6 Ethical Considerations When Doing Street Photography

I love street photography, I teach street photography, I promote street photography, I defend street photography, and want everyone to experience the fun of doing street photography!

There are a lot of people (who are not street photographers of course) who get their knickers in a twist about how street photography is unethical. The haters think it’s rude, disrespectful, and an invasion of privacy. And while some street photographers give street photography a bad name, we’re not all bad!

Let’s take a look at a few ethical considerations:

1. Privacy

While it might be legal to take photographs of people in public places (always check the laws wherever you are though because these vary from country to country), it doesn’t always mean that you should. It’s crucial for street photographers to understand the impact that their photographs can have on the people they take pictures of. 

Remember that you are doing something without someone’s explicit consent, so whether you like it or not, you are intruding on their privacy (even if it’s a public place and it’s legal to do so!). Therefore, it’s important to be respectful of people’s boundaries and avoid photographing anything that might be incriminating or embarrassing, such as kissing for example (it could be an affair!), or where someone’s knickers are on show by accident, or someone is visibly upset.

It is also essential for street photographers to understand the context of the environments they are photographing in. For example, taking photographs of people in a crowded city street is vastly different from taking pictures of people in a small rural village. In some cultures, taking photographs without permission can be considered offensive or even taboo. 

Street photographers should always be aware of the cultural norms and values of the places they are capturing, and be respectful of them. By being mindful of the impact of their photographs and showing empathy towards their subjects, street photographers can create images that are both legally and ethically sound — how cool is that?!

2. Power Dynamics

As a photographer, you hold a lot of power because you get to choose how you portray a person or a situation. So special care needs to be taken if you are photographing marginalized or vulnerable communities, or indeed vulnerable people (such as rough sleepers) who you haven’t had a chat with first. 

So, when photographing vulnerable people, such as the homeless r rough sleepers, it’s crucial to approach them with compassion and empathy. These people are often in challenging situations, and it’s your responsibility to be mindful of their feelings and experiences. 

It’s also important to remember that these people are human beings with dignity and agency, and deserve to be treated with respect and empathy, not as easy targets for a gritty black-and-white photograph for likes on Instagram.

3. Cultural Sensitivity

Similar to the above it’s good to keep in mind how you are representing people and communities from cultures different from your own. That’s not to say you shouldn’t photograph other cultures, just to be mindful you’re not buying into and perpetuating stereotypes or bias. Instead, be mindful and respectful, and approach your subjects with an open mind and an open heart.

4. Safety

You need to be “on it” as a street photographer and have a keen sense of awareness of potential hazards, such as road traffic for one thing! It’s not just about safeguarding your own well-being though, but also being considerate of the safety of the people you’re photographing. 

You could find yourself in an unsafe situation that’s potentially dangerous. So, you not only have to think about staying safe yourself but also think about the safety of whoever you are photographing. An awkward fistfight or someone falling on the ground might make a funny photo but people could be getting injured. 

5. Intrusive Shooting

Intrusive shooting is a big no-no in street photography (although some street photographers will disagree!). You don’t want to be all up in someone’s face without their permission, causing them to jump out of their skin. Not only is it rude, but it’s potentially dangerous for both you and the subject. 

The person you’re photographing could have a weak heart or already suffer from some kind of trauma. I know it sounds dramatic, but do you really want to risk harming someone? Just make sure you’re not getting too close for comfort and be respectful of people’s personal space. Remember, the best photos are the ones that are taken with care and consideration, not by scaring the bejesus out of someone!

6. Post-Processing

it’s important to remember that as a street photographer, your goal is to capture the reality of the scene. That means not adding in elements that weren’t there, no matter how much it might enhance the photo even if a guy passing by on a bike would have made your layers perfect! 

Sure, you can adjust the exposure or tweak the color, but don’t go overboard. Cropping and fixing the horizon is also good to go! The key thing is to keep it real and authentic and let the scene speak for itself. 

In Summary

Some ethical considerations for the modern-day street photographer include:

  • Respect the privacy and dignity of the people you are photographing as much as possible.
  • Consider the power dynamics at play when taking photos.
  • Be culturally sensitive so as not to feed into stereotypes and biases.
  • Put the safety of the people you are photographing above the photograph.
  • Think about the risks and consequences of intrusive shooting before getting in someone’s face.
  • Avoid the temptation to add or remove elements that change the reality of the scene at all costs.

Is there anything you would add?

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

About the author: Polly Rusyn is a photographer, street photography teacher, speaker, author, and former Fujifilm Ambassador. Her work has been awarded and exhibited all over the world at several street photography festivals, and published in magazines such as National Geographic Traveller UK, Framelines, and Eyeshot. She has also given talks about street photography at photography festivals and at the National Geographic Traveller Masterclasses. Aside from self-publishing two photography Playbooks (The Street Photography Playbook, and The Photo Composition Playbook, and a Zine, Polly is one of 100 women featured in the first ever ‘Women Street Photographers’ book curated by Gulnara Samoilova; and she is a contributor to ‘The Travel Photographers Way’ by Nori Jemil. You can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.