On ‘Protecting Your Subjects’ in Street Photography

It’s difficult to see how anyone other than the photographer is responsible for a photograph they may take, although I’m sure there are some specific exceptions – but usually, if a photographer is not responsible for their photograph, then who should be?

Responsibility extends beyond taking credit or criticism if people like/dislike the work. Sometimes there are situations where a photograph has an effect the photographer did not account for, which is why it’s important to recognize the potential implications a photograph, or the method used to make one, may have.

Once you publish a photograph (especially online) your control over it vastly diminishes. This can make the decision to publish far more significant than the decision to create something in the first place. Making a photograph takes only a fraction of a second, but the consequences can echo for generations if people continue to see and relate to it. This is most obvious with “history book” photographs which make up part of our collective cultural consciousness, but it is also true of mundane snapshots we may not even realize will go on to be seen by many more people than we first expected.

The Anonymous Project is a good example of this, consisting of found slides, negatives, and prints, which are available for all to see. None of the photographers or subjects of these photographs could have imagined that decades later we would be witnessing their lives, in their living rooms or during holidays. They most likely didn’t expect anyone they didn’t personally show them to in a photo album to know anything about them at all.

No such excuse exists today with photographers sharing their work digitally online, where the objective is to be noticed, and stand out above the rest. I doubt people are sharing things in order to blend into the noise, and in photography-sharing spaces it is often a central goal to have the work noticed and discussed, not ignored and forgotten.

This objective, to produce outstanding, memorable work overlaps with a fundamental social issue that is similarly tied to the nature of the Internet: privacy. In the physical world, public and private spaces tend not to be ambiguous, although there are always cultural differences worth recognizing. On the Internet demarking public and private can be less easy, as even secure, encrypted information seems to make its way out of its own channels and into the public sphere all the time. Someone sharing their personal life moment on a private, restricted social media page may still find themselves made into the next viral meme, via screenshots/recordings made by anyone to who they do grant access.

Street photography (and a few other genres) takes this conversation a step further, as the candid aspect means that it’s possible for someone to go viral without ever even knowing the photograph exists, let alone having an opinion on it. The potential negative consequences of a photograph can be anything from mild discomfort to ending a career, or a relationship, or even a life. This can sound like hyperbole, but also remember how many photographs in the past have shaped opinions on wars, or exposed a scandal – or on the positive side how many photographs have helped campaign on issues that have saved lives, improved relationships, and inspired change for the better.

Street photography at its best reflects society at a certain place at a certain time. It is a document of changes and constants, with the potential to take on different meanings and connotations as time passes and our relationship with the stories and characters in those images changes.

The potential negative consequences that can arise from a photograph are reason enough for some to incorporate strategies into their workflow to protect the strangers in their images from that hypothetical fate. The simplest path is to anonymize identifiable features, like faces, hair, clothing, tattoos, and so on before publishing the image. The classic method for this is a simple black bar, or blur, which is censorship after the fact and can be added to any image. This method has its own connotations, as there is an association with criminals/victims often being concealed in this manner, which may not be what you want to invoke in your photography.

Another route is to incorporate self-censorship into your actual photographic approach, composing so as to not include elements, or to use exposure to render people as shadows and silhouettes rather than people with features that can be identified. While this may have a result of protecting an individual’s identity I think it has the greater consequence of removing individuality, reducing a person down to, at worst, an archetype, or stereotype.

Decisions to portray your subjects as somehow “in hiding” have a severe impact on what that photograph actually ends up communicating. Faces obscured behind shadows or hands may imply they are hiding in shame, or something similar. Of course, if that’s the intentional vibe you are going for then great, but if it’s incidental from your style and not in service to what you want to say, then the work will suffer, not benefit.

I think humanistic photography highlights the aspects of an individual that “shine through” – even when documenting a cohesive group it will be individual differentiating expressions that stand out, not uniformity. Rendering a subject of a photograph as a silhouette deliberately makes them uniform with every other silhouette – for example with this photograph I made in Washington DC I chose to capture the soldier as a silhouette, because it specifically isn’t about the soldier as an individual, it’s about the idea of a soldier, an archetype.

In this instance, it was an active choice in service of the story, not done to protect an identity, or for pure aesthetic, but to convey an idea.

This photograph on the other hand is not about the idea of a Hindu Priest, it’s about this Hindu Priest in particular, there is no benefit to hiding any aspect of him – obscuring him would not be in service to the story.

However, from the same project, this image is focused on a detail of loose thread, with the face of the member of the congregation hidden by shallow depth of field and exposure. This is an aesthetic choice in this case, but obscuring the individual works for the story, it’s not about them in particular but about the detail of the thread.

If you are photographing purely for enjoyment of the craft then maybe there’s something to be said for limiting the potential of negative consequences – but if you are working to document something specific then I think it’s worth illustrating the story in service of the story. I try not to let doctrine and tick boxes influence my photography without a specific reason to include them, a purpose for them to serve.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King