Monday, April 13, 2015

Photographing Strangers: What You Can and Can’t Do (The Ethical Debate).

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” (Potter Stewart)
Travel and street photography are the genres that every photographer tries at least once in his or her life.
Many photographers aren’t quite sure what their rights and responsibilities are when engaging in travel or street photography. One of the most debated issues is: what is acceptable to photograph without permission?

Though laws vary from country to country, there are some general standards for travel and street photography.
It is generally legal to take photographs of people in public places without their permission. So you can take and publish photos of people in public places – places, where there is no expectation of privacy, such as streets, beach, park or other public place. Airports, museums, courthouses, public hospitals often are off limits to photographers to limitations for security or privacy, so use caution. For a legal advice you might want to consult a legal expert.

As street photographer Jack Simon has written, “Just because something is legal it’s not necessarily ethical.”
 ‘Everybody does it’ can’t be used as a defense for immoral behavior.

So you must not take photos of people if they are in a place where they can expect privacy and that person is naked, in underclothes, showering, etc.
You should not take photos if it has potential to stop other people’s enjoyment of the same place.
People often feel the anxiety about photographing strangers.
Even if it’s legal to take photos without permission in public places there are strong arguments for asking permission and even for getting written releases for a person you photograph.


-should I ask permission before photographing strangers?

There are some recommendations:
You need not to ask permission from your subjects if:
- you are taking a street scene which includes people;
- you are watching show or performance you could photograph without permission unless there have been direct instructions not to photograph during the show;
- your photographs of people are for your personal collection or editorial use.
(Editorial images are used to inform the public, for example, the material in newspapers).

You should ask permission if:
- the person is the main subject of your photo (it can be even a nod of approval or a smile);
- you want to photograph children (seek the parents’ permission);
- your photos are for commercial use (you need written release).

-what’s about paying for photographs?
Different photographers have different standards on paying people for letting take their photo or to be dressed “locally”, or to have things moved around for better framing, etc.
Personally for me it doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s better to give people some little presents which are not “payments” but the symbols of respect.

-what’s about photographing homeless people?
Photographing homeless people is a great ethical debate.
On the one hand homeless people are in a public space, and so it’s legal to take a photograph of them. On the other hand they consider having their personal space in the street and should not be photographed without permission.
Besides some photographers think that taking photo of homeless people is legal, but unethical.
One of the functions of art is to capture the culture, the reality that we live in. So, photographers often tell the stories that need to be told. Otherwise the future generations will get the wrong idea: that somehow our world is free of homelessness, cruelty, madness, indifference ... So, is it wrong for photographers to document human despair and suffering? There’s a certain amount of common sense and truthfulness to be present. Besides it seems perfectly logical that the photos may do much good in raising awareness of the problem. Photography is a language, and when you shoot you choose what to say or what to ask.

To tell the truth I rarely ask the permission of any subjects that I photograph in the street. I’m more comfortable with the “uninterrupted reality” approach than with the “posed reality”. Besides most of my subjects remain anonymous figures with no personal identification. Maybe you could call them a symbol of poverty and homelessness. And the photographs of homeless people give occasion for other people to be grateful for all they have in their lives.

There will be times when you will be well within your right to take someone’s photograph, and they will ask you not to take any photos or seems quite uncomfortable with you photographing them. Could you take the photo anyway? Yes, you could. But should you?
 I always respect their wishes. My rule in regards to photographing people is almost medical “above all, do no harm”.
I opt for the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity is a maxim, ethical code or morality that essentially states either of the following:
One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (directive form).
One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (cautionary form, also known as the Silver Rule).”

Would you want someone to photograph you against your will?

Everyone has different life experiences, philosophies, cultural perspective and even ethics. So use your judgment.

Thank you for reading!
What are your thoughts about ethical issues in photography? All opinions welcome. Share your experiences in the comments below!