Ethics of street + travel photography: Is it okay to have people in your photos without their consent?
[The writing in this post will mainly focus on street photography, but many of the same principles apply to travel photography as well. My examples will be of travel photos.]
Many people have published various perspectives on the ethics of street photography. Some claim that all of it is okay while others claim none of it should be allowed; I fall somewhere in the middle. There isn't a perfect answer because of our varying thoughts and experiences, but I'll explore different arguments and explain my moral standards for these sorts of photos.
So what is the purpose of street photography? I usually hear people talk about how it captures moments that will never occur again, or that it raises awareness about an issue such as homelessness. It reveals the truth about the world without a filter, and sometimes it makes us appreciate life a little more.
The issue of consent arises, but everyone looks at it differently. It's easy to say, "They're in a public place, it's free game," or, "If you're not comfortable with something, you can always learn to internalize it. You might as well learn to be okay with it and move on so it doesn't bother you." Internalizing things is definitely one method for me to get over something and grow as a person, but in terms of photography, it may be more complicated.
Imagine someone coming up to you - or your mother, your grandmother, your baby cousin - and taking a photo without asking for permission to post it. There are a few photographers who go up to strangers and even use their flash when taking a portrait. Or what if someone is hiding from an abuser? When that photo surfaces, it could put someone in danger. This may seem uncommon, but it is still a possibility.
Another issue is monetization. I don't think I've taken real street photography photos, and if I do one day, I wouldn't monetize a portrait of a stranger. But what about the photo below? I sell this in my online shop even though it features people in it. I feel it's justified because it's a travel photograph and identifying people wouldn't be the easiest task, but it can still be done. Would that make this sort of monetization wrong?
Photography is a powerful tool in raising awareness about certain issues. Do you know this photo about a young Syrian child from Aleppo who was injured in an airstrike? Without moving images like these, some people would have no idea about the horrors of war or grasp an understanding of the pain some go through. Yet some consider photos like these to be exploitation, too.
I remember reading an interesting debate about photographing the homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area Street Photography Facebook group. One man posted that the group shouldn't allow photos of the homeless anymore because it exploits them. Some people who agreed chimed in: How many of these photographers got permission? How many actually bother to help the homeless people - do they only snap a photo and leave? How many people donate to homeless people as a result of seeing these sorts of photos?
Yet others jumped to defend themselves. A few claimed that they would delete the photo if they were asked to; others were angry at the idea of censoring reality. One person who used to be homeless said that she would be happy if someone photographed her back then to raise awareness.
What's the right answer for this situation? Admittedly, I don't have a final answer. I think consent is very important, but what if it's a situation where the ends justify the means and a few photos - even if taken without permission, if they were not for the purpose of exploitation - result in help for a homeless person? It's a tricky but intriguing situation.
I have a personal rule that I follow - most of the time, at least. If you can't identity anyone in the photo (whether they're tiny or they have their back turned), I am fine with posting it. Examples of this are the photo above and below this paragraph. I did not know either person, and if they were not in the photo, it would not be as beautiful.
However, there are times when my moral judgment isn't absolute, like for the second photo in this post, or the one below.
Sometimes the "right" decision comes down to your moral ethics depending on the situation. I don't think there's an easy answer all the time, but your gut feeling may guide you in the right direction during the times you raise your camera at someone.
People who do street photography usually go for candid shots. I would say that the ideal thing is to ask for permission - perhaps after you take the photo, if you want it to be candid - and to be empathetic to the person's wishes. These photos are powerful ways to tell stories, but we must remember the people in them as well - yet also consider our own feelings.
I hope this blog post has given you some new perspectives on the topic. I would love to hear your thoughts about the ethics of street photography and travel photography if people appear in your photo!