I recently watched a few YouTube videos from a London-based street photographer. When he encounters people on the street who say “No” to being photographed, he argues with them and tries to pull out every trick in the book in order to get the shot, including photographing them anyway, citing the legal permissibility of photography in public places to justify his complete disregard for the feelings of the people he encounters on the street.
I get it. We all want to get the shot, and yes, it is legal (in the United States, also) to photograph anyone and anything one can see while on public property.
However, there is a fine line between “legal” and “ethical”. If someone objects as strongly to being photographed as some of the people in the above mentioned photographer’s videos, then isn’t it better ethically to just thank them, skip the shot, and let it go?
As a photographer, I would never force someone to submit to being photographed if they objected to it that strongly, even though I have a legal right to photograph in public. Asserting one’s own personal legal right over and above the strong desire of another individual, so long as that person’s objection does not cause the photographer harm in any way, is selfish and narcissistic at best.
Also, the street photographer in the YouTube videos I am referencing needs to consider that his actions reflect upon street photographers in general. If he conducts himself in such a manner as to cause people to feel accosted by his attempts to photograph them (not to mention the fact that he is routinely followed around by his buddies on bicycles, which can be intimidating to a person on the street because he or she is outnumbered and don’t know what this photographer’s or his crew’s intentions are), then that can cause other street photographers to be viewed as a potential threat as well. In other words, it is photographers like the one in question here who gives the rest of us a bad name, causing problems for us when we try to photograph and document public life in a way that is honorable and respectful of other people.
I’m not trying to bash anyone, just making a valid point. If, in the process of doing street photography, someone strongly objects to being photographed, the solution is simple: Thank them and let it go. Whatever shot you were trying to get is not going to win you any awards or get your photo on the cover of National Geographic. It’s not going to become a world-renowned masterpiece that will net you thousands of dollars in print sales after your wildly successful exhibition at MoMA. That one shot is not going to make you famous or make you any money to speak of. So, why cause undue problems and stress for someone who truly does not want to be photographed just to assert your legal rights? Why cause problems for other street photographers through your aggressive, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer-and-get-the-shot-at-all-costs attitude?
One last observation: The street photographer I specifically allude to in this post appears to be more interested in achieving success as a YouTube content creator than a street photographer. I’ve noticed many photographers on YouTube who appear to be of the same ilk. They aren’t really trying to be excellent photographers. They are just using street photography as a means to an end, a tool to get them to their goal of being a well-known or even famous YouTube creator which, of course, could also lead to revenue with which to line their pockets. So, that basically means they are asserting their legal right to photograph over and above the serious objections of their potential photographic subjects in order to gain personal success for themselves. No wonder this guy routinely refers to his subjects as “prey” in his videos. He clearly does not care about them or how they feel about being photographed.
Street photography – or, as I prefer to think of it, candid public photography (thank you, Nick Turpin), is about making connections with people and documenting the vibrancy and dynamics of public human life. It is about being part of the ebb and flow of that life. In order to do that, you have to first respect that life, and understand on a deep level that humanity consists of many more people than just yourself.