Thoughts and Impressions

Ethics of Street Photography

Jamie Windsor recently published a video about the problems of street photography, why we should or shouldn’t do street photography, which made me think about my own – and other’s – ethics when doing street photography. I recommend you to see it as an introduction to my thoughts on the subject.

Let me begin by explaining what street photography is to me, but with this disclaimer: I don’t consider the following the general or absolute definition of “street photography”, I’m explaining what it means to me, that is, how I approach it.

A person lighting up grill for an early barbecue.
The photo was taken in Eilat an early morning. Two guys were preparing a morning barbecue, surrounded by hungry cats. The smoke was the essential focus for my shot, combined with his position over the grill, being very focused on getting the fire going.

My general approach can best be explained via a quote from Evangelo Costadimas:

Street Photography is not portraiture, it is not still life and neither does it concern itself with urban landscape. Street Photography is instinctual, un-premeditated, reactive and spontaneous, it is unposed and untagged and most importantly it is candid. Candid in this context literally means it is done in such a way that the subjects are not aware they are being photographed at the exact moment the image is being captured. The subjects are always people (who are strangers) and the the theme focuses around human moments – not ‘humanistic’ moments. This difference in words is subtle but semantically considerable. Eugene Smith was a humanist photographer. Garry Winogrand was a street photographer, though he hated the tern precisely because it was used so loosely by some.

I almost feel like stating that obviously this is not the sole definition of street photography, there many street photographers who do shoot portraits of people on the street (Natan Dvir for example), but again. This is not how I define street photography, but how I approach it. I want the moment, unaltered by knowledge of being captured, showing exactly what is happening. At times, true, I do have shots of people looking into the camera, but that is still the pure moment of them reacting to something happening on the street. I don’t pose them, give them knowledge beforehand, or the like.

The sun setting behind the AFI Group building in Tel Aviv, while two friends are engaged in a conversation. The background and composition creates a feeling of something epic, while the conversation between the friends brings down to the ground again, contrasting the two.
Obviously this creates the question, what am I trying to tell? Am I taking photos merely for the sake of it? To catch people in a specific moment, or do I want more than that? Obviously I know the answer, for me it’s documenting life. Life at a specific place in time, but also life in its simplicity, as it is lived through history.

Tel Aviv, December 2018. A scooter driver is looking back at the camera, at the same moment I take the shot. The spontaneous interaction between subject and camera, can create great results.
But I often stop myself from certain shots. Children is one subject I very rarely include, and when I do, it is either with parents consent, or the children being anonymous, that is, from the back or randomly appearing in the shot.

Jerusalem, December 2018. This guy was irresistible. His clothes shows that he’s an Orthodox Jew, and you would think even an Ultra-orthodox Jew. However, the shoes just stands out, almost screaming that though he might be Orthodox, he doesn’t belong to any specific Ultra-orthodox stream. I love the shot, and I love him just being himself. 

Also disabled, visible disabled, beggars, and other vulnerable people are left out. I feel that I would be taking advantage of their situation to an extent, which would be unethical. Mostly because they would risk being the target for mockery or snide comments. I don’t want to present people in a negative way, or in a way which will present them badly. Also, while people are dining at a cafe, I usually won’t photograph them. I’m not as strict in this regard, should I see the perfect moment, I will take the shot. But in general I accept that this is a time, where the subjects wish to relax, and I accept that.

Jerusalem, December 2018. This is one of my favorite types of shots, a person being lit by a single light source, otherwise being surrounded by darkness. This is from the Cado in the Old City of Jerusalem. A tourist inspecting the shop.

Obviously there’s and exception to the rule. If I’m trying to share a specific story, or create focus on a certain issue, then I might focus on certain groups of people. And I have considered this. But that will be as part of a work on that issue, not just sharing stories from the streets.

Jerusalem, December 2018. A couple caught in a conversation?

Also, I try to keep in the background. My photos are never about me, but rather about the life I’m observing. There are photographers, who are in the face of those being photographed (just see the intro to the video above). For me that becomes more about the photographer than the subject. Of course, I’m never fully objective in how I present the story. Read my blogpost on exactly that, but I don’t want to push myself into a context, where the reaction is about me. And if I do, I won’t consider myself approaching it as a street photographer, but rather as a documentary photographer (and most likely never in the same aggressive way as seen in the intro to the video).

A Chassidic rabbi followed by other Jews from his stream, in a conversation about Torah, as I imagine them. 

To sum up. For my street photography is to capture the moment as it is, while not taking advantage of the individuals being captured in a “weak” moment.

Tel Aviv, December 2018. Though not exactly cold, this guy still stands out, as can be seen from the other people passing by.

But I would like to hear from you. What do you feel is acceptable, and why? And do you feel that street photography is acceptable at all? If not, why not?

Jerusalem, December 2018. Two Chinese construction workers, working on one of the many new buildings being build in West Jerusalem. 

Love to hear back from you.

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