The Ethics of Street Photography

“Don’t you feel bad?”

That’s the question I was asked moments after taking a photo of a girl peering into our tuk-tuk in Pune, India.

“Bad?” I thought, “Why should I feel bad?”

“You haven’t asked her permission.”

It was true — I hadn’t asked her permission. In the mere seconds we paused in traffic, she had walked up to our tuk-tuk with flowers in her hand, and I quickly snapped a photo on the (already open) front-facing camera of my iPhone. As quickly as we had stopped, we were on the move again. Had I paused to ask permission, or even turn on my DSLR, I would have missed the moment, and missed the opportunity to take what would become one of my favourite photos of 2017.

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🌼🌺 #flowers #pune #india #maharashtra

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But did I feel bad? I wasn’t sure. Paparazzi around the world take thousands of photos of unsuspecting people every day. This was a girl I was never going to see again, and who was very unlikely to ever stumble across my Instagram and see a picture of herself — I’m not 100 per cent sure she even saw me taking the photo. But does that make it ok? To put my mind at ease, I decided to do a bit more research into the laws behind photographing people.

The Law

The European Convention on Human Rights states that everybody has a right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their correspondence. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) also reiterate this in their Editor’s Code of Practice, saying:

It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Essentially, if you feel you’re invading someones privacy, you probably shouldn’t be taking their photo. Exactly what defines a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is a bit blurry, but common sense can take you a long way.

You also don’t want to photograph people in a way that could embarrass them or paint them in a negative light, as you run the risk of being sued for defamation. Again, this is largely subjective, but a good piece of advice is to put yourself in the photo. If it were you, would you feel embarrassed or offended? If so, the person in the photo probably would, too.

Another thing to consider, especially when photographing abroad, is the local laws and customs. Always make sure to check these before travelling to avoid any trouble.

What if it were me?

I stumbled across a blog post not too long ago by Londoner Sophie Wilkinson, who had been photographed by a passer-by on the tube whilst eating her lunch. The photo was then later uploaded to a Facebook page mocking women who eat on public transport (the mere existence of which warrants a ranting blog post all of it’s own).

In her blog, Wilkinson talks about her paranoia over the situation:

I tried to tell myself I was being paranoid; that he’d simply been drafting an email (we were underground, with no signal) or playing Candy Crush. But each day afterwards, I scrolled through the Facebook page. After a couple of days I gave up looking, because I didn’t have time to scroll through all the entries. Then a friend emailed to say she’d seen me on the site.

I knew the photo I had taken of the girl in India was in no way offensive or derogatory, but reading Wilkinson’s post made me think about the emotional effect of being photographed. I’m sure I would feel the same way — paranoid about how I looked in the photo, wondering where the photo would go. I know well within my rights in the eyes of the law to take the photo, but whether or not it is ethically sound still plagues me as I take photos to this day.

Going forward

Use your common sense when taking a photo of someone. If it feels wrong, or as though you’re invading their privacy, then you should probably walk away.

A few months after my trip to India, I travelled to South East Asia and continued to take photos. There were times I felt unsure about photographing people, but a quick “do you mind?” and a point at my camera sufficed in asking permission, keeping all parties happy and putting my mind at ease.

If after assessing the situation you’re still in doubt, just ask. There’s no harm in asking someone for a photo — the worst they can do is say no, and you might end up with a photo you might otherwise have missed.

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