The ethics of street photography are widely debated, and for some, have become a little tired.
One of the oldest, most common discussions is whether or not we should take photos of homeless people. The topic came up at a previous year’s Street London event. Some say yes, it’s all fair game. Others suggest it’s taking advantage of a person at their lowest point. Personally speaking, I no longer take images of homeless people. I see no purpose to it. When we start to make our work ‘socially aware’ we need to be sure we are making a difference with it. The truth is that a photo of a homeless person won’t change the world, nor should it be used to show how connected you are to societal issues.
In reality, you will just have an image of a homeless person on your hard drive, doing absolutely nothing. In the process of that you have likely made someone feel like a trophy – some sort of freak show that you have used to create your ‘art’.
Exception to the Rule?
There are some exceptions to the rule, however. Sometimes, the photographer is able to maintain the dignity of the person whilst also creating a powerful and meaningful image. Take this street photograph by Matt Stuart for example.
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The shadow casts the image of a cross on the shelter of the person sleeping rough. The image provokes thought and encourages you to reflect on the deep pain people like this have to face on a daily basis. You cannot identify the person, and their dignity remains intact.
However, the truth is, images like this are very few and far between – you could say they are a once in a lifetime kind of photograph.
The likelihood is that, if you were to take an image of a homeless person, it is probably going to look more like this…
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The image does not tell us anything we do not already know about the world. It is just another photographer thinking they are edgy, taking advantage of another human being. The dignity of the person has not been kept, and their identity is fully exposed for all to see.
Something to Consider
We all take advantage of the law in relation to street photography. The public setting means all systems go in terms of making photos. However, there is one thing I would like you to consider before you next take an image of that person living on the street.
After a long day of asking for money, substance abuse, or generally being looked down upon by many people who walk by – rough sleepers have to find somewhere to take comfort. And wherever that place is on the street, it becomes their home. A place to try and relax and rest, before they have to endure their difficult life again the following day.
So, yes, it is a public spot for us. But to them, the unfortunate reality is that they have to make it as private and homely as they possibly can. We wouldn’t like people poking their cameras into our house, would we?
And if you still insist your image has purpose and worth, buy them a coffee, give them a couple of pounds, or have a conversation with them.
At the very least give them their humanity; something they are so commonly stripped of.
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This post was originally published on Dan Ginn’s former photography blog; which he dissolved.