Our Need for Human Stories: Street Photography, Privacy, and AI

Giannis Angelakis street photography

In one of her most famous quotes, the photographer Dorothea Lange said that “the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Today, in the age of social media and algorithms, the digital world intersects with the real one. Man is producing vast amounts of footage through cameras, we are taught through their use how to see without a camera, and yet we share our vision and see through screens.

It’s a strange time we live in for street photography.

At the moment that it is experiencing its greatest boom, it is also facing severe limitations. In a number of countries, mainly in the West and the North, increasingly strict limits are being placed on how it can be practiced.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The digital cameras and mobile phones that have made photography accessible to everyone, as well as the ease of distribution of the material produced through special platforms and social media, and the sense that the practitioner of street photography — however badly they do it — is an artist, has led to an explosion of interest and a large increase in the number of street photographers. It fuels a market consisting of specialist magazines, organizations specializing in running competitions, to photographic companies producing specialist cameras and equipment for street photographers.

But at the same time, the opposite is also happening: people are expressing their anger about street photography!

On social media, where photographers share their material, many people who discover street photography for the first time are surprised. They feel unprotected in front of cameras and now recognize the presence of photographers on the streets as a danger. They realize that at any moment they themselves can be the subject of a photograph by a good or bad photographer, without having given their consent or having any control over how their image is recorded. They feel that their privacy is being violated. And they become increasingly angry.

Right to Privacy and Street Photography: Parallel Marches

The privacy debate is not new. It is as old as street photography.

In 1890, around the same time street photography began, in an article in the Harvard Law Review, Judge Louis Brandeis and Professor Samuel Warren referred to the “Right to Privacy.”

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

In the article, the law is recognized as an ever-evolving product of political, social, and economic changes that create the need for new rights.

A reason for writing the article on the “right to privacy” was in part due to developments in photographic technology:

“Before 1884, cameras were big, expensive. They were not easy to transport from one place to another and required those who were the subjects of the photographs to remain motionless for long periods of time in order to capture their form.”

But in 1884, the Eastman Kodak Company created the first portable camera: an inexpensive, easily portable camera that could take many pictures of people in public without the need for them to sit still.

With the advent of new technology and the growing popularity of tabloid tabloids, Warren and Brandeis expressed their fear that photography threatened the “right not to be disturbed.”

“Instant photographs and the press industry have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life. Numerous mechanical devices threaten to verify the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet will leak from the rooftops’.”

The Lack of Visibility as Freedom

However, the privacy debate did not stop street photography from flourishing.

At a time when cities were growing rapidly, around the newly created urban centers of the industrial revolution and the smoking chimneys, a vibrant, working-class culture was springing up at its core.

The photographers of that era had great stories to share and a new medium to narrate them. They were there to capture people’s agonies, emotions in all their intensity, the everydayness that made life meaningful in this wondrous, new, industrial world.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

As a genre, street photography captured the actual events: the true face of a new era. As such, it was much closer to documentary photography and photojournalism.

And while the privacy debate may have been at the forefront and have similarities to the one underway today, the truth was that the right to anonymity seemed well protected.

It was a very different time. One of those differences, not the most insignificant, was the lack of visibility. The lack of visibility, paradoxical as it may sound, ensured that street photographers had ample freedom of action.

Photographs remained mostly hidden in photo albums tucked away in drawers and closets. If a photographer received any greater recognition, their material would be featured in a newspaper, magazine or gallery, but this visibility was undoubtedly limited compared to today.

The right to anonymity seemed protected since it was much more difficult to connect the image of a person photographed in public with the real person behind him.

Also, the number of street photographers was much lower, cameras were much more expensive and photography, therefore, was much more rare and therefore valuable. People were not afraid of having their photograph captured by a stranger. In fact, many sought it out.

Today, things have changed drastically. Anyone can claim to be a street photographer as long as they have a recording device, even a cheap mobile phone.

On Instagram specialized accounts for street photography have many hundreds of thousands of followers. More than 3.2 billion photos are shared on social media daily. Of these, many tens of millions are street photos. Not all of them are equally good.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

Plus, people know that the material a street photographer will share on their social media accounts is their own life, even the one they would like to keep hidden. And it can go viral.

At the same time, new facial recognition technologies through e.g. programs like pimeyes.com can link a person’s image in the public sphere to real data around them as they exist, e.g., in personal accounts, in the digital personas we create to present ourselves on social media. Street photography is no longer just a record of reality from an artist’s perspective. It cannot adequately ensure the anonymity of individuals.
A number of issues therefore arise for the photographer who is asked to walk the fine line between capturing reality and violating privacy.

Privacy in the Age of Social Media

But what is privacy in the age of social media? Is it the same concept as it was 130 years ago, or has it too evolved due to the ever-increasing influence of new technologies?

Mark Zuckerberg in a speech at the Crunchie Awards in 2014 had stated — conveniently enough for him, albeit with a large dose of truth — that the advent of social media has changed the meaning of privacy. He said:

“People no longer have any expectation of privacy, it’s no longer a social norm. People feel comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds of information, but also more openly and with more people.”

With the rise of social media, citizens/consumers — users — have become content producers on a massive scale. They provide information about the locations they are in, post photos, videos and biographical information, often enriching this information with personal thoughts in text form that delve deeper into the material they are sharing.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

This data is then categorized in a way that makes it easy to be discovered by others.

They combine bits and pieces of their lives into a carefully constructed and complex digital persona.

This projected persona is evaluated daily: patterns are identified in the way it is presented: It attracts the attention of other users and is judged on the basis of the popularity it achieves.

Essentially, posting material on social media is a means to narrate our lives: What we tell ourselves our life is. What we want others to think is our life.

Ultimately, the lines between what we want to portray as our life and what our life really is become blurred.

The social media community is one where members are constantly competing with each other to get the attention of others. It is a community that creates a need for its members to constantly produce and share material. A need that is fueled by social media giants whose success depends on generating massive amounts of data. Data that enables them through its processing to make successful predictions, which is the source of their huge profitability.

The “end of privacy” as we knew it comes at the time of the “end of the ability to forget.” The information we share online “has the potential” to exist forever.

The combination of these two issues — our transformation into content producers and the possibility that the material posted will exist forever — is changing the way we define public and private.

Turning Ourselves Into a Brand

Information posted to stay forever becomes pieces of a puzzle that reveal the digital self, whose existence has real-life implications.
A user’s digital identity can be used by a prospective employer in the hiring decision process, used as evidence in a lawsuit, used by people who intend to cause harm.

A presence on social media — LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter — is becoming for an increasingly large part of the population an integral part of getting and keeping a job.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The “purest” example of this is the influencer, whose entire source of income is presenting themselves online and achieving popularity.
But social media is also the medium through which many “knowledge workers” — i.e. workers who manipulate, process or make sense of information — promote themselves and build their brand.

Journalists use Twitter to learn about other stories, but they also use it to develop a personal brand and an audience that can be tapped.
People use LinkedIn not only for resumes and networking, but also to post articles that authenticate their personality (their brand) as managers or entrepreneurs.

And we, as photographers, depend on the digital persona we build. We are under a pressure to constantly present new material through our social media accounts. We are punished by the algorithm if the ratio is not satisfactory. We produce more material that “works better” on Instagram, photos made to be viewed through the small screens of mobile phones. We post them in a way and order that visually satisfies the senses. We try to keep the attention of other users on us as much as possible in a world where attention is a precious limited resource for which competition is constantly intensifying.

We seek the greatest possible visibility. We chase virality.

More and more, we learn to act as if we are celebrities, personas in some Big Brother show whose success depends on the attention and love of the audience. We depend on likes.

The Kardashians are the personification of a certain whole dominant philosophy, according to which anyone can succeed as long as they are “liked,” as long as their presence creates interest. As long as he is popular enough.

The word “branding” is perfectly suited to what is happening, as it emphasizes what the self becomes: a product.

At the same time, the rise of smartphones makes it possible to produce material 24 hours a day.

In the early days of Facebook, a user had to take photos with a digital camera, upload them to a computer, and post them to albums. Now, the phone I have in my hands is a sophisticated camera, always ready to capture every aspect of life.

Programs on smartphones make photo and video editing quick and easy in a way we couldn’t have imagined until a few years ago. This increases the user’s ability to provide constant updates to their social media accounts and makes it easier to produce material to build the brand that is themselves.

In this context, the lives of a huge number of people depend on their social media image and the photos they post, and controlling that image becomes crucial.

The digital self has power over the real self.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The Man in Front of the Lonely Screens

All this at a time when we live more and more in front of screens and less with people.

Today, an average person spends an average of 6 hours and 37 minutes every day in front of a screen. The corresponding numbers for Gen Z (born between 1996 and 2010) are even worse: they spend over 9 hours a day in front of screens.

People spend 44% of their time when they are awake in front of screens. The majority of this time (3 hours and 46 minutes) is spent in front of mobile phones.

We are increasingly judging people based on what we see about their lives through screens, not the communication we have with them in the real world. We make decisions about people based on our impressions of their digital personas as we see them unfolding on the platforms of tech giants in front of screens.

At the same time, the more time we spend in front of screens, the more lonely we feel.

According to a recent survey by Cigna, younger people are the ones who suffer the most from loneliness.

Since 2012, in both the U.S. and the U.K., rates of depression among teenagers have started to rise. By 2019 — even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — they had doubled. More and more teens around the world said they felt lonely and as outsiders at school. This wasn’t just because teenagers were more likely to admit to negative feelings — behaviors linked to poor mental health, such as self-harm and suicide attempts, also increased around the same time.

The cause of these trends appears to be linked to smartphone use.

From 2012 onward, more people started using smartphones and were on social media for several hours a day. At the same time, teens also began spending less time with their friends in person while sleeping less time.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The following data are also typical:

Generation Z, the generation that spends the most time in front of screens to communicate, is the loneliest generation. The generations over 72 are the ones who are least lonely.

This is a reversal of the reality that was true until a few years ago, when the problem of loneliness was mainly related to older people.

The Image of the Self That Becomes an Alienation Factor

According to the head of the psychiatric clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital, Dr. Laurel Williams:

“The sense of community ceases to exist. We spend a lot more time in front of screens rather than talking to other people. But if there is no community to turn to, then the feeling of hopelessness has nowhere to go.”

Fear is even prevalent towards the self who is constantly under self-evaluation and always finds himself underserved. Unable to make the right decisions, unable to free himself from bondage.

What the self is is always in opposition to what it should be, the self is in opposition to the “ideal self”, this “true self” that must be liberated in order to achieve individual happiness, individual success.

The individual learns to live in a perpetual present. It projects idealized forms of the self through social media accounts, which do not correspond to what it is. He communicates more through them. He depends on them.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

A natural consequence of this process is low self-esteem that does not allow the self to be “loved” and exacerbates the search for that which will allow “love”.

The “solution” is always sought at the individual level.

Renowned social psychologist Sherry Turkle notes that there is something very disturbing about our times. Eventually, the individual reaches a point that the self envies the fabricated image of the self that is projected on social media:

“We see the lives we have constructed digitally where we only show the best of ourselves, and we realize that our real lives are far from the lives we tell others we are living.

We see the self we have constructed as an Other and feel inferior to it. We envy him because we cannot be like him. This creates a sense of self-envy that is deeply alienating.”

We feel inauthentic, hypocritical, guilty, we hate our own avatars — the idealized versions of ourselves — which we can never reach. We hate the carefully constructed brand that has become our self.

We are emotionally attached to them because we have invested time and energy in developing them. They take control of our lives.

The image of the self becomes an agent of oppression, like an inverted portrait of Dorian Gray in which the protagonist must always mirror the false and flawless. It reminds him that the acceptance he receives is for what he never really was and can never be.

In fact, the only ones who really see our true selves behind the manufactured facade are the companies that shape the architecture where digital personas are deployed, collect and study the data of our existence, categorize it, identify patterns of behavior that they then use to improve their predictive models that are the source of their huge profits.

The age of selfies, the age where we share photographs of every aspect of our lives, where we feel such a great need to protect our image, that we voluntarily abolish our privacy and yet we want to have control over how we present ourselves on social media — because this has a real impact on our lives, because we increasingly communicate through digital personas — is also a lonely age: it is the age of envy. Envy of others but also of our own flawless portrait of ourselves that we try to project and which ultimately becomes a factor of alienation.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The Reality of Street Photography Against Virtual Reality

In such a context, street photography, despite operating in and flourishing through the same world, is a danger.

In the age of filters that change the shape of faces, of individuals trying to get closer to the ideal filtered version of themselves, that many people choose and go for plastic surgery trying to resemble the flawless filtered versions of themselves as projected on social media, street photography that captures the imperfections of reality, that doesn’t necessarily capture “the best version of the self” but often the worst, the sad, the skeptical, the frustrated, is an enemy.

It is a stone that can fall on the mirror of the (flawless or at least selectively worn and therefore “true”) image of the self that we carefully construct and crack it. It is recognized as a violation not of privacy but of the ability to protect our brand of self — its economic value — by maintaining control of our image.

This is a time when black cats are not murdered as they were in the Middle Ages, but remain unclaimed in animal shelters and are euthanized because they are not enough “selfie-friendly.” They die because they don’t “write” good on cameras.

Street photography does not flatter, it does not necessarily show the best version of ourselves, it shows what we are at a particular moment under the gaze of another. And for a street photographer, a black cat — the aspects of ourselves that don’t flatter us — can be a very interesting subject to photograph.

Promptography As a ‘Solution’ to the Problem of Privacy

It is important here to point out trends that are also coming up that oppose street photography or provide a “solution” to the problem it poses. One such is the proliferation of generative art forms of artificial intelligence. Promptography is gaining a growing popularity with the material produced fooling even experienced photographers. Prompts are verbal nudges in a specific direction of artificial intelligence to create an image that resembles reality.

Prompting provides a “solution” to the problem of privacy and anonymity since what is being recorded — although it may capture an image we have come to identify with street photography — does not actually exist. But it looks more impressive than the real thing.

Already, street photography accounts on social media are posting such creations. The majority of users can’t tell the real from the fake and because the result is so impressive, many of these posts get a very high response. They go viral. These images capture a reality that does not exist or if it does exist it is very rarely captured in the way it is captured in the image created by the algorithm.

In the majority of cases, it is not stated that what is presented is the result of mathematical equations translated into an image by algorithms, and the impression is left that they are real photographs taken on the street.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

A World That Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult to Conceive

A further issue that arises from the emergence of photography is that real photographs now seem much more ordinary and less impressive. Reality is no longer “liked” enough.

But even photos that are extremely impressive, users find themselves in a position of questioning whether they are actually real or whether they are the result of artificial intelligence.

It is very difficult and rare for a photographer to be in front of a truly unique moment. Even rarer is to capture it. He must have developed his craft and have the talent to perceive what he sees, to be in the right place at the right time, at the right angle, with the right light, to press the button at the right split second. Not a fraction later or earlier because otherwise he will not be able to uniquely capture what is taking place.

For an algorithm, all these conditions are unnecessary.

An algorithm with a series of appropriate prompts can produce such images on a mass scale at any time at the push of a button.

A photographer can spend many years developing his art. But all of this process associated with his development and his personality, the knowledge he has gained, the skill he has developed, is put to the side of the interest of other people whose attention is now turned to another image produced because someone, probably with little or no experience in the art of photography, wrote a phrase on a bar, on a computer, and pressed “enter.”

The rare and unique becomes trivial.

In the context of an economy of attention, the material of the majority of photographers is in danger of being marginalized.

Obviously, such a development is particularly disheartening for young photographers whose art has not yet developed.

But it may prove more problematic for the art of photography itself. What emerges is that the one who is thrown out of the artistic process is the artist himself. The person is left out of the picture, both as the one who as a photographer captures what is happening and as the one who is the subject being captured.

The virtual dominates.

The artificial is identified with the extraordinary, the out of this world, the real with the ordinary.

The boundaries of real and fake are blurred to such an extent that now all that matters is how efficient the material presented does within a social media architecture. In fact, we are fast approaching the point where we will need the intermediary of machines to recognize what is real. We will have lost trust in our senses. We are “hacking” the human ability to perceive reality.

The real danger is that the artistic creations that will dominate our world in the near future will not be the result of the imagination or vision of humans, but of machines that will be fed by previous creations of humans but increasingly by the creations they themselves create.

From virtual sex — sex without the risk of contact — to A.I. companions — companionship as a consumer product, tailored to the needs of the individual, without the inevitable problems of human relationships, to promptography — images that simulate photography but without real people — we live in the age of simulation. But what is lost is the journey that man must take to conquer something. The artist is not only his work, but also his journey until he arrives to produce it.

The question that arises is: If all that would matter is the destination and not the journey to get there, what stories would our ultra-modern Ulysses have to share?

What kind of memory would he have left behind?

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

The Need to Bring Man Back to the Forefront

In this newly wondrous virtual world, recording reality as it really is, through the individual eyes of real people, although recognized by many as a danger, is in fact becoming a necessity.

We need street photography to get a true picture of a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to perceive, hidden behind filters, in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the artificial from the real. A world in which the artificial seems more real than the real. Often more interesting.

In the dystopia of the now increasingly near future, the street photographer sheds light on the darkness. He depends on light and shade to capture what is real, as opposed to filtered versions of the self and algorithmic images that have nothing to do with light or darkness, but with mathematics and deception.

At present, restrictions in many countries are increasing and street photographers are being targeted. They are adapting their style. They are increasingly opting for the play of shadows with light, silhouettes, hidden faces and expressions, as if to capture in this way a dark age in which Man is placed on a peculiar margin.

We keep more and more distance from Man. Fear prevails and street photography, with the choices made by the photographers, mirrors this fear. The growth of this type of photography will ultimately have succeeded in capturing something very true of our time: the prevalence of fear of Man, the distancing from him.

Aurelie Filippetti, Minister of Culture between 2012-2014 in France during the period when the country was ruled by the Social Democrat François Hollande, had stated that the restrictions placed on street photographers are unacceptable because “without them, our society has no face.”

She added: “We risk losing our memory.”

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories

But memory is the cohesive fabric of societies, even when we remember things we might want to forget.

Let us think again.

Is this the story we want to tell about our time to future generations?

A story in which shadows, digital personas, and projection dominate and the real person is absent? Where Cartier-Bresson or Josef Koudelka would have no place?

Is this the ground on which we want to build the future of our societies? A future without memory?

Photography is no longer the privilege of a select few, artists or professionals, but increasingly an opportunity for all.

The technological revolution taking place has brought photography to the center of our modern world and we have to choose what to do with it. We can turn the camera towards ourselves. But we can turn it outwards, towards the beauty that is the world we live in even when things get ugly.

It’s an opportunity to become better storytellers. Of real stories. And our stories can be more or less true.

It’s up to us.

Because, as Henri Cartier-Bresson said, photography is the recognition, in a split second, of the significance of an event — what is truly happening.

Because, in the end, man needs stories to share. Stories that give meaning to our lives. That are worth sharing. Our very existence depends on them.

It’s a necessity.

Giannis Angelakis street photography, privacy, AI, and human stories
Photographer Giannis Angelakis

About the Author: Giannis Angelakis is a street – documentary photographer and a journalist from Chania, Crete. He was born in 1979 and has lived most of his life in Greece. He was a Fuji X Ambassador from 2018 to 2024.

Image credits: All photos by Giannis Angelakis