The Ethics of Street Photography

The Ethics of Street Photography

Street photography is one of the most popular genres of photography, both for professional and amateur photographers. Done well, it can produce art that not only tells a story about a particular moment in time but also provides us with a window onto the human condition. Questions have been asked, however, about the ethics of street photography, and whether photographers ought to be doing it at all.

Street photography involves capturing candid moments of real life, typically by photographing unsuspecting members of the public as they go about their day. Subjects usually aren’t asked whether they consent to being photographed, and many of them may not even realize that their photograph has been taken at all. Photographing people in this way is perfectly legal in many Western countries. However, the lack of consent that street photography often poses an ethical question: Is it morally permissible to take, and to publish, photographs of people without their knowledge or consent?

I’m interested in this question, not as a photographer, but as a philosopher who researches issues in ethics. Of course, lots of photographers also have an interest in the ethics of street photography, particularly street photographers themselves. Many of them have argued that there is nothing wrong with doing street photography and that street photographers can continue to do it with a clear conscience. Unfortunately, none of the arguments which I’ve heard used to defend street photography stand up to critical scrutiny, as we’ll now see.

As far as I can tell, there are four main lines of argument that tend to come up quite regularly. These are:

The claims made in arguments (1) – (3) are all true. Nevertheless, these arguments all fail to show that street photography is morally permissible, simply because they don’t actually engage with the ethical issues raised by street photography. Actions can be both legal and morally wrong (just as they can be morally right while also being illegal), and the production of a historical record or a work of art can also involve actions that are morally wrong. Saying that street photography is art, for example, tells us absolutely nothing about whether it is ethical.

Now, we could try to argue that producing art or preserving social history is actually more important than avoiding moral wrongdoing — that art (for example) should come before ethics. I think that this approach is pretty obviously the wrong one to take. After all, nobody thinks that it would be alright to torture or kill someone for the sake of an art installation, but if art really were more important than ethics, then there would seem to be nothing wrong with such actions.

Argument number (4) is much more interesting than the preceding ones and is worth spending a little bit more time on. This is because it actually does engage with the ethical issues raised by street photography. The idea here is that because street photographers are simply recording something which is taking place in public, there is no violation of the subject’s privacy. Taking a photo of someone sitting on a park bench is basically the same, according to this line of thought, as simply seeing them there — something which any number of passers-by could have done if they had been in the right place at the right time.

This is an interesting argument, but it’s not one that I find persuasive. To see why, note that people clearly remain entitled to a degree of privacy even when they are in public spaces. We recognise, after all, that it would be an intrusion of privacy to listen in on a personal conversation between two people in the park, despite the fact that this conversation is being conducted in public. So, the idea that if you’re in public, you simply can’t have your privacy violated, is a non-starter to begin with.

But of course, not every conversation that we happen to overhear when we’re out and about constitutes an intrusion into someone’s privacy — a parent scolding a child for crossing the street without looking, a couple trying to decide what to order on the table next to ours in a restaurant, one half of a phone call about the difficulty of finding a decent plumber — these are hardly intimate moments which we could be accused of eavesdropping on. Doesn’t the same apply, therefore, to photography? Aren’t there lots of moments that street photographers could capture without intruding on someone’s privacy?

Yes, there are. The trouble for street photographers is that it is incredibly difficult to identify these moments at a glance. The woman sitting pensively on that park bench could be thinking about the book that she has just finished reading. Alternatively, she could be thinking of a recently deceased loved one. In the first case, it might not be an intrusion of her privacy to take her photograph, given that the moment is not a particularly personal one to her. In the second case, however, the exact same photograph might reasonably be seen as an intrusion on her privacy, given the intensely personal nature of her thoughts at the time.

The point is, of course, that there is simply no way to determine this just by looking at the scene and so no way of knowing whether pressing the shutter button would be morally problematic or not. There are also additional complicating factors, such as the varying extents to which different people guard their privacy. Two people photographed doing exactly the same thing may feel very differently about whether that photograph constitutes an intrusion of their privacy, and again, this is something that the photographer cannot determine simply by looking at the scene.

So, what does all this mean for the ethics of street photography? Well, for a start, it means that none of the arguments I’ve discussed in this article are able to silence the ethical concerns raised by street photography. There is no simple argument that will make it acceptable, in every case, to take photographs of strangers without their consent. But as we’ve just seen, that doesn’t mean that all street photography is necessarily morally objectionable, just as not all overheard conversations count as intrusions of privacy. Unfortunately for street photographers, there is simply no way of being certain that the shot which they wish to take is sufficiently respectful of their subject’s privacy.

Whether or not a street photographer acts badly by taking a particular shot, then, is to a large extent a result of what is known as moral luck: factors outside of the photographer’s direct control, which nevertheless affect the moral status of their actions. Any image taken without a subject’s knowledge might constitute a morally objectionable intrusion of their privacy. This remains the case even if the photographer has done their best to make that image as tasteful and respectful toward their subject as possible. Street photographers, then, face a choice: either they obtain their subjects’ consent for each of the images they make (either before or after the shutter button has been pressed), or they live with the possibility that, despite their best efforts and whatever their noble intentions, their work might leave them open to legitimate moral censure.