The Ethics of Street Photography – Revisited

Black Man Pender by Fred Herzog (Equinox Gallery)

Yesterday, the article “The Ethics of Street Photography,” was published by Joerg Colberg. For those following the Conscientious blog, it doesn’t take long to discover the writer is not a fan of street photography. But, mostly, Colberg has it right. Of course, the article did not condemn the entire act of street photography. After all, the writer is a fan of Fred Herzog. But perhaps before we put the definitive “The” in front of ethics, it’s worth reiterating the importance of the practice of street photography.

What is discussed in the article is the bravado attitude that some street photographers carry as a point of pride. Like an old time Western flick, street cowboys carry thirty-six-shooters into the urban canyons, ambushing subjects, and shooting anything that moves. The bigger the flash, the more bang. Perhaps the approach isn’t surprising in such a male dominated discipline. I’ve been guilty at times, too. To a limited degree, I think this machismo attitude is part of a confidence building exercise to gain courage to turn a camera towards a complete stranger. But more importantly, I suggest having the freedom to explore varying approaches is valuable. Deleting an image is altruistic, but I’m not sure if it’s an act that forwards the art, as the writer implores elsewhere.

Street Photography is a valuable addition to the historical, sociological, and anthropological fabric of society. Nobody admonishes Vivian Maier’s photos or how she photographed her unwitting subjects. In fact, few seem to have noticed her at all, not photographers or major institutions, let alone the public.  Nobody gave her the point-and-wag of a sharp finger. Instead, we relish what she made in her photos, buy her books, and crowdfunded a Kickstarter documentary. The basis of street photography isn’t, in practice, any different than photojournalism and is directly connected to democracy. It’s important. As Nick Turpin points out: we are all street photographers now and, with smaller less intimidating camera phones, it’s easier than ever - and more normal! - to take photos of strangers. Regardless, ethics enters the equation as should any human interaction. Colberg understands this and the importance of candid documentary photography as art and how it supports democratic principles. But from an ethical standpoint, should photographers delete an image if asked?

Before answering, consider the above Fred Herzog photograph taken in 1958. To the Georgia Straight weekly, Herzog said:

Many, many people have sent me letters—I have a whole folder full of them like, for example, the black guy who is walking on Pender Street with the child and the dog. I got a letter from the sister of the girl, and she was very happy to find that picture because she didn’t have any other pictures of her dad and her sister.

A touching story, for sure. If Fred had the luxury of digital, should he have deleted that frame on request from the man? The daughter? The dog? The other man in the frame? The guy across the street? Should Herzog have ripped the entire roll of 36 from his camera? While Fred was a photographer, above all, he was a documentarian. What he did was not so different than a writer or a journalist for the local paper. He documented a very plain scene on Pender Street in Vancouver. Of course, it was a camera that he used and not a typewriter. Maybe that makes his “story” somehow more revealing. But taking pictures of people in public doesn’t make this an unethical act, even if he turns a blind eye to their request. I’m not sure about you, but when I leave the house I try my best to prepare myself. Do I leave the house with my hair unkempt? Without pants? No. There are a thousand reasons why subjects would want a picture deleted and a thousand others why a photographer might not want to. Whose viewpoint is more valid? And, when?

While many citizens in Vancouver, the adopted home of the German born photographer, are not familiar with Herzog’s name, they do know his pictures. These people are, without regard, are appreciative of his contribution whether his work is considered artistic or historical. Herzog’s 60 year old candid Kodachromes say something to everyone here and it seems abroad:  the neon lined Granville/Robson streets, peeling paint on wood slatted homes of the New Pontiac, and of course, those Two Boys sitting on a street corner drinking soda. There is also the Magazine Man with his, perhaps, embarrassing ‘Stag’ magazines. Everyone in this now modern and progressive cosmopolitain city I see looking at Herzog prints is appreciative. Nobody scolds him with that sharply pointed finger, at least, not when they are looking at his work.

While Winogrand has been associated with callousness and, worse, those stalker-esque behaviours, we don’t need to condone everything he did. Yet, the fact remains street photography gives something tangible back to a place and to the people living there. I know this because viewers, even those who are not photographers, laugh, smile, and cry when they see the prints, read the books, and watch the documentaries. Street photography is a human endeavour after all so we should expect numerous emotional reactions. The contribution of street photographers may not be realized today or even tomorrow. But someday, somewhere, someone will appreciate these pictures. Street photography is a time capsule and in 50 or 100 years from now, our children and grandchildren will appreciate the photos handed down to them by Fred Herzog and, before him, Foncie Pulice, and a host of new photographers today. If any doubt remains of how it binds a community, I encourage you to visit Foncie Pulice on Facebook and at Foncie’s Corner.

Personally, I have deleted a photograph or two when asked. I’ve also not deleted photographs when asked. Perhaps knowing when to do this is a fine line. But it is this letter above to Herzog that reminds me: these photographs are important, whether permission is granted or not. And, like Herzog, I have received letters. The following came after connecting randomly to a commuter on a Translink bus:

Hi John: Your daughters are gorgeous. Thank you for the information. Photography is my hobby, and even I am not a professional I like very much the way you touched each site of the world. It seems that until they build Safeway we all have to go to Extra Foods at Denman Mall – I was surprised to see my husband picking a green shopping basket in front of the store in your slideshow – good shot.

Best wishes for you, your wife and the twins. -Sxxxxx

To me, that’s justification enough to keep on taking pictures of strangers – no bravado about it.

Last but not least, I encourage you to read what Joerg Colberg writes with an open mind. Because, like it or not, he’s correct. Mostly. Since photography is a language, and street photography is about people, photographers should know how talk about what they are doing to those they picture. And if it isn’t the subjects who are doing the inquiring, it will be the police. Thus, in this brave new world, it’s a good idea to understand what we do. Street photography helps us maintain our freedoms. It also helps us express certain ideas about art, society, the landscape, and the people within it. With the gaze of security cameras watching on one side and the public watching on the other, street photographers are in, no doubt, an awkward position.

Act responsibly. Be Conscientious.

20 thoughts on “The Ethics of Street Photography – Revisited”

  1. thank you very much for these thoughts and interesting samples ! you’re right – there are doubts but from another point of view – one day we will want to see and to show to the next generations our life and their history.

  2. I think your approach is Bang-on! I shoot street like I have nothing to hide (because I don’t), that means I bring the camera up to my face, I compose, focus and shoot. Sometimes people see me and on the rare occasions people have approached me, they almost always say the same thing…”why did you take my picture?” more often than not they’re curious and I am always happy to smile, show them the shot (when shooting digital), explain why I thought it would make a good picture and offer to email it to them if they wish. After all that if they still want it deleted, I delete it, regardless of how great I think it is. There will always be another great shot.

  3. Thanks for this article, I read Joerg Colbergs article and was annoyed that he grouped street photographers with creepers and perverts. This does street photography a disservice, it’s apples and oranges, Street photographers are photographers, framing the shot, taking into consideration light, shadow aperture and ISO, hunting the moment. Creepers, on the other hand, are a-holes taking invasive shots with no consideration/respect for the craft or the subject.
    I was also frustrated by the way he described street photographers as “Men” as if to reinforce his view that we are all creepers. He completely disregards the fantastic female street photographers like Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt and the countless other women who share the love of this school of photography.
    Finally I was dismayed that you can’t leave a comment to counter his view.
    Who the hell does this guy think he is to define the ethics of my photography. I am capable of doing that for myself and I would never push my ethics on someone else. For example: I make it a point not to shoot the homeless since they have no option but to be in public. I think they are the exception to the “no expectation of privacy when in public” rule. I also think that using a flash ala Bruce Gilden is a type of assult. If you want to blast someone in the face with a flash go ahead, but don’t get upset if someone blasts you in the face with a right hook.
    Having said that, It’s not up to me to impose those “rules” on someone else, and Joerg Colbergs has a pretty high opinion of himself if he thinks he can appoint himself the lead authority of what is or is not ethical in street photography.
    Thanks for having a comments section, obviously you are secure enough in you position to take some contrary comments…although I doubt there will be many.

  4. In my opinion, when one takes a candid shot, and someone inquires then you, you should tell them in what you are doing. You have your portfolio ready to show, and/or a business card with your contact information. If the person(s) you photographed do not seek and inquire you, then I believe the photographer has the freedom to move on. When I am approached after taking a photo, I have nothing to hide, I tell person(s) why I took the photo and the answer is related to art and passion for street photography. And if the person(s) who were photographed want their picture deleted than you delete it. If you shot on film, tell them once the whole roll is developed you will send that part of the negative through snail mail.

    In regards to the bravado approach, that is pushing a bit too much on the approach of Street photography, I think that is getting too “legalistic.” What is wrong with bravado? There are different forms of bravado. If it’s bullying–I don’t think that’s what one does in street photography, when I think of bravado I think of being brave and less sensitive when taking the “candid” photo. I think we’re not saying that we are bullying someone to be in the shot. If one is going to say that the bravado mentality is wrong then one would have to be fair to the antonym of bravado, being a “coward” if that is the case, forget being a coward when shooting street, for fear help not the photographer. I rather have a bravado, passionate approach to Street photography than of being a coward, you take away the guts, the itch, and the bravado (defined above) to shoot street, one would just shoot bushes and trees.

  5. John – thanks for a well articulated response to the Colberg piece. I agree that much of what he say’s holds true, however the article is about ‘ethics’ which is a very personal and difficult opinion to determine. I felt after reading his article that he’s ultimately saying ‘this is my stand point on ethical photography and this is why you should follow’, and the reason for a quite hostile response.

    I think the ethical ‘boundary’ can and perhaps should be pushed, but gently and by being courteous, calm and empathetic. Also, trying to develop some people skills. I took a photo the other day of two ladies serving a male customer at a large burger/hot-dog stall. They all saw me. One of the ladies challenged me and said “I don’t like my picture being taken”. I could have just walked away, but that seemed rude. So I engaged and asked “why?”. The ensuing conversation was me engaging the other lady (this provides a level of comfort to all involved), and trying to have a bit of banter and a laugh. At no point did she ask for me to delete, and at no point did I suggest I could. If she had of asked, I would have. If I thought I had an award winner on my hands, I would have shown her and offered prints and so on, but would still have deleted if she had insisted.

    So, as for ethics, any act wrapped in common sense and common decency is, in my opinion, ethical.

    I just wish I had an ability to better articulate my thoughts as John has done… :-)

  6. Well written! Your comments are righ on John. Street photography does have social value, possibly as much or more so than photojournalism. Photojournalism is charged with the responsibility of a message. Selfishly, street photography is not. Colbert seems to have been sucked into Millner’s sexist vortex of hysteria. She is doing wth words exactly what Colbert is cautioning us against doing with cameras. “No one seems to recognize that Winogrand’s beliefs are shared most seriously by the kinds of men who haunt Reddit subforums like “Creepshots.” On those forums, the chorus is “Rape her.” Thanks to his superior sense of aesthetics, Winogrand’s moments of lechery show up at SFMOMA, where the chorus is that he’s a visionary.” How on earth could this woman possibly know what his beliefs were??? To call him a lecher is insulting to anyone who holds a camera. I might also add, that as we all know, the strength of Winogrand’s work lies not in his aesthetics. His frames are often chaotic and poorly organized. It was his feeling for his time and his subjects that makes his work endure. And he was a product of his time, for sure. He didn’t photograph the way he did because he was trying to prove his machismoy. But of the time, it was his right to. If you have ever watched an episode of Mad Men, you get the picture. He was consumed by making photographs, not friends.

    While I personally find this whole discussion about street photography “ethics” questionable. I think mostly, it s the wrong word. Ethics are inextricably tied to law and both are created to community standards, by the people or their representatives. Each individual has their own interpretation of what is ethical and what is not. I don’t find it ethically wrong to photograph strangers in public places without their permission and most laws support me. While I DO try to avoid taking photos, say handicapped people in a critical way, I have no reservations about taking a picture of an overweight woman in chartreuse stretch pants with curlers in her hair and a chihuahua in a Louis Vuitton bag. Engaging with subjects changes the whole dynamic of street photography and is not really what I am interested in capturing in my photos. What we should be talking about is common sense. Challenge a person after they have asked not to be photographed and you are taking chances.

  7. not sure John. Given that in several years of being on the street I have been asked to delete very very few times…then I don’t see it as a huge problem. In a sense if we say I will not delete ever, then what are we saying? well, first, My rights as a SP outweigh your rights, My work is so special that to delete it would be a loss to the art and to society. I mean if one in a thousand (and my percentage is MUCH lower than that..much!) ask you to delete what harm is there? I know about freedom of expression, no right to privacy in public etc, but I also think that there is a chance that if we start refusing to delete then it will only increase any antagonism to SP that might be there..not that there is a lot in my experience. I’m travelling now, so I will let you know if this changes. But so far so good hahahahhaha

  8. Thoughtful and articulate, Jason. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree wholeheartedly. I do wish, however, Colberg would given more leeway with artists being free from needing to justify their behavior, even if I agree they should be able to communicate their actions. Oddly enough, Richard Payne (@fotorich) noted these were Colberg’s views only several years ago when Joerg posted a video on Consciences suggesting street photographers should be able to act unobstructed and without explanation. Seems he’s now reconsidering his position.

  9. As always, a thoughtful and compelling counter argument to the naysayers such as the appalling SF Chronicle piece. Colberg’s views are, at least, measured and not tinged with hysteria and alarmist dogma.

    It seems to me that the people who raise objections to street photography (qua invasion of privacy) fall into a handful of groups

    those who have been photographed at close range a la Gilden and who feel that the process has been a quasi assault,
    those whose children were (or may have been) in the image,
    those who have some legal basis for wishing to remain incognito and worry about their image being recorded in any way,
    those who simply have a strong wish to protect their privacy,
    those tasked with commenting on or critiquing a series or exhibition who have an animus against the art or a misunderstanding of its raison d’être.
    those who read and believe the above-mentioned panic mongering articles and view anyone with a camera as potential paedophiles and sex offenders.

    This list is not exhaustive and is in no particular order in terms of the legitimacy of the individuals’ views and bases for fearing the lens , but I do hope that the fallacy of some of them is apparent. It is particularly regretful that there appears to be no open forum in which to educate those who are resistant as a result of lack of (non hysterical coverage) in the media. The recent piece in a Boston tv news programme is a prime example of the “bad press” that has lead to confrontation and inherent suspicion.

    John, your final sentence is the button. Let that be the watchword(s) for photographers everywhere. It appears that we have to educate by our actions and attitudes rather than finding a respectable form of soapbox from which we can scream “We come in peace”.

  10. Indeed. If photographers are constantly putting walls up in front of themselves, like being more respectful by deleting altruistically, to some degree, they might as well ask permission in advance. Where do we draw the line? That said, I think one can follow the Golden Rule and still take most types of street photographs. In short: it would read: if you like street photography, you wouldn’t mind being street photographed. I’ve been on both sides of the camera, as well as my daughters, and I’m perfectly fine with it.

  11. I agree that times have changed and how one should conduct themselves. However, I really want to leave that latter part to the photographer. I think it’s important for each photographer to justify the way in which they work in terms of the framework of their photographs and projects. While photographers like Bruce Gilden and Mark Cohen are two obvious names that use more antagonistic approaches and I value a good portion of their work, though not all of it. In short: artists should forward the art, as Colberg agrees, but how they do it should be (almost) entirely up to them. I don’t expect they should need an ethics committe like some research requires. That would be stifling and, ultimately, photography like that by Gilden, Cohen or others really isn’t hurting anyone in such a way.

    Thanks for responding. I’m really enjoying the dialogue!

  12. I read Joerg Colberg article and I think this man is not travelling enough, street photographers are very welcome in at least half of the planet. In many places the most dificult is to take people not smilling at you. J. Colberg is a white man thinking there is only peolple like him on earth.

  13. It all goes to motivation. It’s probably not a coincidence that Colberg settled on the photographs of Fred Herzog as an example of “good” street photography — his motivation was clearly to document a place in time, perhaps knowing even then that the images would be more valuable with each passing year and decade. He clearly had compassion for others and even for his adopted hometown.

    I’ve long had a problem, personally, with the new trend of young male photographers (and it’s always young males) who prowl aggressively on the streets and don’t take pictures so much as attack strangers randomly – even popping a powerful flash in the face of the unwitting stranger, on top of lunging at them. I would argue the motivation behind such work isn’t so much a positive outreach to others, or finding our commonality with one another, but rather a selfish and closed purpose.

    Anyway, I guess I’m a libertarian when it comes to photography and street photography in particular — it’s vital to preserve the artistic freedom to find our voice and our methods, unencumbered.

  14. Really the paparazzi have given street photographers a bad name. It’s transformed the relationship that used to exist. Street photography is something I enjoy immensely and being able to capture that perfect moment of beauty, interest, juxtaposition, or intrigue is something special. Yes, with the proliferation of smart phones we’re surrounded by people with cameras and perhaps that has really watered down the experience that photography used to bring.

    The era when Foncie Pulice used to be on the streets of Vancouver capturing couples, families and individuals on film is a period of time that is like no other. Photography was special, getting your picture taken wasn’t such a trivial event. I think your advice is sound, act responsibly, be conscientious and perhaps reach out and make a connection with your subject.

  15. The problem with applying the golden rule in
    expressive activities is that expression is part of the market place of ideas
    and the way society examines itself. Imagine if people working in written
    journalism asked for the opinion of their subjects and self-censored accordingly.
    The theoretical justification, in constitutional terms, for freedom of
    expression is that it is part of the free development of ideas–if the public
    is not presented with a range of ideas the best idea may not prevail. The same
    is true in photography–it is part of how we sort out how and what to feel; what
    we think of our world, and what may be improved or changed. Experimentation is
    necessary. The idea of always asking for consent for photographs taken in the
    public space and the self-censorship that would result from this approach is at
    odds with the freedom inherent Millner’s own vitriolic attack. If every public
    photograph adheres to anemic ideas of consent and respect the continuum of
    photographs and the marketplace of ideas will be diminished accordingly. Colberg
    falling in line with Millner seems to be a step in the direction of anemic
    self-censorship that is at odds with the wide open nature of expression
    appropriate to our society.

  16. In street photography as in life, I think the Golden Rule is generally the best guide to action.

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