Ethics & Self-Censorship in

Street Photography.

The first thing we have to do with regards to ethics and self-censorship is stop for a moment and reflect on what kind of photography we are doing, or more specifically that we want to explain or express with our photography.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the laws of data protection and other technicalities, I believe that ethics in photography is based on common sense.

One of the most classic examples in terms of ethics is the scenario of homeless people. I have had long discussions with photographers, non-photographers, cousins, friends, mothers-in-law…on whether it is a lack of respect towards disadvantaged people, mockery of a very serious social problem etc. but in the end, the answer to this debate is very simple. As photographers, and more specifically as street photographers, our mission is to document in one way or another the reality we see around us, and that is where common sense comes into play.

If our intention is to explain through a series of photos what life is like for one or several homeless people in our city, there is nothing wrong it, on the contrary, it should be done. Using our means of expression to share with more or less people a story, is one of the great purposes of photography. However, if what interests us is the ‘easy’ photo and gaining likes on Instagram then in this case there does exist a moral conflict. The big difference lies in the intentions behind our photographs, that, more often than not, only we will know. Therefore, paying attention to moral debates does not make much sense.

If as authors our intention is to document and explain a situation, why should we censor ourselves?

When it comes to the law, Street photography is plagued with grey areas.

Many people think that if you are quietly taking pictures in the street and one of your subjects asks you (with better or worse manners) to erase the photo, you are obligated to do it, but the truth is that in most countries this is not the case. It is advisable to know a little bit about the laws of the places where you are going shoot, but in general, if you are in a public place you do not have to ask anyone for permission to take photos and nobody can force you to delete them. You may want to delete the photo because it wasn’t a great shot or simply to avoid getting into an argument, but that’s a whole other story!

That said, and this is where the grey areas begin to appear, depending on the use you are going to give a photo, you may need a written consent. Such is the case when a photo is going to be used for commercial purposes: If you are going to use your photograph to make a Nike campaign in which the image of the subject has a commercial function and you do not have the image rights you can get yourself into a fair amount of trouble. However, if the photo appears in a newspaper illustrating a story or an event, you do not need consent from your subject, even if you have been compensated for the photograph.

Another very common and much debated scenario is that of children’s photos. The law is usually the same for adults as for minors therefore it is not usually illegal to take pictures of children in public, but (and here is where common sense is necessary) it is not convenient to take pictures of children on the beach. Not because of the angry mothers, though that too, but because unfortunately these photos could fall into the hands of sick, ill-intentioned people. So, in these particular cases, when in doubt, I would recommend censoring yourself just to be on the safe side.

In the end common sense (even if it is the least common of the senses) and a minimum knowledge of the laws of the place where you are shooting, are most important.

To finish, as street or documentary photographers we must keep in mind that the work we do, whether it is more as a hobby or for work, is something important and we have to try to do it as best we can. It is a visual document of our reality and the world we live in and in the years to come it will be very valuable for us, our families, our readers or even our followers and that, in my opinion, justifies ‘bothering’ someone briefly from time to time.

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2 replies
  1. Firass Hallak
    Firass Hallak says:

    Great post! I live in a “third world” country and I often get in trouble when I shoot people in the streets especially when I wander through poor neighbourhoods. It’s kinda hard to explain to people that we’re not contributing into spreading a bad idea about their daily life. Recently I got myself a fuji X100f I hope it will help me go more discreet (I guess at least it’s better than pointing a 70-200mm at people!).
    I really enjoyed this article! Thank you 🙂


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