On the Ethics of Taking Photos of Homeless People

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Every photographer has done it.

Correction: every street photographer has done it.

We’re talking about taking photos of the most unfortunate members of our society in terms of socio-economic status: the homeless. You do it. I’ve done it. Every staffer that’s written for this site has done it. But there is the notion that taking photos of the homeless is exploitation of their current terrible situation. Just think, would you want someone to take a photo of you down on your luck?

The homeless can also be seen as easy targets: they’re doing something often not considered the norm and their actions can make for a photo that captures a slice of life not normally seen.

But is it really exploitative?

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Let’s get deeper into exploitative photography. There is objectification: which is another big subject in the photo world. But to exploit these people as they are down on their luck is a whole different thing entirely.

We’re starting this off by saying that in public, pretty much everything is fair game. If you’re doing something that you shouldn’t be doing in public, someone has every right to take a photo of you. Ever read stories about the New York City subway and all the terrible and ridiculous things that people do on the trains?

If you catch these acts as they happen, you have every right to capture it.

Again, you have every right to capture it. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re focusing on whether what you’re doing is exploitative or not.

The answer to this question has to do with your intentions to begin with. So let’s get into it:

– Why are you taking the picture of the person?

– What about the scene attracted you to it? Was it the person? Was it the scene overall?

– Do you like the way that the scene looks?

– What’s the main subject of the scene?

– What are you hoping to achieve by taking this photo?

– Are there other people in the image besides the homeless person?

– What do you intend to do with this photograph?

– Where is this photograph going to be displayed?

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If any of the answers to those questions are for selfish reasons, then yes, you’re being exploitative. And as long as you’re not sitting on your death bed saying to yourself, “I really wish I didn’t take a photo of that homeless guy going through the trash can” then you have nothing to worry about. But at the same time you should remember this one thing: you’re taking a photo. Photography isn’t a crime and in some ways you’re documenting life as it happens. Documenting life isn’t a crime or exploitive. If you go around creating a body of work showing off the crazy times that we live in, then that is simply nothing more than that.

And that isn’t exploitative in any way.