Is It Okay for Street Photographers to Take Photos of Private Messages?

This week Business Insider ran a story that covered images taken by a street photographer of people’s private phone messages. That photographer was the highly respected Jeff Mermelstein, someone who has a long list of celebrated work.

While all images were taken in public places, they do contain a level information that the subjects may not want the world to know about. While no law has been broken, it could be argued that this is a lack of respect for a person’s privacy, raising the question – is it okay to photograph people’s private messages?

Law vs. Ethics

Street photography can be an extremely awkward art to practice. While you may not break any laws, sometimes you will have to be in a position that may make the subject uncomfortable. That can be a difficult part of the craft for many street photographers, especially those just starting out. You have to get into a place where you are okay with any backlash that may happen, whether that be a funny look, or a little bit of verbal thrown your way.

While the latest amendments to GDPR has left many photographers confused about where they now stand legally, regardless of a person’s reaction, the general rule of the law is that if you are in a public place you can take all the wonderful artistic images that you wish to.

However, there are ethics involved in street photography. Ethics that have been developed over the many decades that the art has been practiced, and those who are serious about it tend to adhere to them. For example, we tend to stay away from photographing homeless people. We do not want to be seen as exploiting someone who is having such a rough time when the only purpose is to make a photograph that you think is super edgy and meaningful. Far more often than not, it is neither of the two.

In the case of Jeff Mermelstein, he has gone for something slightly different. He is delving into someone’s private world, while in a public setting — remaining in line with the law. Almost none of the subjects are visible in the images, but in at least one picture it is possible to make out who the person is (if you know them) as their profile picture makes them identifiable.

The topics of the text conversations vary from sex chat, talk of cancer, and regret from giving up a loved one.

They are very intimate conversations, which I am sure the people having them believe to be completely contained between the two of them. Now these conversations are all over the Internet. I’m sure if one of the subjects were to see them it would leave them feeling cheated, anxious and uncomfortable.

Many of us, both inside the and outside the community, blast the likes of Facebook for spying on us. If we see this technique as being acceptable, are we not just making ourselves part of the problem?

The Impact on Street Photography

I have always found the opinion people have of street photographers to be varied. Some people despise us, while others are quite attracted to the idea of being considered a subject within a photographer’s content. In the case of Mermelstein, his project could make things tricky for the rest of us. We want street photography to be celebrated, understood and accepted. With privacy concerns growing and growing, could this put a dark cloud over the community as a whole?

About the author: Dan Ginn is a street photographer based in London. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Ginn’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

Image credits: Header illustration based on photos by Daria Nepriakhina and Factory (the latter licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).