Street Photography – ethics, etiquette or free expression?

Photograph from Belfast Exposed archive

Belfast Crowd 1990s

‘There is but one remedy for the amateur photographer. Put a brick through his camera whenever you suspect he has taken you unawares. And if there is any doubt, give the benefit of it to the brick, not to the camera. The rights of private property, personal liberty, and personal security – birthrights, all of them, of American citizens – are distinctly inconsistent with the unlicensed use of the instantaneous process.’

The Camera Fiend, Bill Jay, 1986

Beyond ethics and etiquette, Belfast Street Photography (Slugger O’Toole, 12 Feb 2012) and the responses it has drawn, calls attention to the perplexities of social interaction between strangers in so much of contemporary life. The article celebrates individual rights in a free society – “…you don’t have to ask for their permission!”- but in a way that sets ‘citizen’ against ‘citizen photographer’, provoking appeals for restraint, not to mention a degree of sympathy for the reluctant bus inspector: “Looks like you published (his picture) out of spite!” and “What happened to old fashioned good manners?”

Provocations around street photography go back a long way, almost as far as the beginnings of photography itself. In his 1986 essay, The Camera Fiend, Bill Jay provides numerous instances of public outrage against the intrusive street photographer, dating back to the earliest days of mass photography. Although expressed and experienced in deeply personal ways, these confrontations often connect to broader social currents, nuanced by the political anxieties of their times. So, when asked to write a report on photography in public space by the Manifesto Club, a group which campaigns against official regulation of everyday life, the thorny history of ‘citizen photography’ offered a good starting point.

From the late nineteenth century, new technologies and factory production were placing cheap, portable cameras into the hands of the unregulated, unqualified and – from elite perspectives – the downright disorderly masses. Alongside these technological advances, British society was being transformed, as a more skilled working and lower-middle class emerged to fill new administrative and technical roles, created during the second phase of the Industrial Revolution. As if responding to these new democratic forces, photography began shifting its gaze from lofty themes of science and classical art, towards the commonplace arrangements of men and women, homing in on the detail of their daily transactions and conversations. As city streets, railways stations, seaside resorts, factories, shipyards and public buildings became sites of human interest, the camera would soon become as ubiquitous to modern life as the tramway or the typewriter.

Amidst broader challenges to traditional notions of good manners and deference, the business of taking pictures and posing or performing for the camera was becoming part and parcel of everyday experience for millions around the world. Throughout the twentieth century, for every Cartier-Bresson, countless unskilled ‘citizen photographers’, largely anonymous, were recording almost every aspect of human experience, from intimate family occasions to uncensored images of war. They have bestowed a vast photographic legacy, which informs our collective consciousness of the history of the modern world.

At the beginning of the 21st century, photography is once again resurfacing as a site of heated political contestation, amidst a flood of arbitrary and often downright bizarre interpretations of privacy, security and public order rules, by police, community safety wardens, private security guards or self appointed ‘jobsworths’. When grandparents Kim and Trevor Sparshott were marched out of Fareham shopping centre in early 2008 for taking ‘unauthorized photographs’ of their grandchildren, security staff insisted that cameras were banned to protect commercial property and because of the risk of terrorist attack. On holiday in London in March 2009, Klaus Matzka was photographing the iconic Arup- designed Vauxhall Bus station with his teenage son, Loris. A couple of policemen, quoting anti terrorism legislation, ordered them to stop, took their names, passport numbers and addresses and told them to delete a number of ‘sensitive’ images.

There may be no over arching ban on photography, but suspicions around public photography alongside creeping, and often incoherent, restrictions around what can be photographed, have become commonplace. From a historical perspective, the impulse to regulate photography in public is profoundly anti- democratic, not least in its preoccupation with safeguarding private and political interests against the interests of ordinary men and women. Whether by accident or design, citizen photography has served the public interest well, in as much as it upsets vested interests with something to hide. Restrictions on photography clearly limit citizens’ political freedom to ask questions of the world. From the videotape showing Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, ‘accidental journalism’ can challenge political certainties and help expose the misdeeds of those in power to public scrutiny.

In everyday life, photography can simply be understood as a concentrated way of looking and a means of communicating what we see to others. This curious and enquiring ‘way of seeing’ records individual experience, while permitting reflection and reengagement from the distance of time and from other points of view. Like any form of human interaction, from striking up a conversation, to exchanging a smile, the intention behind making a photograph, spontaneous or considered, often remains unresolved or even unknown to those involved in the exchange. From a human perspective, official restrictions on citizen photography betray a menacing compulsion to micro-manage behaviour, relationships, even thoughts.

For most of us the business of taking and viewing photographs – among family and friends, let alone strangers – will always be nuanced by questions of courtesy, decency and good taste. Whether in public or private, the intrusion of the camera challenges our sense of entitlement to choose what to reveal and what to conceal about ourselves. Away from heated confrontations, legal claims and counterclaims, most people accept that photography is hedged around with the necessity for consent, often negotiated amid conflicting notions of public and private space. In Britain at least, perhaps in recognition of the intensely personal, not to say messy nature of photography’s contestations, the state historically preferred to keep its distance. Where a breach of the peace was threatened, the boys in blue might intervene. Otherwise, throughout most of the twentieth century, through wars, cold wars, public disorder, IRA campaigns and countless national emergencies, aside from a small number of plainly identifiable ‘security zones’, British citizens have enjoyed almost unhindered rights to take pictures of anything or anybody in public space. More recently, in a climate of fear and suspicion, fuelled by alarming reports of terrorist alerts and predatory paedophiles, uncertainties around the limits of personal freedom are making room for a new and often muddled form of authoritarianism. In a climate of uncertainty, where the mere act of looking may be enough to trigger suspicion, a new authoritarianism is finding expression within photography’s perennial contestations.

For me, the most interesting photographs in the Belfast Street photography sequence are the least confrontational, suggesting prior negotiation or simply mutual awareness. If the extension of official regulation into the fabric of our everyday lives is diminishing our capacity for self-regulation, our commitment to negotiate the limits of freedom with each other becomes an act of resistance and solidarity. Can we agree to stand together as citizens against the anti- democratic impulse to police the public gaze?

, , ,

  • wild turkey

    “Can we agree to stand together as citizens against the anti- democratic impulse to police the public gaze?”

    Yep. And i say that as the over-protective father of a 12 year old daughter.

    following on from the previous slugger street photographer post i read a blog on ’10 things Cartier-Bresson can teach you about street photography’. It stated:-

    “When Henri Cartier-Bresson would shoot on the streets, he would stay as low-key and unobtrusive as he could. I even read that he would cover his chrome Leica in black tape and even sometimes with a hankerchief to make it less noticeable when he was out shooting. Most of the images that he captured his subjects were oblivious of the camera, and thus truly candid.”

    full link below

  • I only looked at the “other” thread as a consequence of reading this thread.
    First a confession.
    Over the past few days, I have been active with a “camera” (it actually looks like a phone but isnt) in the Upper Donegall Road (Belfast) and Bangor, County Down. I have not taken photographs of people. Whether or not it is my “right” is irrelevant. I have a responsibility to behave with manners.

    We have in fact had this discussion…..albeit accidently …when a photograph featuring a young child was published on Slugger O’Toole. Rather than discussing the merits of the photograph itself, the discussion seemed (its my recollection) to be about the ethics of photographing anyone without their permission.

    Frankly it amazed me that I could be in town with my grandsons and a photographer could photograph them just because they looked cute. I dont think thats a good reason to photograph MY grandchildren.
    At what point does that become harassment? A second photograph? A third?
    Is there a difference between a man with a camera and a photographer (professional or otherwise)?.
    What remedies can be taken if you feel a photograph has been taken of your 12 year old daughter or your 9 year old grandson?
    If the photographer has a regular “beat” would it be permissable to phone 100 of your very best friends to come and take a photograph of him……his house….his car…..his family?
    Lets see how protective of photographers rights then?
    Oh thats different.
    Most of us who have 12 year old daughters (I dont) or 9 year old grandsons (I do) have been in circumstances, church occasions, school occasions, sporting occasions where we have been told to be careful of photographs…..only take “our own”. How revolting therefore that our children can be in a “public” place and be photographed.

    I fully understand that there can be security implications. For example in 2009 I asked two members of the PSNI if my American friend could take their pic in Custom House Square during the Tall Ships event. They were both riding bicycles and…..they willingly gave permission.

    Frankly the clinging to “its my right to take a photograph…..and glory in the fact that a man doing his job about Belfast City did not want his photograph taken and publish it anyway…… hypocritical.

    I note our citizen photographer took no pics of policemen. He thus thinks they have or are entitled to better protection than a bus inspector.
    But what if the bus inspector was a younger man and built like Mike Tyson ……what photographer would insist on his rights?

    But there are two issues arent there?
    A photograph was taken without permission. It would seem there is no legal dimension.
    Or an ethical one.

    But a photograph of a man who did not want his photograph taken has been published on this website. And the publisher has been advised that it was a photograph of a private citizen going about his ordinary business who witheld permission.
    No legal dimension?
    No ethical dimension?

    Do the readers have an ethical dilemna also? Is it wrong to put the question to photographer and publisher? Have we no responsibility ourselves?
    We have now actually seen a published photograph of a man who did not want to be photographed and actually used as such.
    What is OUR next step?

  • Neil

    Every candid shot is a shot of someone who has not expressed permission to be photographed. That’s a lot of photos people take exception to. I doubt anyone would object to photographs of events where the subjects have not expressed their willingness to be photographed.

    We can take pictures of all sorts of legal and illegal marches, pictures of police being violent, people committing crimes and any other nature of event that happens in public. How would you legislate that you cannot take a photograph of something happening in a public place, and if you could would you really want to? Photojournalism would be dead in the water in an instant. You want to publish a picture of a cop beating someone half to death? Get his permission then. Good luck with that.

    I understand the sensitivity of someone with a child (I have a 3 and a 5 year old myself) but that’s not really the subject of the thread – that being not about paedophiles taking pictures but unwilling subjects like our man above. But you can’t create a law that protects him without it protecting violent police, criminals and so on. If it happens in public I’ll photograph it. However it pays to understand that there’s a line between photography and harrassment.

  • Surely the Public Interest test applies.
    Is there a public interest in deliberately taking a photograph of a bus inspector just to see if he will object? Is there a public interest in publishing the photograph on a website.
    The bus inspector was merely doing his job.
    Today comes the news that a press photographer doing a meaningful job in Syria was killed…..walking around Belfast taking photographs of strangers (just because you can) is not the same thing.

    If a bona fide journalist walked around Belfast and took photographs with the same intent……..would the Irish News, News Letter, Belfast Telegraph feature a series of photographs of people under the title “People Who Didnt Want To Be Photographed”? I think not.

    The bus inspector is not merely a bus inspector. He is a man with a name.
    I think there is a certain irony that very few people (myself included) use a real photograph of ourselves.on our gavatar (sp)……this is presumably because we dont want our image to be seen on a website.
    We cannot therefore be legitimately at ease with actually taking a photograph of a complete random stranger and publishing it…..just cos we can.
    That is a shocking double standard.

    When we enter a sports ground, take part in a parade, there is acceptance that we might end up on TV or in the papers. But thats quite different from someone actually taking a photograph.

    The Law frankly is an ass. And as has been seen in another forum, when people mis-use the right to act responsibly and with good manners, then the Law should intervene. Theres a whole Inquiry about that.
    If people dont know whats decent we have to make laws to spell it out.

    A photo journalist wandering around looking for the photograph that will make his fortune is one thing. Or modelling himself on photographers from the late 19th century or “Picture Post” days is bizarre……likewise the notion of a Citizen Journalist and Citizen Photographer.

    If the balance of The Law is wrong…..or legislation is required, for new technology, then so be it. It could all be avoided if people just had manners.
    About 50% minimum of the people walking around Belfast today have the capacity to take a photograph…with phones etc.
    All it needs is a pressure group to deliberately draw attention to the poor behaviour of photographers by just taking pics of strangers and insisting the police defend our “right” to do so.

    The Law would pretty soon change.
    And that would be to the detriment of real photo journalists.

  • CommentOnStats

    “amidst a flood of arbitrary and often downright bizarre interpretations of privacy, security and public order rules, by police, community safety wardens, private security guards or self appointed ‘jobsworths’. ”

    There was this case of a young journalist ,

    That was told by police that taking photographs of a cadet parade in a public area was “anti social”.

    Obviously, you can have ambivalent feelings on this matter. Many people, me included, do not like having a camera pointed in your face even on a public street. But yet I am reminded of another story where a shopping precinct sought to ban photograpy and then had to rescind the ban one reason being that for practical purposes it was difficult to tell the difference between someone texting and using their mobile phone to take photographs. Banning Joe Public from taking street photographs still leaves all these CCTV cameras, police, property owners, security guards and the like photographing to their hearts content. Such a situation seems to be at variance with the concept of a free society somehow.

  • If a bona fide journalist walked around Belfast and took photographs with the same intent……..would the Irish News, News Letter, Belfast Telegraph feature a series of photographs of people under the title “People Who Didnt Want To Be Photographed”? I think not.

    Not under that title, but it happens virtually every day, in many newspapers. Leaving aside the public interest argument (court snatches, pap shots, doorstep shots), Brendan Murphy used to do a series every day in the Irish News of a candid street scene. He’s a fantastic photographer, and I have no idea if he obtained permission, but I think the whole thing largely comes down to common sense.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    I’d say that most street photography, including Brendan Murphy’s, involves scenes that just happen to include people. Most street photography I’ve seen doesn’t consist of the Mr Ulster method of getting into somebody’s face and taking photos of them despite their objection. But then I wouldn’t claim to be an expert.