Nigel Wood Photography - cobwood studio

Ethics of Street Photography

This essay looks at street photography in terms of: morality, ethics and societal mores.


For the purposes of this essay, the following definitions are used:

Morals: morals are rules of society based on a transcendent distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.

Ethics: ethics involves the application of judgement by the individual; it asks “how should a good person behave in this case?

Mores: mores are the conventions / customs of a society.

Note that all 3 of these are subject to variation between epochs and nations.

Free Society and Legality

In street photography, we frequently face the dilemma, “can / should I take this photograph?” Working through the morals, ethics and mores of the situation helps to answer the question or at least arrive at a judgement. In a “free society” where photography is a common and acceptable pastime, we might argue that it is alright to take a photograph unless there is a reason not to do so. Thus we can take a photograph unless to do so is immoral, unethical or socially unacceptable.

I will pass quickly over the issue of legality. In some situations, it might be illegal to take a photograph; for example in many countries it is illegal to photograph military installations and soldiers. However, this is a simple question of the law of the land and does not create the ethical dilemma that this article addresses.

Three Tests

The first test is that of morality. Is it immoral, i.e. intrinsically wrong, to take the photograph? Indecent photographs of young or vulnerable people would fall into this category. Gratuitous pictures of torture or abuse would similarly fail this test. Note however that there is also a test of “intent” to be considered here; a journalist might take photographs of torture to publish “in the public interest” in order to expose an abhorrent practice. The scene in the picture might be immoral but taking the picture might be morally justified. For the street photographer, though, the test of morality should be easy to answer in most situations.

The test of ethics is a lot harder. If I can take a picture of a crowd in the street, can I zoom in on the fat person or the ugly person or the one crying? Can I take the funeral cortege? What about the drunk man or woman lying in an embarrassing state in the gutter at midnight outside a nightclub? Here the professional ethics might be different for the paparazzi, the journalist, the professional or amateur photographer. The test of “intent” is relevant again; if the photograph is to be used in a positive way for the overall benefit of society, in a book, newspaper or blog, it may well be ethical to take the photo. On the other hand if their is no societal benefit, it may not be ethically justifiable.

Central to this issue is the concept of “invasion of privacy”. On private property, the owner may prohibit photography but in a public place, photography is generally allowed. But just as it might be considered “bad behaviour” to listen in to a private conversation, it might be considered bad behaviour to get into someone’s “space” with a lens. There is a balance to be struck between the extent of “invasion of privacy” and the “intent” or value of the resulting photograph.

Thirdly there is the test of the mores of the society, which differ enormously from nation to nation. In much of Asia, people take delight in having their photo taken and will often ask a photographer to take a picture of them. On the other hand, in Western Europe there is a growing objection to having one’s photo taken without permission. Perhaps this arrises from our perception of the excesses of the paparazzi when photographing celebrities and of suspicion about what our image might be used for. Either way, in the West it is often best to ask permission (perhaps just by a nod and a smile) and explain what it is that makes the person an interesting subject.