Question #25: About The Ethics Of The Street Photographer

Q: "Hi Valerie! As I explore the art of street photography, (viewing various social media boards, reading blogs, beginning to develop my own eye,etc) I wonder about the ethics of picking a shot and posting/publishing. This is not a question on the legal issues. I see photographers shooting the homeless, troubled, disabled, and often times it feels exploitive. I wonder sometimes if these photographers in some way feel superior to their subjects or that this is the modern social media version of a carnival freak show to them. Recently I saw a photo posted on a Street Photography board showing two clearly overweight women sitting on a wall near a beach and the photographer titled it "A big day out." This was followed by some rather snarky comments that suggested to me the photographer and these viewers were mocking the women photographed. I find these photos troubling and I would love to hear your thoughts." Joe C.

A: "Great question Joe, thank you for submitting it. This is a point I discuss with my students at length at the beginning of my street photography workshops. I am a street photographer, not a photojournalist. I always stress the fact that I do not photograph people is an embarrassing or vulnerable situation. The same applies for people in a time of crisis or a moment of ridicule. I put myself in the subject's shoes and if I feel like I would have a problem with a picture of me in that same situation being published, then I don't shoot it. Street photography is all about respect.

I don't believe in photographing the homeless just to get an easy shot. On the other hand, for the purpose of telling a story, the subject in his/her environment can make a powerful image. I would then have an interaction with the subject, share a few words before making a street portrait. This would more likely be part of a photo essay with a series of images.

Humor is an important part of street photography but humor does not mean ridicule. Humor can be subtle and tell a story. Making fun of someone just for the sake of getting a good laugh is not something I condone. There again, how would you feel if the situation was reversed?

Street photography is recording a moment in time, a slice of life. Respect is the number one rule. Anything else is of disservice to the community and only makes it more and more difficult for street photographers to do their job.

I would love to hear what others have to say about this topic. Thanks again for your question Joe!"

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