What would John Stuart Mill do? The ethics of street photography.

Some people get downright mad when their photo is taken.  People get violent even.  Case in point, a homeless man punched me yesterday for taking his photo (do not fret friends, your loyal blogger is ok).  On the other hand, there are those who love getting photographed.  Some people even come up to me just to ask to get their picture taken (I get so happy when this happens!).  The law of averages being universal, the vast majority of people react in a similar way – nonchalance.  Most people don’t care.

So when we ask ourselves, is what we are doing ethically justifiable?  And further – what would make a photograph unethical?  These are tough questions to answer and therefore posing them is also somewhat tough.  However, as I like to emphasize… we are the intrepid and immune to trepidation.  So let us strap on our utility belts like Batman and bring evil doers to justice.

John Stuart Mill (henceforth – JSM or Mill) became very famous for his “Utilitarian” philosophy.  In short – whatever produces the highest good or highest pleasures for the greatest number of people should be promoted.   Now JSM did not create “Utilitarianism”, there were many thinkers before him, but his version of the philosophy is one I think worth exploring for today’s discussion.

The point of departure for Mill was that while his predecessors were very interested in hedonism, he maintained that there were a variety of different pleasures, intellectual pleasures being the highest.  So far, so good.  Mill also argued that people desire happiness (the ultilitarian end) and that general happiness is “a good to the aggregate of all persons.”

So what would John Stuart Mill do (WWJSMD)?  How does street photography fit into this picture?

Are we producing the highest good for the highest number of people?  I would answer in the affirmative.  I believe that these images enrich our lives and promote empathy.  To make portraits of people, you have to study them.  The anonymous crowd pouring through the city is now a mass of individuals.  Each person is imbued with love, hate, and joy.  So it is in this sense I think we are philanthropists.  We love humanity.  How many misanthropes do you see shooting street photography?  We find beauty in humanity and accentuate it.

So we are the finders, keepers, distributers and multipliers of beauty.  And to prove another slightly different point, I think this is why I like to photo the grit and the grime of New York.  To show that there is something lovely in the destitute.  The lotus flower is one of the most beautiful… and grows in the muck of nasty swamps.  Our city of New York is covered in dirt, graffiti and rusty syringes.  There is also a suspiciously high number of used tampon applique’s on the beaches of Brooklyn.  But our minds crave beauty and we shall find what we seek.

What about the nay sayers?  Well… I suppose we could take a look at the hater’s argument.  While I don’t think there are many that get displeasure from looking at these photos, there are probably quite a few that get displeasure from their photo being taken.  How are we promoting the highest good if people are getting angry?  The paparazzi harass celebrities into shaving off all their hairs (shout-outs to my girl Brit).  This is where the fuzzy line of ethics in street photography is encountered.  Harassment is definitely the transgression into unethical photography.

Could you say that I am harassing someone when I snap the shutter and walk away?  Perhaps… but that’s a shaky espousal.  If I photo someone, they get upset and I continue to photo them, then the line was crossed (and no, I don’t do this).

So here is my list of unethical situations that I do NOT participate in and I highly suggest you don’t either:

  • Harassing someone when they ask you to leave or stop.
  • Trying to photograph girls up skirt.
  • Peeping Tom-ery.
  • Failing to help someone in need because you’re too busy to take a photo.

I think Johnny Law has some things to say about this – upskirt photography and peeping tom-ery is illegal (coined unlawful surveillance).  And while not helping another person and harassing someone may not be illegal per se, I would argue they are unethical (according to Mill’s definitions of ethical behavior).  So since I don’t do any of that foolishness and never will, I am in the green.  How about you?

Happy, ethically justified, shooting!


118 thoughts on “What would John Stuart Mill do? The ethics of street photography.

  1. I don’t agree with you, I’m afraid. Publication of a person’s photograph, or ‘studying them’ without their consent does not constitute an action for the greater good. The pleasure is the photographer’s – and the photographer’s audience but the general good is better served by respecting each person’s right to decide. What if you decide to ‘study’ and publish without prior consent, the picture of a woman who is hiding from a violent ex-partner, or a person in a witness protection program, or a person who for good reason has run away from home. The homeless man may be ashamed to think others who knew him before he had descended to such poverty. In Mill was concerned with the ways in which human freedoms are impinged upon – I doubt if he would approve of your effectively exploiting people for your own pleasure and that of your audience. Sorry. A person’s rights and dignity must come first.

    1. Diane, your points are well taken. I have objected to some news photos of Amish persons, whose faces are shown in full view. I ask the Amish about photos, and usually am told it’s OK if I take from the backside.
      There are persons who are photophobic, or, like you said, in questionable life circumstances. However, if someone is out in public they are vulnerable to having their pictures taken. I always hope that I have not published pictures that can lead to trouble.
      And always, if possible, I ask the person’s permission.

      1. what about people who take photos with words. As a writer you observe people all the time. You use people’s circumstances to take a deeper look at the human condition. If you paint the picture with words is that any less offensive? Each snapshot is to cast a reflection on human consciousness. If it is no harm to the person, with the possibility of giving them a clearer subjective view of themselves, is it still wrong?

      2. hmm…a very very touchy subject this. i do street shoots quite often…sometimes alone, sometimes with groups of 3 or 4 students. but you know, its difficult to say what is right and what isnt…tahts why i cant side with you, im afraid! i agree with Diane above….the pleasure from taking any street photograph is the viewers or the takers alone…nobody else. i just had a long discussion with a chap from india about this very same thing. he claimed he was taking street shots of poor people earning a living on the streets, in order to further his profile or career as a freelance photographer, but my argument was…what’s in it for the people whom he shot? nothing, in short! if it was me, and ive been to india many times before and shot photos of poor people, i always told them that their photo may get published in newspapers (99% of them never had any idea what the internet was…), and if they said no, well fine. othe rtimes if they agreed, id give them 20 or 50 rupees ( a couple of bucks). but this chap im talking about, he wouldnt accept what he was doing was out and out exploitation! anyways, my opinions entirely…no hard feelings!

    2. Hi Diane –
      Thanks for the comment! I love debate and this is what philosophy is all about (the dialectics!). This is why I wrote this post! Some ideas and points to lob the ball back into your court:

      You mention rights a lot in this, but what about my (and others) right to photograph people? Shouldn’t that be respected? To simplify the argument, I think you need to either maintain that we have the right to photograph others without their consent or we don’t. If you agree with the law (in the USA) then you would have to take the former position as it is currently my right to photograph others without their consent (in public). I think stripping people of that right would be absurd.

      So if you do agree that I have the right to photograph others without their consent, then we should discuss the details of how I go about photographing them. Where are the lines drawn? I try to drawn some lines while discussing harrassement and peeping-tommery (and mention they are unethical). I would assume for you the line would be drawn if you focus too closely upon someone as you would like to respect their privacy? And then further not publish such photographs if you did?

      Well, I feel that being in a public space means exactly that – to be public. And therefore people are bits of walking artforms that I get to capture. It’s my right to do it and my right to share it. While I do not believe in any sort of absolute ethical forumla that can be applied, I do not think you have sufficiently proven I am being unethical.

      Also, some of your examples are edge cases, and far from being the norm. The odds of an ex husband finding his wife-in-hiding are extremely unlikely. This is philosophy in action, not philosophy in a mahogany armchair (which is why I rely on what the law tells me). Thanks again for reading and I would be happy to discuss further!

      1. you assert that carolyncholland has not sufficiently proven that you are being unethical. i’m afraid that you have also failed to sufficiently prove that you are being ethical. it is not enough to band about philosophical terms without pursuing a rigorous philosophical analysis and i feel your analysis is lacking in several regards.

        first, what is legal is not always moral. you have called us to a debate on morality, not law and so you need to recognise that as a starting point. the law already protects individuals from the overzealous photographer who strays into harassment (which in the uk would require a ‘course of conduct’ and not just a single photo being snapped). but you pose the question “what would mill do?”, not “would i be convicted of a criminal offence?” so, back to the philosophy and your assumed right to photograph others without their consent; i say assumed, because you have not established that such a moral right exists, which brings me to…

        second, inherent in mill’s philosophy is the principle of harm. whilst i absolutely agree that in the majority of cases, little to no harm may come to the subject of you photographs, you are ill informed to conduct the requisite balancing exercise if you do not communicate with them. you also do not weigh up the harm to society in your deliberations, for example the unattractive potential for fear that when in public our privacy will not be respected. that everything we say or do is ‘up for grabs’ just because we appear in a public space. then you probably need to look at the philosophy of society, but let’s not bring rousseau into this!! ;0)

        third, even if (under mill’s particular brand of utilitarianism) you establish that the good that comes from the creation of your art is greater than the harm done to the individuals photographed and the potential damage to society created by a lack of trust in photographers (in that regard, the paps are an excellent example), utilitarianism is not the only branch of philosophy. kant might take a very different view in this debate, particularly if it is said that people are simply a means to an end in your quest to obtain a beautiful picture.

        fourth, falling back on ‘rights’ can muddy the waters. are you talking about rights as enshrined in law or moral rights? if the former, even the most fundamental rights embodied in national bills/conventions are often limited or include exceptions, such that balance and proportionality must be applied. but we’re not talking about law, are we? if you mean the latter, you still need to consider the extent of those rights. are they rights so fundamental that there is never any justification for flouting them? or are they rights that can sometimes (justifiably) be impinged, which again brings us back to the balancing exercise. as already argued, you are ill equipped to conduct a balancing exercise, if you do not know what impact your taking the photo and publishing it will have on the subject.

        arguably in this particular case we are talking about rights that must be balanced against each other and not what i’ve called the fundamental type rights. but nothing in your post explains why your right to take the photo is greater than the subject’s right to not be photographed without giving consent (and it is the consent bit that is the important bit).

        as someone who loves to photograph urban scenes, i do get what you’re trying to say, but really, what is the harm to you in just asking for someone’s permission?

    3. If I was a homeless guy I’d probably take a swing at someone trying to make a point about society by taking my photo and, if I were in hiding, I’d probably ask for the photo to be deleted, but in neither case would I argue against the legality of taking the photo… besides, what about a photo I take on a crowded street of my friend? Do I blur the faces of everyone in the crowd behind her? How about a crowd shot at a sporting event, or a fair?

      The laws in the US and Canada are pretty clear on public photography: anything public, can be shot (the laws in Quebec are a little weird though). We can take photos of houses, but we can’t zoom through the windows. We can shoot the patio, but not inside the bar. And there are also harassment laws that protect us against idiots who would take ‘upskirt’ photos, or who would follow us, taking shots, or just taking shots after we’ve asked them to stop.

    4. @monkeymuesli

      Thanks for the well thought out contention and for you to take time to write it. Some thoughts and responses (you organized your thoughts as first, second, third so my responses will be in the same manner and respective of your numbering).

      First – You are correct. Sorry if I muddied the waters, let’s debate ethical rights and not legal rights. And further – let’s discuss Mill’s philosophy as it pertains to my style of photography (as I cannot speak to how others photograph).

      Second – Mill does discuss the principle of harm – but photographing others (with or without their consent) will not fall under this category. There is harm and there is offense. Offense is more of “getting your feelings hurt” as opposed to physical harm or mental harm. “being harmed usually involves being harmed against our will. By contrast, if we find someone offensive, we can avoid them, and then continue our lives with no damage done.” (Mill didn’t write this but it’s from a paper written on the subject). You may call photographing others without their consent mental harm but this would only be justified if someone developed deep psychological problems because of a photograph I took of them. Since I will not photograph someone if they ask me not to do so and I certainly do not harass people (nor do I physically harm them) then what I am doing may be called offensive but not harmful (keeping with Mill’s definitions of harm and offense).

      Mill argues that we have the right to offend others. If we didn’t have the right to offend others, this would be a harm. One example is the freedom of speech. I have the right to walk up to anyone and shout obscenities at them (even though I find it distasteful, in this sense it isn’t unethical). Photography without other’s consent is similar. I have the right to photograph you without your consent and you have the right to walk in the other direction. Just because you may find this distasteful, it isn’t unethical. I am trying to find a way to photograph you (if I find you interesting and in good light :-)) in a way that is least offensive or distasteful.

      “You also do not weigh up the harm to society in your deliberations, for example the unattractive potential for fear that when in public our privacy will not be respected. that everything we say or do is ‘up for grabs’ just because we appear in a public space.”

      I assume that what you mean by “everything is up for grabs” is that anything can be photographed or recorded. Well, if you are in a public space I think you have to realize that it is. That is the nature of being in public. When it comes to fear of being in public due to being photographed without your consent – I think CCTV’s are much worse than street photographers. Perhaps there are those in London afraid to go outside because of the CCTV – if there are I’d be interested to read about it but I have yet to hear about this.

      Just as an aside – I think a lot of the criticism I am getting here is from the British. Not that I think criticism is a bad thing, but I would imagine that there is still some burning embers left over from all of the scandals with News Corp (and others). Perhaps this debate stoked some of those embers?

      Third – I do not need to maintain this as I have established that my style of photography may be offensive but not a harm. But – I do think that the artwork produced from my photography engenders empathy for others which is good for the society.

      Lastly, there is no harm in asking people’s permission, and I do ask sometimes. But other times I want to photograph people in their natural state… and when people realize they’re being photographed they take these automatic poses.

      Ball’s in your court! Cheers!

      1. hmmm, i’m not entirely sure i agree with your statement of mill’s harm principle, but it has been a very, very, very long time since i read on liberty. from recollection, mill did not advocate offensive behaviour, or indeed see it as permissible. in that case, shouting obscenities in someone’s face would not be an acceptable expression of freedom of speech.

        i also disagree that cctv cameras are comparable to street photography as it can always be argued that they provide those observed with security etc. conversely, it is hard to judge what benefit a photographer’s work may or may not bring to the individual or society (and i do not mean to be rude at all here, but i simply don’t know what your audience is).

        i am also going to have to disagree that by entering a public space, my privacy is there for the taking. as others have pointed out, dignity has to be given due recognition.

        the real point i was trying to make about balancing harm is that it is not possible to know what harm is done without speaking to a person. a victim of domestic violence may not be located by your photograph, but the fear and anxiety of being snapped in public may be very real for them (and i say that having represented women with acute anxiety and diagnosed ptsd as a result of violence they have suffered). of course not every subject will suffer such an adverse reaction to you photographing them (it certainly seems that you are aware of and give recognition to people’s cues), but you cannot know without asking.

        however, throughout this debate (and thank you for initiating it, it has been a while since i had to exercise my brain!!), many valid points have been made by you and others with which i wholeheartedly agree. for example, theoretical philosophy only takes us so far and you are completely right to say we often have to go with our gut. it is reassuring that photographers such as you think about these issues. further, asking permission first will almost always destroy the photo as you rightly point out that people will inevitably adopt poses.

        may i also add the following: while this may be an ethical debate, i believe mill himself was very aware that morals are subjective… they change with the times. what is considered immoral now may not be tomorrow. in that context, i accept that what is legal can be a strong moral steer. finally, documenting is a part of our nature and important for our continued understating of ourselves as human beings. street photography of course adds to the catalogue of other art forms that contribute to this self analysis and understanding.

        forgive me for coming off all negative first time around. that was not my intention. the argumentative lawyer in me waded in and took over my keypad! i would not in anyway wish to discourage this genre and have been happy to be photographed myself. happy snapping and i hope you don’t get punched again!

      2. Thanks for the follow up. Sure dignity can be discussed but I would separate that conversation from the applied ethics conversation we had about Mill. This is where philosophy breaks down into personal preference (and the line between those two is crossed time and time again).

        I never said that Mill advocated for shouting obscenities in people’s face. I am sure he would have found it distasteful as I do. But my point was that he wouldn’t have found it unethical as it lies under freedom of speech (and under the principle of offense and not the principle of harm).

        Dignity is a different one than ethics. There are times when I take photos of people where they have lacked dignity and of people where they had a great amount of dignity. But I really feel that it would be one sided to try and only show the side of the street that was dignified. In documentary photography, I strive to capture what I see.

        Regarding privacy, I am still surprised at how people think they have privacy in the public. I think someone photographing me in public is not an invasion of privacy in the same way as anyone looking at me in public is not an invasion of privacy. It’s not invading privacy because there is no privacy to speak of – you’re in public. It seems that simple to me.

        I know what you mean about balancing harm on the one hand and artistic merit on the other. Both sides of the balancing beam are too hard to quantify to make any real headway in a debate. That’s why I changed my argument a bit in my response to you as it was more under the rubric of freedom of speech as opposed to being something like “the end justifies the means”.

        I don’t doubt there are women out there who do get stressed out about being seen by an ex husband who was violent to them. But again we get ourselves into territory that is very tough to quantify and back up. But this is duly noted! If I see someone who is disturbed I will stay away from them.

        Thanks for all of the comments and the thought provoking convo! I appreciate the feedback and I like being motivated to use my brain as well. I hadn’t read up on Mill but this put me to the test.

        Happy snapping to you as well! If you take photos and post them I would happily check them out.

  2. Good Evening: The four principles are a very good starting point for discussion. What if someone does not object but appears to project discomfort? Should a photographer stop in that case? What if you think that the picture has the potential to equal the best of Cartier-Bresson? I recently photographed Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay and then realized that a young woman accidentally got caught in the lower right-hand corner. She didn’t look too happy with me, so I showed it to her and offered to delete it. It happened to be an extremely good shot of her. Her request was interesting; email the file to her, I don’t have to delete it from my collection, but please, never publish it. I sent it to her, and she was very happy with the result. And I have tagged it with my “DO NOT PUBLISH” label. Overall, I think everything ended for the best.

    1. I am constantly amazed at the amount of people happy to have their photo taken and surprised when people agree to it after I ask. I always ask for their email address to send the photo to them. It’s a great way to connect with the rest of the world.

  3. Completely agree with most of the article. I often wonder about some of the challenges other street photographers experience. Since, anytime I am doing any street work, it is during downtime as a press photographer so I almost always have a press pass on. As a result, people tend to see it before they see the camera. As a result, irate people has not been so much an issue.

    1. Lucky you! I was thinking about dressing up as a clown… or one of the Village People… and then shooting some street shots… I wonder how people would react to that? Send me a link to some of your work!

      1. I find blending in to background works better than standing out, though I wonder if working dressed as a company mascot would make things easier or harder. It would make things more amusing.

    2. Yea, it’s probably better o be a fly on the wall. I try and be as unobtrusive as I can. But then sometimes I want to experiment with the opposite… I will let you know if I try it :-).

      1. Go for it. I knew a guy who once jumped in a trash bin and put the lid over his head and just shot through the opening where the trash would drop in. It was pretty funny.

  4. I used to live downtown Vancouver, and inner city crowds aren’t always pleased to have their photo, but overall, nobody minds all that much when they know it’s for a project such as this. Once they find out it has purpose other than mugshot reasons, they tend to be more than eager and become quite pleasant to work with.
    There is a yearly competition here for local downtown Vancouver residents, in which entrants are given a disposable camera, let loose on the city, and 12 winning photos get made into a calendar that is sold to “office people” on the other side of town for $10 each. The money goes right back to the inner city for funding projects. Neat, huh? So in short, we’re accustomed to photographers, and seldom results in a shiner.. Great work, mister!

      1. Oh this is really great! What a fantastic way for everyone to get together in the community. I love this idea! If only NYC would do the same! Thanks so much for sharing!

        I also think your screen name is delightful :-).

  5. I think this is a great post.
    I think some of the few times that I’ve brought my camera with me I’ve certainly felt a desire to take some casual shots of people. These shots always carry more “substance” for me. The thing is I end up not doing it because I feel like I’m infringing on that persons privacy…
    But then there’s the idea that if the person doesn’t know about the photograph, does that make it wrong to take it? I can’t really say, but I feel like it won’t be because I’m not really turning any sort of profit or gain from the shot…
    Though this one time I was pointing my camera at this woman’s generally direction (not even at her!) and she gave me this dirty look and accusingly asked me if I was taking her photo. Not as bad as being punched though.. lol

    1. Some people do get upset. But I would be a hypocrite to get upset at others for doing the same to me. I am happy for anyone to photography me and I hope it makes them a million :-).

  6. I like your photos. I do not take photo of others as I dont like people to take photo of me without asking me. Anyway. if they take nice photos of me then what else can i complain about?

    1. That’s not a bad attitude. I don’t mind people taking photos of me without asking… so maybe I feel like that makes me more comfortable with taking others photos without asking… :-).

  7. a really nice post …I am usually on the cautious side when indulging in street photography…my studies also require me to analyze daily life of a certain areas within a six months time frame and haven’t really found more than couple of people who didn’t wanted to be clicked…though I usually make it a point not to publish it on web or elsewhere, as i wouldn’t like to be dealt the same way…but more than often people are rather encouraging and even like to do a couple of posed after shots 🙂

  8. This reminds me of the 5 second (yet very intense) clip of Rent, where Mark videos a homeless woman getting hassled by the cops. The woman is fine getting up, but is upset that Mark is filming her. She says something along the lines of “Artists are always trying to make a name for themselves… Hey Artist, you got a dollar?” and its true. Who are we to exploit misfortunes for our benefit?

    1. So I think you are solely discussing the photography of the homeless – which isn’t all street photography (no pictures of the homeless in this post although I do take them).

      I think this is where it get’s more interesting – if the woman were to ask me for a dollar I would have given it to her. But I think saying “exploiting the misfortunes for our benefit” is going to far. I don’t make money off of photographing the homeless – I am doing more documentary photography. Also, if I do photograph them, it’s an awareness of the homeless… it gives them a face. I personally think that the awareness of the homeless is better than the invisibility of them…

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. oh no, I appologize. I wasn’t accusing you of that specifically. I was just summarizing what some people do. Sorry if I worded it poorly. =[

        The thing about in Rent though, is Mark doesn’t have a dollar. He is borderline homeless as well, and has to compromise his morals to afford rent.

    2. No apologies necessary! You were telling a story and I was confused! Your story was relevant to the post as well.

      Rent makes an interesting point. I think a lot of people see through the homeless and I used to as well. Now that I do street photography, I am much more observant and notice them (and am more willing to give them money if I don’t think they’ll use it for drugs).

      Too bad Rent is no longer playing! I liked it a lot! I saw Avenue Q (Off Broadway) a few weeks ago and it is highly recommended as well!

      1. I would love to see Avenue Q! Before I knew what it was about, I thought it was just naughty muppets (muppets always scared me growing up). As an LGBT supporter, I have friends who told me about it, and I downloaded the soundtrack, and I love it!

  9. Street photography is documenting the events and people in the public space. While the images are displayed on line without an intended profit, it is no different to any surveillance cameras in the streets taking images of us everyday. Modern civilisation is too obsessed with entitlement these days. It is our choice to go to the public so manage the risk of being “exposed” if so worried.

    1. While I wouldn’t call it the same as a surveillance camera… in some ways you could be right. If there were a robbery I would be snapping away!

      I agree that when we are in the public sphere… we cede our rights to privacy (that’s why public is the opposite of private…). But I am all for people having private space and not for harassing them.

      1. You are a good person with good heart. I do believe it is too easy to generalise things without being specific to a target audience at a specific particular time.

  10. I prefer to ask before taking or if I am setting up a shot and someone interesting walks by show them and ask if it is alright to keep it. When I worked as a photographer every shot had to have a model release! sheesh what a pain that was.

    1. I have done some shoots with models and had to obtain releases from them. I prefer street photos where everything is so much more unpredictable… and instead of setting up lighting… you find it!

  11. Good discussion…what about kids, rightfully in Australia it’s illegal to photograph kids because the photos can be used in child porn sites and maybe this is part of the issue, people don’t know why you are taking their photos and rights should be respected on both sides…your right to photograph would be unreasonable if it removed someone else’s right to choose anonymity because who decides whose right . I was visiting a friend who has a neighbour who is a real problem, he harrasses, he stalks, he is constantly threatening. As part of this he chased me in my car as I reversed shoving his camera in the window and taking snaps. I hated that he took my photos because I don’t want this man who acts with such antipathy to everyone to upload my photo on his camera. Also he did this to be a bully and intimidate. So there are many sides to ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’.

    1. You’re exactly right. It is not a simple matter and of course there are ways of crossing the line. I tried to outline ways of staying within the boundaries of accepted and non-intimidating behavior. And I am so sorry you have to deal with someone like that! It is really too bad that bully’s aren’t just in schools… there are many adult bullies as well. But I am not one of them.

      With naked children, I would stay far away from posting anything with naked children on the web. In the USA, children pornography may be a problem (I am sure it is even though I don’t hear about it very often) but it is illegal to have children running around naked on beaches for example. I have had my European friend’s complain that their children can’t be naked and I never thought that people may take photos of them but this may be the reason?

      Thanks again for the comment and get away from that guy!

  12. interesting points throughout … and many mature and well balanced views. However, one comment was ” when we are in the public sphere… we cede our rights to privacy” …..can someone explain why. I don’t think so. The argument is completely abusing and misusing the use of the word and principle of being in a public place to suit your own view selfish view, the view that you are entitled to take a persons picture.. You have no right to take my picture if I am in a public space, as I have no right to take yours, without permission, because by doing so you are very much invading my privacy 🙂 to the writer who said …” I end up not doing it because I feel like I’m infringing on that persons privacy…” well said. …others should take note. Michael

    1. Hey Michael, there is a large difference between the rights bestowed to us by our government and the rights we think we deserve because of our beliefs. We don’t have the right to murder someone for example (a right I am happy we don’t have). But the government of the USA has decided to give me the right to photograph anyone in the public sphere.

      “You have no right to take my picture if I am in a public space, as I have no right to take yours, without permission, because by doing so you are very much invading my privacy”

      This may be your ethical and personal view, but again, according to the laws of the USA, this is incorrect. I do have the right to take your photo without your permission and you have the right to take mine. The privacy you have in public is very limited (you have privacy in the sense that people cannot touch or assault you and privacy that people cannot take upskirt photos if you are a woman). It’s just the way things are. Now how you draw the lines may be a personal view, but again, be mindful of the difference between the personal view and the legal view.

      Thanks for the comment!

  13. You put it plain and simple – but I guess looking into ‘cultural sensitivity’ and differences in street photography we might be performing, the equation gets a little more complicated. You are somehow interrupting someone’s privacy, they might see it as dangerous, or just ask you for money while you’re exploring your hobby. But why overthink? Great photos nonetheless!

    1. It can be dangerous sometimes but there are so many times when people just don’t mind. We all have to be smart about being in the streets no matter where we are.

      Thanks for the compliments!

  14. Nice article. I don’t know how the situation is in Europe/US/ROW, but in India, the situation is different. People love getting photographed. Of course, as you had said, there are a few edgy cases who get offended. I usually show them the photo and delete it off before they get more angry.

    About the ethics of sharing images – I capture the action on the streets. If I am capturing a private property (building/shop) etc., I would take prior consent before I shoot. Lot of people say okay. About the people who are found in my street photographs, I usually cannot obtain the consent. It is progressively difficult because when in the street, I take 100s of pictures with 100s of people in the photographs and if I am going to get consent for each one of them, my street photography will die. As long as the image is not offensive, not hurting the religious sentiments and personal integrity of an individual, and not morally right, I find no harm in sharing it online.

    Secondly, if I have to be so bothered to be not photographed in public, I feel the individual has all rights to stay at home and enjoy his day. What would they say if the same person was photographed in a political rally, nudist procession, cult meeting, or in a place where they should not be! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comments! I agree! Where in India are you? I miss Delhi so much… the street photography there was so wonderful! Let me know if you ever make to NYC and we’ll go out into the streets for s shoot!

      1. 🙂 It’s my pleasure to comment. I am located in Chennai. Chennai is a wonderful place for photowalks too.

        But the place I love most is Madurai, my hometown. I have seen Madurai with my naked eye but I find it more beautiful in a Belgian photographer’s eyes! Link here – http://www.flickr.com/photos/oochappan/

        I do hope to visit NYC sometime and if I ever do, I will, for sure, give a shout. The idea of street photography in NYC is inviting! 😀

  15. It’s an interesting subject.
    I took some photographs of Indian workers in Dubai waiting for their bus back to the camp – my motive was to show how miserable they were. My intent was to exploit their misery. Wrong!
    This is the difference between ethical/ non-ethical. If I wanted an interesting collage of shapes and colour, that’s one thing but to exploit them is another.
    In any case – they all smiled and grinned and enjoyed being photographed, and i keep the photographs to myself.

  16. Can you really tell the difference between nonchalance, ‘resigned but hating it’ and ‘fear of being photographed making a fuss’?

    1. Most people wear their emotion on their sleeves. I doubt I am striking fear or hatred into the hearts of many. If I was then I don’t think I would have lasted this long in NYC… people in this city aren’t afraid to yell at others.

  17. Great post, I do street photography in Jerusalem, friends say my photos would be so much better if I got the faces, but I only take photos of Arab women from the back so as not to embarrass or identify them. I think younger people who grew up with Facebook are much happier to pose and often ask to have their photo taken.
    Please check out http://www.rjstreets.com

    1. Nice blog! You are so lucky to be in such a wonderful place. About the photos – I would post less photos (it makes the one’s you post more important). I try to only post my best ones. And keep shooting.. you will find a style that suits you best :-).

  18. This is a good post. I like that you’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts. Personally, I don’t care if someone takes my picture or not. I’ve done nothing to be paranoid about or fearful of. My only objection would be if it was used for monetary gain or in a negative, mocking way.

    1. Thanks for the comment. If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, I won’t do it. Over time, I am sure my no-no list will grow and change (as well as my perception of street photography).

  19. Most people today don’t want their photograph taken in public,it’s as simple as that.Mainly down to all the street cctv,especially in London.
    People are nervous in how their image could be used in the abuse of identity and human rights.
    The street photographer today must be anonymous and the days of great,late Henri Cartier Bresson are over.

  20. How about in a situation when you took a photo of a person and he got angry and told you not to post/show it, what would you do? P.S. that photo is one of your bests. and, as it seems to you, that person will never be able to see it even if you post it? 🙂

    1. Good question! If someone were to get violent, then I wouldn’t listen to anything they had to say, but if they really asked me nicely, then I would probably not post it, even if it is one of my best :-).

  21. To my mind, it’s not about taking photos as about what is done with the photos afterwards. For instance, I’ve seen any number of photos taken of people that the photographer would then never see again that have been put on a blog or facebook or another site and made fun of. (I’m not talking about you.)

    There is at least one series of photos (the photographer shall remain nameless but I’m sure anyone can find them) by someone who pays homeless people to pose, for so little money that it’s pitiful. Then he puts the photos on his site and all sorts of opinions arrive about these otherwise unknown people as though they were exhibits at a zoo. I hate that. They are people, individuals, with the right to be respected. Just becuase they live on the streets does not make them any less worthy of respect than anyone with a job or a home.

    1. Hey Val – I agree that the homeless deserve respect. And a lot of the comments are about photographing the homeless on here… quite the hot topic! I certainly don’t only take photos of the homeless but when I find a scene I like I am not bashful about doing so. Photography, in and of itself is not biased… only people are.

      I don’t know who does that but I wouldn’t pay homeless for photos. Anyway, I certainly have respect for those living on the street… as it’s not an easy life.

  22. I think you missed dignity. You have to give people their dignity. And, by extention, their pets. Fotoing a dog pooping was wrong.

    The rest of your shots were quite good.

    Dignity, Man, Dignity.

  23. interesting debate..though photographing people when they are relaxed because they are not posing, probably are the best photographs, for same reasons as first comment, feel very uncomfortable to do this and myself mostly stick to landscapes.. eyes are windows to the soul and not sure should be privaleged to look unless im invited

  24. I absolutely love the bearded fellow. When I photograph strangers I just look beyond them and act like I’m honing in on the nearby tree or street lamp.. Then I move to the side and snap another random picture so they feel like they were ‘in my shot’ lol. Less disgruntled common folk that way. 🙂

    1. Thanks Heather – yea, sometimes I will find an interesting person at a certain distance, pre-focus my camera and then turn and take the photo. I have a couple different techniques. I will write about those techniques soon! But from the looks of your photos… you may not need any advice :-).

  25. I find this type of photography really interesting because it tell a deep and complicated story and as a writer it almost always sparks a story. However, I’m not sure that I’d want to be in one of those photos, even though given how much time I spend in crowded public places then it’s pretty much inevitable. Great post, congrats on being freshly pressed! 🙂

  26. I would use the least amount of force necessary to make you stop taking my picture without asking and delete what you already had… or (gasps) if you are shooting film… let’s hope you don’t. If I had to get the lawyers… you would wish that I had just smashed your camera and fed you broken pieces of your camera lens through the newly created gap in your teeth. But wishing wouldn’t make it so I’m afraid.

    I had a friend who actually carried around release-forms whenever he had his camera. That surprised me but (as you can imagine), it also struck me as a good idea.

    Also, the idea that Utilitarianism would constitute any sort of reasonable ethics is laughable…

    It is interesting from a photographer’s point of view, though. Subjects never seem to act the same if they know they are being photographed. This leaves you with an artistic dilemma. As a potential subject I have no concern for this dilemma whatsoever, but as an artist I understand the desire to want to shoot first and ask for permission after… that is a tough one. Utilitarianism, however, is not the answer. You can’t measure good and pleasure in a meaningful way.

    1. Wow, there’s a lot in your response.

      “Also, the idea that Utilitarianism would constitute any sort of reasonable ethics is laughable…” I disagree. There are plenty of modern philosophers that use some form of utilitarianism as a basis for their ethical positions (Peter Singer for example). Just because there are criticisms of utilitarianism doesn’t devalue it.

      And regarding taking your photo… sure I would. Not to further some of the flames you put in your response, but go ahead and get the lawyers! A photo taken in public is not illegal. I can photo you if I want. So go ahead and threaten but I know my legal rights.

  27. Phone cameras and the internet have changed EVERYTHING. Several years ago, if you were approaced by someone with a camera, you thought professional photographer or serious hobbyist. If you thought professional, you asked for what paper or magazine. If hobbyist, you were almost flattered someone thought your situation was interesting or provocative enough to photograph. And, of course, back then pictures cost money. Fast forward to the digital age where you can snap 400 shots of the same experience (for free), then immediately post it on the internet for the world to see. While the community of photographers has exploded in recent years, willing subjects are more suspect fearing exploitation over art. Interesting topic.

    1. Anytime! And there while there is controversy about certain types of street photography… there is other, non-controversial types of street photography that you can engage in! Just go out there and shoot! :-).

  28. I have been careful not to take close-ups of people without their permission. I don’t think the people that floated over my house while taking pictures of me got mine!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  29. great article! i teach college photography & we have various versions of this discussion at least 3 times a semester. i’ve found it interesting that in the past couple of years, it seems that the college-aged generation who currently have their personal lives all over the internet seem to feel the most apprehensive about working in non-staged street photography…citing the idea of intrusion as something they’re incredibly uncomfortable with. possibly a reaction to our culture being over-saturated with the tabloid media or having been being “tagged” in unflattering pictures on facebook? or maybe it symbolizes a greater fear of actually engaging with the people who they share their environment with rather than safely surveying them on a computer screen? like i said, interesting topic…thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Interesting that you have found college aged kids to be careful about their digital identities. Others who have commented have found otherwise. I think it may just be the preference of the individual. I know certain people who post everything on facebook unabashedly and then others who will be very careful about what goes up. I am much more careful about what I post now than when I was younger.

      I think you’ve hit upon a different point that is more accurate though – people are afraid of engaging with those in the street. It is much more convenient to have me running around in the streets of NYC photographing people and then editing, cropping, adjusting exposure and finally posting in an organized way on this blog for people’s enjoyment than for people to do it themselves. But then again this is why so many of my posts are geared towards teaching people how to do it… to get them into the streets so they can smell the smells and taste the tastes… without the flicker of moving images across an LCD screen…

      Thanks for the comment!

  30. In the U.S. (and, someone mentioned in Canada) it’s about the liberty to take photos of people (or anything else) in public. True photojournalism follows an ethic closest to “first do no harm”, but besides that (especially in wildlife photography and some degree in photo/videography of documentaries) the ethic is also to not interfere. Granted, this can produce some disturbing images, images that evoke a certain sense of invasiveness, such as people ablaze running from a fire, college students shot dead in the street with mourners crying over them, or the bone-chilling image of “the falling man”, videotaped as he leaped to his death to avoid burning to death during the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists.
    A wildlife photographer or videographer is often tempted to intervene, to save the bunny from the wolf or the bird from the shotgun, but that’s not allowed. If you’re shooting nature, you must do so without interfering or you’re just shooting fiction.
    There may be many instances where an individual might be embarrassed or ashamed to think a photo of them in certain circumstances would be seen by others, but photojournalism is about truth. Many of these photos might also be the chip that pushes people to actually DO something about the suffering of the indigent, the aged, persecuted groups, homeless children or even abused or neglected animals.
    Last year I headed out with my camera to shoot the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. At first it was a fascination to a photographer. Whole mature trees and two-car garages atop bridges, roads washed away as if they’d never been there, mobile homes piled one atop another against a bridge abutment like a train crash. Then I saw the people. I drove past people standing in their driveways with mud-covered dressers, heaps of who-knows-what that once was the contents of their living room. Snow shovels used to scrape the silt out the doors. Children looking longingly at the wreckage of Big Wheels and bicycles and playhouses. As I drove slowly past, people looked me in the eye. They were lost, almost vacant stares. Their expression said “Help me understand what just happened here.” and alternately, “Bless you, brother, that you are not standing in my shoes.”.
    After wiping away tears and swallowing the lump in my throat, I put down the camera. This was a once-in-a-lifetime subject for a photographer, but this was also the actual lives of real people, spread like floodwater all across my horizon. This was not something I wanted to photograph any more. This was not something anyone should want to photograph. This was not something we want to remember and view again.
    Perhaps photos may have compelled more response for the disaster relief, perhaps they would have helped to illustrate to others the depth and breadth of this devastation.
    I would have to leave that photo assignment to others. Others perhaps with a big picture perspective, others that have seen worse, maybe.
    I’d say let your heart be the judge. And that sinking feeling in your stomach. Perhaps there’s another tangent to consider between “legal” and “ethical”.
    Perhaps simple moral conscience should be our guide.

    Take care and keep in touch,


    1. Amazing comment Pazlo. Thank you so much for sharing. I agree with much of what you say. We can try and discuss ethical theories but in the moment, the feeling we get in the pit of our stomachs is usually what guides us. (Who thinks about John Stuart Mill when in the moment of taking street photos or in the moment of photographing those in Iraq?).

      I see that your blog is shaped by peace and tranquility. It reminds me to visit the Shambhala center more often :-). Where are you located if you don’t mind me asking? In NYC?

      1. Hi:

        I am located in the on the ridge between the verdant Schoharie Valley and the famous Mohawk River (also known as the Erie Canal.)
        In my travels, when I say “New York”, of course people always think of the city. Nothing against the big town, but I live in the sticks. About 50 miles west of the state capital of Albany, where Hendrick Hudson first piloted the Half Moon to the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers in 1619, 20 miles east of Cooperstown and its famous baseball hall of fame, named after the father of author James Fennimore Cooper. The drumlins of Schoharie County are nestled at the northernmost tip of the Appalachian Chain, between the Catskills and the Adirondacks.
        Thanks for your reply, and for your personal interest in Armchair Zen.
        Great blog topic, with many varied and interesting responses! Good job!

        Take care and keep in touch,


      2. Sure Paz,
        Yea NY is much bigger than its biggest city, didn’t mean to conflate the two! I love getting outdoors and upstate NY is great for that.

        If you’re ever in the city let me know and we’ll go shooting.


    1. Thanks for the compliment! Also, I don;t mind you linking to your own personal blog but not to outside blogs. It’s also better if the links are relevant to the discussion :-).

  31. I’d love to be able to take street photos and them look creative and professional, all I can do is portrait photography and I’m slowly beginning to understand Landscape photography…

    1. Enjoy being a beginner! It’s fun to learn new things! Those that have experience falsely start to think they have mastery. Those who are masters have the mindset of beginners…

  32. You can photograph this monkey all you want. I dont care if my face ends up at a photography museum or printed on a doormat. I need my 15 minutes. Realistically though, these are interesting arguments. Last week, I was thinking about writing a piece on the ethics of meeting celebrities, so your piece inspires. Thx for sharing.

    1. Hmmm monkey’s aren’t as articulate or pleasant as you 🙂 I enjoyed your blog quite a bit. I makes me want to try some different writing styles… I am admittedly a bit dry…

    1. Thanks for the re-blog. Any chance I can get a link to where I can read about your thoughts on predatory vs. collaborative shooting? Would like to read it!

      Cheers, J

  33. I love images, be they from a street, house or train, so long as they have people in them doing their own thing and unaware they are being captured.
    The images on my blog concentrate mainly on humor.

  34. I think some people don’t like to have their pictures taken by a random stranger because the might be afraid it will be used for all the wrong reasons. I’ve seen many people on the street before in settings worth shooting, but I dare not doing so.

    1. Thanks for the comment. There are also situations that I won’t take a photograph because I feel it isn’t right. I certainly don’t photograph every scene. But typically you will be surprised that strangers don’t mind. It took me awhile to get over the fear of taking people’s photograph. But I think it was just my fear of confrontation and people. I saw a wall between the strangers and me. Over time, this wall broke down. And now I want to show the beauty of the street without stepping on too many toes :-).

  35. Great comment! And I am happy that you are asking for more detail!

    About the homeless man who punched me – I was standing a few meters away and I turned around and took his photo and then walked away. I didn’t dilly dally as I took the photo very quickly.. He came around the corner and punched me and told me I took his photo and I said yes and then ran :-). I don’t think he understood the law very well but I didn’t hang around to debate it with him.

    Regarding your earlier comments about passing on photos to a violent partner – I do not think it is impossible, but again it is highly unlikely that someone who treated another with violence will find them on my blog and use that to come after them. I am also confused by this comment “I have to be conscious of the fact that I could be exposing someone to burglary if I associate them with a location in an image that I post, especially if they are then seen to be away from that location once the image is out there.” Well I don’t take photos of people in their house and if a photo I took of their house has their street number on it, no one knows what street I took it on. So I am confused about this one!

    I have also had people take photos of me on the train. I really don’t mind it (I would be a hypocrite if I did). I also catch old men taking photos of young girls (which I find creepy) but maybe they are just shooting street photos, who knows?

    Anyway thanks for adding further comments to the discussion! And I was interested in your blog but the link doesn’t seem to work!

    1. I absolutely hate having my picture taken anywhere. There are 4 photos of myself in existence that I am aware of. 2 of these photos are the same, my drivers ID and my passport. The other 2 are wedding photos.
      I don’t agree that by going out in public that I forego any rights to privacy. Am I expected to lock myself indoors?
      Whenever I am aware of anyone with a lens I move out of their way. If they are persistent and still manage to get a shot of me when they can surely see my discomfort I will always approach them and ask nicely for the shot to be deleted. If they refuse I have been known to be very forceful but would not use violence as such.

      I do not go along with saying it is no different to store or street cameras either. They are there to prevent or detect crime etc.

      If I wanted my picture taken I would go to a studio and pay.

      1. Hey tony – I have written about this elsewhere… If you disagree with some of my specific points then I suggest you discuss some of my specific points rather than some general propositions. Since we are not talking about stalking people or peeping tommery, this is photography of people in the public. So please describe exactly what you mean by “personal privacy in public”.

  36. I love your shots and very much appreciate your thoughts on this subject, thank you! Most of the objections to street photography seems to come from other photographers, people who are simply not comfortable in taking such shots. Which is fair enough. My experience has taught me however that most people out in the street are more than happy to be photographed. I am constantly amazed and so grateful at the generosity of strangers. I could go on and on but I am just going to subscribe instead!

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