Street Photography: A Short Guide to the Ethics for New Photographers

If you’re unsure about ethics in street photography, we’ve got you covered.

Street photography is a polarizing craft. Peaking into the world of others – albeit in a public space – is rejected by many. Street photographers are often mistaken for aggressive, disrespectful, voyeuristic oddballs by those who are unable to accept the practice. But alongside this mentality, are people that don’t bat an eyelid when a photographer is hard at work. They’re intrigued by the process. But love it or hate it, street photography is fair game in most developed countries, and you don’t break laws by practicing it. But even if you’re in line with the legalities, there are ethics that you need to uphold. Not to be safe from the authorities, but for the good and longevity of the genre.

We’ve put together this guide to help you make the right judgments. Essentially, it’s up to you to live by your own ethics, but we’re confident everything listed below will put you on the right path. And while some of these may seem a little obvious, spend time in a street photography group, and you will learn many people didn’t get the memo!

Don’t Photograph Homeless People

Nobody needs to show the world that homeless people exist. When they go outside, they see it for themselves. Exploiting a homeless person for your “art” doesn’t benefit anyone. It may make them feel like a trophy, and that’s not cool.

Keep A Distance From People Who Are Upset

We don’t want to go as far as saying avoid taking pictures of people who are upset and/or crying. It’s a normal human emotion and documenting that should be part of the craft. That said, you don’t need to go all Bruce Gilden and get right up their face. Keep a reasonable distance and do your best to make sure they don’t know you’re there.

Don’t be a Voyeur

There may be a time you see an attractive person, and you wish to photograph them. That’s cool. But don’t create images that sexualize that person. Avoid things like butts and breasts being the main focus of your image.

Don’t Escalate Confrontation

At some point, somebody will confront you for taking their photo. It’s a sensitive time in society. You want to avoid the arrogant “I’m not breaking the law” approach. Always deescalate and explain your reasons, showing an understanding of their concerns.

Don’t Shoot For Ridicule

There are many people on the street that don’t fit into the societal “norms.” If you see someone, and you think their image is funny (at their expense) don’t photograph them for your own entertainment. The amount of images we see of obese people that offer nothing in the form of creativity is worrying. This isn’t art; it’s bullying. Don’t do it.

Think Before You Post

Today photography comes in two actions. Taking the photo and then sharing it with everyone online. If there’s a reason you felt compelled to make a picture, it may not always be the best idea to publish it. It may be someone getting arrested, someone getting attacked, or someone acting foolish. Although we’re not saying they shouldn’t go online, at least ask yourself first, “would I want people to see me on the internet like this?”

Respect a Person’s Right to Say No

There will be times when people will anticipate that you’re about to their photo. Before taking the shot, they may request that you kindly don’t. It’s best to respect this, rather than ignoring their wish not to be photographed. Ask yourself how much value they’ll add to your image. How important are they to your body of work? The answer is likely to be not that much. Taking their photo will only trigger an unnecessary confrontation.

Help Someone Who is Suffering

The role of street photography, documentary, travel, and photojournalism are often confused. As a street photographer, your job isn’t to tell the worlds most compelling stories. It’s to document everyday life in a more light-hearted fashion. If you see someone in pain, or desperate for help, don’t see it as a great photo opportunity; help them to the best of your abilities.

Do Photograph Children

A major point of confusion for street photographers, especially males, is if it’s okay to photograph children. The answer is yes, of course, it is. There are some terrible people in the world, but most of us are not one of them. Children are full of character and vibrancy, capturing that is a beautiful thing.

Street Photography is About Empathy

If you’re a street photographer, don’t go in with an “us and them” mentality. Although in a public space, we are inviting ourselves into peoples’ private moments. Lead from a place of empathy and respect. Show gratitude to the fact that you live in a world that allows you to create art and unique moments. Be on the same team as your subject. View the craft as you and your subject(s) collaborating on a piece of recorded history. And be a good person. Your experience and the experience of the public will be much better because of it. And the street photography scene will continue to thrive, and be accepted in a world that is becoming more and more sensitive about privacy.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host of professional photographers within the industry.