When photographers go out to take pictures of public places, they are bound to catch a few pedestrians in their shots. Civilians are often the main target of street photographers across the world. Taking pictures of strangers in public isn’t illegal (in most cases), but it can make people uncomfortable and may lead to confrontation.
Here is a brief discussion of the line between legal and ethical street photography. Stick around until the end for a few tips on how to make your subjects a little more comfortable.
The Controversial Case of former Fujifilm Ambassador Tatsuo Suzuki
In 2019, Japanese photographer Tatsuo Suzuki was at the height of his career. He was an ambassador for Fujifilm, shooting photos daily and enjoying life. Then, in the early months of 2020, Fujifilm produced a short video to promote their newest digital camera. The video featured Suzuki out on the streets of Tokyo and showcased his rather invasive photography style, which involved getting right up in peoples faces, often cutting them off or approaching them rapidly. Although the images are technically beautiful, the surprise and discomfort of the subjects are evident in the finished photos. In fact, Suzuki has confirmed that this is the effect that he was going for.
When the video came out, fans immediately had something to say about Suzuki’s particular brand of street photography. Many people thought he was being disrespectful of people’s personal boundaries. Japanese culture values courtesy, so his transgressions were all the more noticeable.
On the other hand, some people had no problem with his methods. It’s totally legal to take pictures of people in public and he wasn’t touching them or talking to them so it doesn’t qualify as harassment. If he was a little belligerent, so what? It’s all in the name of art.
In response to the outrage, Fujifilm took down the video and purged it from YouTube. They also revoked Suzuki’s ambassadorship to avoid further controversy. The question is, was this justified? His actions were rude, but not illegal. Should this have cost him his job?
Data Protection on the Internet
We live in an age of cameras. They’re on our phones, in the corner of stores, in the elevator at our apartments and offices, and even in our doorbells. If you live in the US and you spend any time in public, it’s estimated that you are caught on camera 30-70 times per day. That is no small number. In a sense, you are consenting to having your likeness captured on film simply by walking out your front door.
As our lives become more and more digitized, a lot more of our data is accessible to the public. Certainly, cybersecurity has become more advanced, but at the same time we’re all so used to putting our lives online that most of us don’t even think twice. Images of your face are scattered all across the web. There’s no way to know who downloads your Facebook images, profile pictures or screenshots from your Instagram posts. In fact, you’re probably in the background of dozens of tourist photos.
This isn’t meant to scare you. Your life will continue as normal no matter how many photos of you are out there. You’ve lived your whole life up to this point surrounded by surveillance cameras, and they aren’t going away any time soon. The truth is, there are so many people in the world today that you still blend into the crowd.
Some artists would say that taking photos of people without their knowledge captures their true essence of a person removed of self-consciousness. The camera becomes an invisible spectator and the subject in the image becomes void of personal identity as through art they are transformed into embodying a universalism.
But there’s something different about street photography, especially when it’s as invasive as Tatsuo Suzuki’s. Sure, you may have been caught on every security camera on the block, but now you’re the central focus on a photograph taken by one specific guy who is standing right there in front of you. Suddenly, you’re being singled out. You aren’t just another random person in the crowd. In a world where you’re used to blending in, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable in the spotlight.
The Privacy Rights in Public Space
In most parts of the world, it is legal to take pictures of anyone on public property.
Any place that isn’t private property counts as public property, but it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. Some public spaces are not on public property, like shopping malls and most parking lots. Stores and restaurants are usually privately owned, and sometimes the property line extends further into the sidewalk than you think. Additionally, some parts of public property are considered private spaces, like bathrooms and hotel rooms. Therefore, it is illegal to take pictures of people in these private spaces without permission.
If you are on private property, you need the permission of the owner in order to take pictures. However, you do not need permission from the subjects of your photos. You are also allowed to photograph private property without permission as long as you yourself are on public property (eg. taking a picture of someone’s house from the sidewalk).
If you intend to use your images commercially (that is, to promote a brand or company), various copyright laws may apply. For example, some buildings are trademarked so that their likeness cannot be recreated without express permission. Commercial use includes your personal portfolio, if you use it to sell your images or photography services. It’s usually a good idea to have some type of consent form on you in these situations or find a model who will sign a model release.
Of course, privacy laws differ by country. In the EU, images with no additional information attached (metadata, name, etc.) are not considered “personal data” and so are not subject to the rules of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Some countries like Germany and France have tighter restrictions on privacy.
In the US, privacy rules will vary by state. You can refer to this guide for details. Make sure you read up on your area’s laws before going out on a shoot.
This is not legal advice. Please consult the laws for your area to avoid legal action.
How to be a Respectful Street Photographer
Now, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s good. Each photographer will have their own personal ethical code of conduct. In other words, you should only take pictures that you are comfortable taking.
There is certainly a tricky balance between candid street photography and informed consent. Part of the appeal of street photography is that it’s authentic and in-the-moment. Sometimes you have to act fast and take a picture without asking first, in order to capture the moment you want.
Here are some Tips when shooting Street Photography:
- One of the best things you can do is make sure that the person you’re representing is not the central focus of the image. If the only people in the image are part of the crowd, you aren’t singling anyone out.
- Unless you’ve arranged to use someone as a model beforehand, try to not follow people or make them feel singled out.
- Don’t feel shy to ask for consent. You can talk to your subject before or after you take the picture. Many people negatively react to lack of consent and not to the photograph itself. Not only will you be able to let them know your intentions, you’ll also be able to promote your work and gain a wider audience. Keep a business card or Instagram hashtag handy to share. Some people will probably be into it, and you’ve just earned yourself a new fan.
- If you do find yourself in a confrontation with someone you took a picture of who doesn’t want their picture taken, it’s best to remain calm and polite. Explain what you’re doing, whether it’s for an exhibition or just for fun. If you’re in a public place, If they ask you to delete the photo, it’s up to you whether or not you do so. you’re well within your right to take pictures of anyone without their consent. Some photographers will do it just to be nice, and others will stand firm.
- If you are on private property, get permission from the owners, that way if people are wary of your intentions or actions you can confidently reassure them that you mean no harm.
- Try to be extra sensitive when singling out images of children. Parents are rightfully protective of their children’s safety and privacy, so ask for permission before and keep a consent form on hand.
- Take note, if you are on public property, that doesn’t give you the right to shoot into private property.
- If you plan to use the images for commercial means, keep consent forms on hand.
Remember, you can still create beautiful works of art using Street Photography without being a creep!