Do you like having your picture taken, or do you prefer to be the one behind the camera? Or maybe both? How do you feel about people taking your photo without your knowledge? In my case I prefer to be behind the camera and I’m not keen on being the subject in anyone’s photo, especially if I’m not aware or not in control of how my image will be used.
You might not have noticed until now, but there’s a very good chance your image is currently residing on the camera or computer of some unknown photographer somewhere in the world. For the most part, it’s unlikely that your image will be used for nefarious purposes or will cause you significant personal harm but does that put your mind at ease? Those of us who shoot in public, whether the shots contain people or not, are referred to as Street Photographers. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never taken a picture in a public place. So in a way, we’re all street photographers. It’s just that some people call it art, and… I have no idea what else it would be called. Journalism? An accident? A hobby?
Since all types of street photography have become increasingly popular and frequent, it begins to place a burden on the rest of us – the unknowing subjects of the photographers work. We now need to start asking what level of responsibility does a photographer hold to honour the wishes of their subject? In the case of covert street photography, the subject doesn’t have a choice in the matter which is disconcerting, especially for us potential subjects.
The argument among photographers is simple; if you are in a public place then you forefit certain rights. Although that’s true on a technical level it’s a weak argument, for it means the law is always right.
Yes, it may be legal but does that make it moral? There are too many legal and illegal activities that don’t align with social sentiment so using the legal argument means little to nothing, especially to the people being unknowingly photographed. It’s straightforward to assert that just because something is legal doesn’t mean there is no negative impact.
How it all began
The legal practice of street photography rests heavily on outdated laws that provide the right to photograph unknowing subjects in a public space. Street photography is an important art movement that was, by many accounts, birthed on the streets of Paris in the late 19th century and popularized by the Jazz scene in the United States. When we look at this movement in the distant past it’s easy to see the negative impact was minimal – the subjects on the street were probably oblivious to the fate of their likeness, and the chance that the greater public would even see their image was minute. The impact today is potentially more significant, not only due to the incredible increase in the amount of equipment on the street (in the form of smartphones) but also in the way that a photo can be quickly and easily shared for mass public consumption.
Why sneak around?
Considering modern street photographers operate with a certain amount of stealth, it’s a strong indicator their activities come with negative social and possibly moral consequences. If a photographer doesn’t feel they can be open about their practice that speaks louder than any law can.
Taking a photo of someone without consent is similar to being a total jerk in public. It’s certainly legal but I’m pretty sure most of us would say that being kind is a better choice. It’s the reason why we have social conventions. You can do quite a few things to strangers in public, legally, but that doesn’t mean they are the right and moral things to do.
You could probably touch someone and you can certainly stare at them but considering we admonish small children for such things doesn’t that make you wonder about taking a photo without consent? If staring is rude what do we think of the next level – permanently capturing a person’s image? Not to mention the next big step is sharing it publicly. What would a street photographer consider going too far? Taking photos of a woman’s cleavage? Is that ok, even if it’s for personal use? As a woman, even one with no cleavage, I would argue no, it’s not acceptable, even in the name of art or personal use.
Regardless of the arguments on either side the main consideration is the way things feel to the subject:
If it feels like a violation then probably it is.
Smile… for millions of strangers
We now have the ability to easily and rapidly publicize any image for million, if not billions of people to see. They can even be face ID’d, searched, copied, printed and archived for the future.
Here’s how this might play out today:
I’m online and see a candid picture of my friend taken by someone I don’t know.
I text my friend to let her know and she responds saying she has no idea who took the picture and that she wasn’t aware of it.
We both feel uneasy and speculate she has a creepy stalker. We become slightly paranoid and try to find out who the photographer is so we can determine how to respond.
After a conversation with the photographer, who is very reasonable, he agrees to remove the photo from his website or social media feed. Unfortunately, it’s too late at that point since other people have reposted the image and it’s also archived for all eternity (unless the world blows up).
And this is a best-case scenario in our current reality.
It’s starting to look like street photographers have a newfound responsibility to consider the impact their work has on their unsuspecting muse – the general public.
Givers and takers, the watchers and the watched
I can see why the male photographers I’ve talked to about this quickly dismiss what they perceive to be my attack on their art form. When you are used to being the watcher you assume there’s little effect on the person being watched. Yet for women, who find themselves in the cross hairs of the photographer’s lens, this is yet another assault on the daily scrutiny we endure from the eyes of men.
It’s hard not to make a remark in favour of women and not be branded an angry-feminist but I’ll say it anyway. I only know from extensive experience that almost all men are oblivious to the daily battle their female counterparts wage against the constant staring, leering, cat-calling, unwanted touching, and harassment inflicted by men who were, apparently, raised in a barn. It’s shocking how many men seem to have been raised this way.
Now add to this list of affronts the potential for being photographed and having our image publicly promoted without consent. It would make most women (Kim Kardashian aside) uncomfortable at best and downright nauseous in some cases, like my own.
It’s one thing for the people in a photo to be small, facing away from the camera or otherwise unrecognizable. It’s another to permanently and publicly capture an intimate image of a person without their knowledge.
The more empathetic of street photographers might believe they are getting away with a small crime each time the shutter clicks – and in a way, they are. Though this is a moral crime rather than a legal one. I’d like to ask photographers, of which I am one, to consider the following concept in this age of publicity:
The subject deserves as much credit for their contribution to your work as you do for recognizing the beauty in it.
In a simple way, the photographer is not the one in a position of power, the subject is.
In the areas of covert and even journalistic photography, the artist is receiving something without giving anything in return. If the subject enjoys having their picture taken or the photo is beneficial to the subject in some way (think celebrities) then there is a win/win created. If the people in a photo give their likeness, their story, their pain, or their joys – yet receive nothing in return – an uneasy imbalance is created.
Look at the terms we use like: Take a picture. Can I get a picture of you?
These are acquiring terms – the person behind the lens is in receiving mode and the subject is the giver. If we take something without express consent isn’t that wrong at best and a crime in an extreme case? It does seem easier to apply the concept of theft to physical things but if you can take someone’s dignity or defame them and be tried for it then surely we can adapt to the proliferation of covert street photography.
What’s a muse to do?
Since I have no expectations that the legal system will change in lock-step with the changes in technology and social conventions the only hope is to affect change via the photographers and their subjects. We can shift our collective behaviour much faster than any beaurocratic system can respond. I do believe that most covert photographers, no matter how committed to their art, are reasonable enough to appreciate the perspective and the rights of their muse and that they simply hadn’t considered the consequences in-depth until now. Having been an observer on both sides of the lens, I wanted to provide a glimpse into the perspective of the unknowing subject.
I’m curious to know how many people feel they would not be bothered if strangers took pictures of them without their knowledge. Let me know which way you sway in the comments below.
Some random thoughts:
In the US it’s legal to take pics of anyone in a public space. However, in Paris which is considered to be the birthplace of street photography, it’s illegal to publish photos of the Eiffel Tower at night. So how can a tower have that kind of protection while human beings do not? That’s a whole other conversation, and something to mull over.
In Hungary, it’s illegal to take a photo of someone in public without their permission. From the Guardian (Note that the comments on this article are amusing).
Quite a few people take photos in, what they assume to be, a public place. A sidewalk is usually a public place but a coffee shop is not – it’s private property. Another thing to think about.
“Working as a photographer or calling oneself a photographer requires a Master’s degree in photography or a similar degree from another industry-based school in Iceland.” From Wikipedia.
Street photography might soon meet it’s own demise. It used to be an art form practiced by a small but dedicated group – now “street photographers” are a dime a dozen. Instagram alone is home to thousands of them. When an art form becomes pedestrian it has a tendency to either transform completely or fade into the history books. (Pardon the pun).
On the flip side the we could state that people who don’t like to be covertly photographed should just get over it. That’s certainly a viable perspective though one my stomach isn’t keen to adopt for the time being.