As many of you already know I have no qualms embarrassing myself in front of the camera. On a weekly basis I try and make myself look as ridiculous as possible to give you guys a laugh and make photography friendlier for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone in the world feels the same about having their photo taken especially unexpectedly in public. And so, one of the most consistent questions I am asked on my Street & Travel Photography Workshop is “how do you photograph people in public? Like, is it legal?” and I find myself consistency reciting the same line “to me it’s not about being legal or illegal, it’s about being ethical”.
Firstly, to set the record straight, there are no current laws in Australia that prevent you from photographing people in public with a few exceptions such as indecently photographing people or children but for us upstanding citizens we are generally unaffected. That said I prefer to follow a stricter guideline than the law in this case and follow my moral compass because at the end of the day just because I am allowed to do something, doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do. So today I want to share my thoughts on how to be an ethical street photographer (whilst of course, obeying the law).
As I don’t shoot many ‘unethical’ street photos I’ve decided to instead fill this article with street shots I love 🙂
1. We are not all Marilyn Monroe
We’ve all had minor wardrobe malfunctions before, none more famously so than Ms Marilyn Monroe herself. Now whilst she benefited greatly from having her skirt blown up past her head the average punter on the street is unlikely to reap such benefits. Perhaps a more real world example of people being caught off guard is our recent trip to Germany. We had the privilege of visiting Munich for Oktoberfest (for those who are unaware this is the biggest beer festival in the world). I was there to try my fair share of the golden ale but I was also out on a mission to put together a travel story and I tell you what, it was like shooting ducks in a barrel… except these guys were drunks on the street. By the end of the night, lederhosen-clad gentlemen lay strewn across the pavement displaying their beer bellies for the world to see. Does it tell a great story? Yes. Is it easy to photograph? Yes. So why the hell not??? Well, believe it or not, I enjoy a few beverages myself and on the wrong occasion that in fact could have been me or a friend. Do I want that moment captured in time and published for the world to see? Probably not. So follow that moral compass of yours, would the person be (reasonably) embarrassed to have that photo published? If yes then maybe the accolades you get for taking the photo don’t outweigh the negatives for the person involved.
2. We all have moments of vulnerability
There are currently over 100k people in Australia who are considered homeless. For many street photographers that translates to 100k photographic subjects across the nation because it ’tells a story’ or can be passed off as a ‘current issue’. I beg to differ. Unless you are a journalist who is raising awareness you may be (even by accident) simply taking advantage of an easy target who (as a very generalised statement) has ‘more character’. Whilst that might be politically incorrect for me to even say you can’t deny that we’ve all walked past the homeless camps around the city and thought ’that could make an interesting photo’. What is sometimes very easy to overlook though is that many of the people sleeping rough are in a temporary situation. It is hopefully a small dent in their path that one day will be entirely put behind them as they move on and live a prosperous life. What if you fell on hard times for reasons beyond your control only for that exact moment when your chips were down to be immortalised in someone portfolio? It wouldn’t be a great feeling would it? Legally, no, there is nothing they can do about it but you as a photographer have the ability to make a choice and if your compass points in the same direction as mine then the only thing we should have to do with this portion of our population is to be helping and not exploiting.
3. I’ve not yet been punched in the face
Believe it or not when you ask people if you can take their photo their reaction is generally not to violently attack you. I’ve asked many people over the course of my travels (and locally) if I can take their photo and nine times out of ten I’m met with a smile, a slight look of confusion followed by a yes. You see, there is a trick to asking people and it’s not really that… tricky. Tell them why you want to capture their image. “I really love that tattoo, is there a story behind it? Can I take a photo of it?”. This might sound cheesy when read but the reality is, people love compliments and so if you can offer a compliment or a conversation I nearly guarantee that people will return the gesture by letting you photograph them. Of course, this can result in slightly stilted photos so if you are after a sneaky version why not incorporate my technique from past tutorial Duty Free Portrait Shopping. To be honest, the worst thing that has ever happened to me for asking is a few people have said ‘no’. This is especially true for buskers and street performers, just remember that they are out to support themselves too, a great photo is definitely worth a few bucks.
So I hope that clears the air, I don’t mind if you take my photo when I’m out in the city but if I’m passed out on the sidewalk, in a compromising dress, temporarily displaced or my chips are down maybe try complimenting me first and I’ll likely say yes, just be sure to use my hashtag when you upload it to the internet 😛
Have questions? Shoot me a message on my Facebook Page
NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor am I in any way shape or form qualified to interpret the law. For the sake of simplicity the following is written for my intended audience, the hobbyist photographer and does not necessarily apply to commercial photography activity. Information in this tutorial was sourced from artslaw.com.au