Street Photography Ethics (Photography Degree, Year 2, Essay 1)

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  • 8/6/2019 Street Photography Ethics (Photography Degree, Year 2, Essay 1)


    Year 2, Essay 1According to Geoff Dyer, throughout photographic history the taking

    of someones picture without permission or knowledge has been an act

    that has generated constant debate. Yet, Dyer continues, for many

    photographers this practice has become second-nature, an ethical

    blind-spot. Recent changes to ethical codes make it no longer

    possible to ignore this blind-spot. With reference to photography

    featured in The Ongoing Moment and to other relevant photographic

    practice discuss the implications for contemporary photography of

    these emerging ethical codes.

    Daniel Foy

    Module No.: PHOT20115

    Tutor: Andrea Fitzpatrick

    Word Count: 2,046

  • 8/6/2019 Street Photography Ethics (Photography Degree, Year 2, Essay 1)


    Taking someones photograph without their knowledge and/or permission is considered

    something of an ethical and, more recently, legal blind-spot. There are numerous reasons

    why such conditions may be of interest to a photographer: in some cases a photographer

    may want to photograph someone without their knowledge for artistic or aesthetic effect; or

    without their permission due to practical constraints, in the case of certain types of

    photographs used to illustrate breaking news events. This is of particular concern to the

    fields of documentary and street photography, where work produced is often dependent on

    the subject being unaware that their photograph is being taken.

    Methodologies for taking photographs without a subjects knowledge differ between

    photographers and cultures. The street documentary photographs featured by Geoff Dyer

    in the opening section of The Ongoing Moment (2005) are principally by pioneering

    American photographers; however, the laws regarding personal privacy in a public space,

    at least in the UK and USA, are largely unchanged since these iconic images were

    created. In 2008, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty stated: There is no legal restriction

    on photography in public places, and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a

    public place (Why street photography is facing a moment of truth, The Guardian, 2010).

    However, sensitivities concerning the taking of a persons photograph without their

    knowledge or consent is an issue with implications reaching further than the objective eyes

    of the law, and is approached differently by individual photographers.

    Both philosophy and aesthetic intentions inform the methodologies behind street

    photography. The WNYC Culture interview WNYC Street Shots: Bruce Gilden (c. 2005),

    showcases the somewhat confrontational practice of this celebrated Magnum

    photographer as he documents the streets of New York. Whilst the photographs are made

    without the subjects consent, they are clearly very aware of his presence - Gildens

    approach is to hone in on a subject, then to penetrate their personal space with his Leica

    and flash. The subject is typically captured in the moments prior to their understanding of

    the situation. In one instance a pedestrian anticipates Gildens intentions and pauses to

    smile and pose for a photograph, which leads to him being chastised by a visibly irritated

    Gilden, and then instructed to walk on.

    What is perhaps most surprising about Gildens approach is the lack of resistance by the

    subjects. Despite his direct and somewhat confrontational approach, and despite clear

    and understandable surprise, the subjects shown in the video interview largely continue

    about their business without challenging Gildens actions. This may seem a strange

    concept to contemporary photographers in the UK, where such methods would likely be


  • 8/6/2019 Street Photography Ethics (Photography Degree, Year 2, Essay 1)


    considered by the public to be an excessive breach of personal space and privacy. This

    may be due American extroverted culture, but equally it may by a result of New Yorks

    uniquely rich heritage in street documentary photography.

    The practice of street documentary photography in Britain is notably different. With British

    law ruling that no-one has the right to privacy in a public place, it would seem logical that

    candid street photography would be an accepted and popular field. However, this law also

    safeguards corporate and state surveillance, which, along with other factors, has resulted

    in Britain becoming the most surveilled nation in the world, ranking lowest in the EU and

    alongside Russia for individual privacy, and as the only nation in the EU rated in the

    black category, indicating endemic surveillance (Britain: the most spied on nation in the

    world, The Telegraph, 2006). This may understandably contribute to suspicion directed

    toward British street photographers, as physical manifestations of an often unwelcome and

    overbearing background hum of constant surveillance.

    In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that British street photographers largely adopt a

    more subtle methodology when photographing citizens without their consent.

    Contemporary street photographer Matt Stuart sums up his philosophy in an interview with

    Spine TV:

    Primarily you need to know that youre not doing anything wrong. Primarily you need to

    know that youre not hurting anybody, and that what youre doing youre happy with and

    confident about. Then you dont give off any bad vibes, you dont give off any stalker vibes,

    you dont give off fear. (Matt Stuarts street photography, 2010)

    Stuarts description clearly indicates he is comfortable that he isnt acting in an ethically

    questionable manner, whilst outlining a methodology that recognizes the sensitivities of his

    subject matter. He does however indicate that, despite his own ethical comfort, there is a

    natural fear associated with taking photographs without someones knowledge. He goeson to state that: [You can come across] a whole situation, an argument, or love, or

    something happening, and you can go in and share it with these people and go out, and

    they didnt realise you were there, and thats a really nice feeling. Whilst Stuart is clearly

    mindful of the reactions of his subjects, the fact remains that he enters their space - private

    not in a legal sense, but perhaps symbolically - and leaves with, in his case, a negative

    that will become a physical object - a record of the subject and their actions at the time of

    exposure - whilst the subject leaves empty handed and possibly oblivious. It is not an


  • 8/6/2019 Street Photography Ethics (Photography Degree, Year 2, Essay 1)


    exchange that appears mutually beneficial, and the connotations of taking a photograph

    would seem to reinforce this.

    Photographers that Dyer discusses in The Ongoing Moment also adopted measures to

    help ensure that the subject was oblivious of their presence as a photographer, or at least

    unaware of the true subject of the photograph that was being created. Strand affixed a

    false lens to his camera, and took photographs at right-angles to the direction the false

    lens faced in an effort to mask his intentions. Evans concealed a camera up his sleeve,

    whist Winogrand took photographs so quickly that even if people notice they do not have

    the chance to do anything about it (Dyer, 2005, p.17).

    These photographers went to lengths to deceive their subjects - Evans was even breaking

    the law, as photographing on subway as he was without a permit was illegal - and yet the

    contemporary ethical issues around creating these images are overlooked in many

    modern photographic texts. Dyer touches upon the issues around taking photos of

    beggars whilst offering nothing in return, but states that in Strands case only by deceiving

    his subjects that he could be faithful to them. (p.13) However, this doesn t address the

    question of whether Strand had the moral authority to create these images without the

    subjects knowledge, much less if the subjected actually wantedto be photographed.

    That isnt to say necessarily that Strand was acting immorally in creating them, but rather

    that it is a dilemma that is becoming more significant and less avoidable in todays society.

    Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who photographed unknowing passersby using a flash system

    rigged to a scaffold in his Heads series, was sued by an Orthodox Jew on the grounds

    that his privacy and religious rights had been violated in the act of exhibiting this image in

    a gallery (Why street photography is facing a moment of truth, The Observer, 2010).

    Although the case was dismissed on grounds of the image being created for art rather

    than commerce, the case is a notable indicator of increased demand for control over

    personal privacy and control over personal representation in the public sphere.

    There are other methods of photographing people without their knowledge, although

    these methods present an additional set of ethical issues. Dyer explains the interest of

    photographers in images of the blind at length, which at one point he summarizes by way

    of a quote from Diane Arbus, who also photographed the mentally ill: she likes them

    because they cant fake their expressions. (p.44). Arbuss statement of interest in the

    blind and mentally ill likely also applies to the street photographers discussed by Dyer -besides being visually unaware of the physical manifestations of emotio