Street photography, soul and ethics, revisited – a personal view

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Man, or the idea of man?

Not to flog a dead horse, but I want to pick up from where the one of the earlier articles hinted and left off: the topic of ‘soul’ in street photography, and what that means in terms the increasingly grey ethical area for photographers. There are also legal implications involved, and we’ll discuss those in passing – individual territories have different regulations, so it’s really in your best interests to check before shooting.

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Street photography in context: diversion, documentary or nuisance?

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The Police are everywhere. Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

After spending some time thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that street photography – I prefer to think of it as ‘reporting on life – is an increasingly popular genre of photography for several reasons:

1. It’s easy to do, and accessible to all – the barriers to entry are low. Wildlife or say automotive photography, for instance, is not. There isn’t any setup involved beyond remembering to take your camera with you when you leave the house, no matter where you live.
2. The definition of the genre is extremely broad; to the point that you could probably almost say there was no definition at all. This means it’s both open to much creative interpretation, and also an excuse for anybody whose generic images have no specific idea or subject in mind.
3. As humans, we are psychologically drawn to other people: no man is an island. Street photography lets us get our fill of humans without having the tread the social minefield of heaven forbid, actually having to interact with them. (It’s a bit like the internet in this regard.)
4. Everybody likes to play documentary photojournalist once in a while.
5. Building on from #4, some photographers have a burning need to record everything and everybody around them – I’m one of these people – and sometimes we just shoot out of compulsion, because our compositional minds just simply do not turn off. Having trained yourself to see workable frames in the most unlikely of places, it’s difficult to un-learn this skill (or curse, depending on whether you’re the photographer or the one waiting for the photographer to hurry up).

I believe the sum of these things is that street photography falls into one of three categories for the vast majority of photographers and audiences – diversion, documentary, or nuisance.

Diversion
For the unafflicted photographer, it can be a nice genre to experiment with when you have the desire to shoot something, but you have no clear subject in mind. Taking a walk with a camera allows you to go in with a blank but receptive mind, and just wait for an endless parade of subjects to pass you by. They’re all time-sensitive, however; if you don’t react fast enough, they’re gone. This doesn’t matter, however, because there are always more subjects where they came from, and you weren’t going out shooting with something specific in mind anyway. Serendipity is probably the best way to sum up your overall attitude towards it.

Similarly, for casual viewers, street photography can provide an interesting window into the lives of others; an unusual or otherwise missed moment preserved for posterity. You see it, appreciate it for a little longer than the actual fleeting instance of the moment, and move on. It doesn’t really stick in your mind.

Of course, this all depends on the strength of one’s compositions; of chief importance for all images, street or otherwise, is having a prominent subject and a clear idea of what the image is supposed to achieve or say. Purely aesthetic images are fine, too; but the execution must obviously support the idea.

Documentary
Those who take street photography a bit more seriously start to tip over into the documentary category – they view the images they capture as preserving a slice of life, or singling out an interesting instant from the constant flow of life around them. This is of course a continuum; you can be looking for just that little bit more over your normal street photographer, or you could be very, very serious about the decisive moment like HC-B. These photographers don’t always have a clear idea of what they want in an image, but they recognize an interesting scene when it happens and are ready to respond and capture the shot.

I think I fall into this category. Whilst I still make some images that I consider to be aesthetically pleasing rather than saying anything strong or documenting a particular moment of life, I do look for something out of the ordinary in my images; I think it’s probably the natural progression for all street photographers as they eventually land up with far too many ordinary looking images. This leads to seeking the common theme that separates out the strong images from the weak ones – and it always comes back to idea, subject, and execution (which covers framing, light, processing etc.)

To some extent, as a competent photographer, I feel that we have a moral duty to record life for posterity – especially so in fast-changing environments such as developing countries. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood of downtown Kuala Lumpur for the last seven years; in that time the landscape and flow of people has changed so much that there are things I don’t even remember seeing, much less capturing, in my old images from just a few years ago. If we, the first hand observers, don’t even remember – how are any future generations going to manage? I’ve shown images to fellow residents, and will inevitably be told at least once or twice something along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen that before’, or ‘Where’s this? So nearby, really?’.

The observer must therefore be an impartial one, with an abstract but fixed idea of what is ‘ordinary’ in their minds. This is something that gets harder and harder the longer you live in a place, or the more familiar you get with it; the foreign soon becomes the commonplace and soon you won’t notice anything at all. Observation and recognition of differences is an innate human skill; but continuous observation and attentiveness is very much a trained one.

The nuisance
In trying to be both observers and recorders, we must endeavour not to become public nuisances. In a previous article, I talked about the ethics of street photography and the importance of maintaining basic human standards of politeness and courtesy; something that many modern photographers choose to ignore behind the pretence of anonymity, or simply choose to ignore. It’s true that we feel less inhibited as photographers when we are not in our own comfort zones or cities of residence; at the same time, this is when we are also at our most observant and probably least culturally sensitive state. It’s worth remembering that what we might not find culturally offensive at home could well be the opposite overseas.

Often, the most interesting things happen well within the boundaries of polite personal space; intruding that makes me (personally) feel uncomfortable; it’s important to remember that we as photographers have both our personal and group reputations to maintain – it certainly won’t help anybody if street photographers are eventually perceived as being at the same level as paparazzi.

So where does this all leave us?

My personal opinion – and I stress this is highly subjective – is that those of us who have the ability and inclination, should go beyond the realm of causal snapping and treat street photography as social documentary/ reportage; try to say something with every shot, but at the same time, do this in an ethical way that doesn’t intrude on the privacy, rights or personal space of the subject(s). The overarching goal should be to preserve these little vignettes on present-day life for posterity; this also means making the work accessible and viewable to as great an audience as possible, which is one of the reasons why I use flickr.

I’ve noticed that my personal street photography style has evolved over the years from – get a worthwhile composition, to get people in frame, to get as close as possible, to cinematic style with plenty of OOF areas, to get close but retain context. It seems that today I’m working towards a style that documents man in the context of his environment, natural or built; I don’t specify a man and his individual, personal characteristics as much as use that figure as an abstract for the idea of humans in a particular situation. Where you choose to take it (and if you even bother with street photography or reporting on life) is very much a function of personal style – something you will have to discover and define for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I just thought it might be interesting to throw another perspective out there. MT

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Street photography – the ethics of photographing random strangers

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Paris, Leica M8, 21/1.4

Street photography is a genre that every photographer will try at least once in their career. Its broad appeal stems from the fact that you can do it anywhere; there’s a human element to the images that captivate the viewer, and if done well, can make for some extremely arresting images. However, it also requires balls. You have to get close enough to your subjects; and with people, invading personal space is uncomfortable (and possibly hazardous to health) for both photographer and subject. There’s a slight snobbishness about shooting with a longer lens, too – it isn’t seen as being hard core enough. In fact, these days, it seems if you’re not at f8, hyperfocal distance and sticking your camera and flash right up to somebody’s nose, then you’re not really doing street photography.

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London, Leica M8, Zeiss 21/2.8

There’s another approach, though. I think it’s much, much harder to shoot wide open with a relatively wide lens – say nothing longer than 35mm – and shoot without your subject knowing you’re there. This is what I like to call the stealth method – you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, and better yet, shoot without even bringing the camera to your eye. It takes a huge amount of skill and practice to nail shots this way, because you must be able to both guess focus correctly (if manually focusing) or know where your AF box is going to go – and at the same time know your lens well enough to visualize the field of view. You also have to be incredibly fast about it, because moments are fleeting and not repeatable. I’m not going to name names, but there are a number of popular ‘street photographers’ who don’t and can’t do this because it’s extremely difficult to do, and the yield rate is quite low for ‘perfect’ shots.

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London, Leica M8, Zeiss 21/2.8

*Shameless self plug: all of the images in this post, and all of my street photography, is done using the stealth method. When I was in practice and shooting hundreds of frames daily, I could zone focus accurately with my M8 and 21/1.4 at f2. Not anymore, sadly.

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Oxford, Leica M8, 21/1.4

However, the biggest benefit to this approach is the fact that you don’t intimidate or scare your subjects. If you don’t make somebody angry, they’re far less likely to be unhappy or actively object to you taking a photograph. And if people do notice, don’t stare back or give a stern look – though it’s usually human nature – wave and smile, and you’ll be surprised how many people wave and smile back at you. They may even strike up a conversation and let you get a few more interesting images.

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Paris, Leica M8, 21/1.4

There’s also the more subtle issue of quantum mechanics**. Basically, you as the observer won’t interfere with the scene – if you become a participant in the image, then the reaction you provoke from your subjects will necessarily disrupt whatever it was you initially wanted to capture. Bottom line: be anonymous, unmemorable, and blend in. If you’re in a touristy area, this might mean pretending to take random photos of everything and anything, whilst actually being very specific about what you’re looking for. Or it may mean using a compact and holding it in your hand, always being aware, and getting a grab frame in whenever you can. It means having to be both anticipative and reactive; you’ve got to be a bit of a psychologist to figure out who’s going to do what when, so you can visualize the scene in advance and be ready to capture it.

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Prague, Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

**I deal extensively with the Schrodinger paradox and its application to photography here.

This brings me to the real meat of this article: what are the rights and wrongs of street photography? A comment by one of my readers on another post inspired the post; yes, I do shoot a lot of random strangers, especially when traveling, and there are often shots I see but may not take for various reasons. I don’t think it’s so much lack of chutzpah as the feeling that it may not be socially acceptable or ethically appropriate in various situations; photographing beggars and cripples is one of those things. Using people to portray contrasts or as anonymous human-scale elements in a frame is fine, but the one golden rule I stick to is that I’ll never take a shot that’s demeaning or potentially defamatory. You wouldn’t want the somebody to do the same to you, would you?

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Prague, Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Then there’s the issue of where and when – in most countries, you’re allowed to photograph in public effectively without restriction. There may be certain rules on tripod use because of obstruction or perceived ‘commerciality’ of the images, but that varies from place to place; in any case, most of the time I don’t use a tripod because of the weight and inconvenience. However, private property is exactly that: private. So if you’re told not to photograph, then you probably shouldn’t. And never use images for commercial or stock use if you don’t have the agreement of any identifiable individuals in the image. (Editorial use is different; you don’t need releases for people in news stories, but you also can’t really sell the images for anything else other than news.) Finally, I would be careful in politically sensitive countries or around police or other law enforcement agencies – they may have good reason for you not to photograph something, and ignorance isn’t a defense in court.

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Kuala Lumpur, Leica M9-P, 50/0.95

Finally, remember that in an increasingly connected world, we aren’t anonymous. It’s entirely possible for somebody to see themselves on another site somewhere; in fact, it’s happened to me a few times. It may be because I just look at more images than the average person and thus have a higher chance of seeing myself somewhere, but I’ve also had people message or email and say they were the person in the shot. I usually just send the person a copy of the image by way of thank you; in any case, you can’t do anything commercially with it, so there’s no harm in releasing a copy.

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Prague, Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

I think if you stick to what your gut tells you about common sense and public etiquette, then you should be safe. Unless you’re a photojournalist, it isn’t worth getting the shot and then getting in trouble for it – there are exceptions, but they’re far and few between. Practice being fast and stealthy, but also courteous and friendly; and you’ll find that street photography isn’t so difficult after all. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!

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London, Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

An ethical dilemma

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The scavenger, Canacona Beach, Goa, India
M8 and 50 Summilux ASPH

Suppose you are a photojournalist assigned to cover a humanitarian crisis. Do you help out, or do you keep shooting? I recently had this discussion with a fellow pro shooter and photojournalist. We both agreed that being behind the camera desensitizes you; it acts like a mask for you to hide your humanity. But that’s not right, either. We are all human beings. And we musn’t forget that the ultimate goal of photojournalism is to tell a story; the better we tell that story, the better we can raise awareness about the events that are transpiring, and in turn do our part to help.

So the right answer is yes, we help out – but we do what we do best, and help out by shooting.

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