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. Hi. Yes sorry I didn’t address specific points. Is was just a general response having read the post and all of the comments. A lively discussion you have going. Well done. I thought I would try to get across my feelings about being photographed.

    I appreciate that you are not talking about peeping tom behaviour. Personal privacy in public – I guess what I mean is if I go out in public then I should have a right not to be photographed by someone without my permission. I know that the law in the USA allows you to photo generally anyone with no restrictions in public places. Doesn’t mean I like it or want it to happen. Mind you, looking in the mirror in the mornings I would be surprised anyone would point a camera in my direction. I’m sorry if I didnt get across what I was trying to in my response. I may not be as educated as some of your other respondents.

    1. No worries Tony. My original post wasn’t such an academic one. I had to become more academic when people were holding my feet to the fire :-).

      I just wanted to press you about the personal privacy in public as this is really where the rubber meets the road. I think if you outlawed photographing others in public without their permission it would create a lot of problems and complications as you would imagine.

      And while I understand your sensitivities to being photographed I can’t help but want you to throw that aversion away!

      I am interested in what you think about my photos… Do you like them or hate them?

      1. Thanks. I don’t think you will ever convince me to lose that aversion.

        Your pics? Well this will come as no surprise. I actually prefer the ones with no people in.

        Joking aside, in many of your shots there is aperson which for me doesn’t actually need to be there. The images are great and the person takes my eye away from a rather cool shot anyway.

        One of my daughters is in photography so I do appreciate your work.

        Personal prefs are for your mono shots in general.

        I actually do like what you have shot so please don’t take any offence with any of my ramblings. Thanks

      2. It’s amazing you would like to take the people out of my photos. I think that the people bring my photos to life in ways not possible without them.

        I have taken lots of photos of buildings but they never satisfied me…

        While that doesn’t mean that you cannot take good photos of buildings I think it means that it is difficult to do in a good way. My opinion anyway.

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