention to the plight of, say, homeless people, but if it’s just a hobby or for posting on Instagram then I don’t really think it’s appropriate.

It’s also a little too easy to cross the line into something that can be seen as condescending. I find that about a lot of Martin Parr’s work, particularly his “Last Resort” photographs from New Brighton. He may have been making a valid point about the state of the country at the time, but there’s something patronising in his photography. It feels like Parr, as a middle class outsider, is looking down on his working class subjects. The photographs feel voyeuristic and are largely unflattering.

Everyone has to find their own lines, of course, and it’s possible that mine will change over the course of time. I certainly want to try doing more true candid street photography, but I’ll be careful about the results that I post.

Ultimately, I think the golden rule is a good guide; treat others as you would want to be treated. Put yourself in the shoes of your subject. Would you be happy if a photographer took that shot of you and posted it online? If not, you probably shouldn’t take it.