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?

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.