Ethics of Street Photography

Notes on ethics in street photography

Lisa Henderson’s essay is not so much an argument for or against a particular code of ethics, but instead a statement of how ethical considerations come to be informed. I have gone in for street photography on a few occasions, and much of her essay is concerned with photojournalism, but there are several points that I find helpful in clarifying my own experiences.

Henderson, referring to the work of Erving Goffman, says “the cultural issue is the individual’s right not to be stared at and examined”(Henderson,1988:359), and later “photographers are aware of the threats to privacy they sometimes pose when they work in public places”(Henderson,1988:359). This issue of not wanting to invade someone’s privacy is one that has proved problematic for me in the past, and perhaps comes down to one’s own willingness to transgress. Taking photographs in public obviously doesn’t require any form of licencing (not in the U.K. anyway), but I usually have the feeling that I’m breaking some rule or other.

On a fundamental level we can separate public photography into covert and overt categories. Covert – hidden camera – can lead to more candid shots, but one downside is the risk of being noticed.  The other primary concern here is that you can’t be sure what the results will be. Walker Evans used a camera hidden inside his coat on the New York subway for a series of photographs. Shooting in low light made this particularly hit and miss, but Geoff Dyer says “this was part of the attraction of the scheme”(Dyer,2006:19). I’ve tried covert photography in the past for more or less the same reason as Evans (see below), but I did feel uncomfortable.

Lisa Henderson is less concerned with covert photography than the transactional nature of overt work. One can work in a public place by making oneself as inconspicuous as possible, and one way to do this is to make it seem as normal as possible. If the passers-by notice but do not pay attention, the effect can be the same as if they did not see you at all. Philip-Lorca diCorcia took this to extremes at times, such as in his Streetwork series. Here he set up an elaborate lighting set in position to take photographs of passers-by going into shops, offices or gyms, but the overt positioning of the lighting meant that his subjects saw but ignored all his equipment.

Over at the far end of overt photography is the situation where the subject is made fully aware of being photographed. Henderson explores the complexities of the necessary transaction between photographer and subject. For instance, she points out “the situation is tempered further if the person is mobile, either walking, running, or riding a bicycle”(Henderson,1988:363). I’d probably exclude walking from this category but otherwise one – as subject – is less likely to be concerned with being photographed when otherwise engaged.

This transaction becomes more complicated when it involves asking the subject of they can be photographed. Sometimes just a conversation is enough, something to reassure them of one’s intentions. Sometimes a little more than just a request seems like a fair exchange. For my level  1 ‘Context and Narrative’ work I took photographs of stallholders at a travelling fair. Before asking them if I could photograph them I felt it only fair to pay for a few goes on their rides or games.

In another set, Hustlers, Philip-Lorca diCorcia took photographs of male prostitutes on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. diCorcia paid each subject for his time, at the rate they would normally charge for their services. This might seem excessive for a simple portrait but diCorcia knew what he wanted and that it would require time to set up, so in the end became a fair exchange.

For myself, much comes down to having the confidence to just go up and speak to people. I’ve only once been turned down, and in that case one has to just say thanks and walk away. As I said above I’m not that experienced in street photography but in reality people are usually quite nice about it. One aspect Henderson does not go into too much is the concept of model release, a document of some sort allowing the photographer to use the resulting photograph.  It may be because her essay is over thirty years old and she has primarily interviewed American photographers, but she says “not one of the photographers I interviewed, amateur or professional, reported ever using model releases for public photography”(Henderson,1988:367). Since I don’t intend – not yet anyway – to use any of my work for gain it may not be an issue for me, but I am not at all sure that this situation would still be true today. Surely photographers have to protect themselves?


Lisa Henderson Access and Consent in Public Photography (1988) in Wells, L. (ed.) (2018) The Photography Reader: History and Theory. (2 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.

Dyer, G. (2006) The Ongoing Moment. (s.l.): Abacus.

Dyer, G. and Ribbat, C. (2013) Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. (Bilingual edition) (s.l.): Kerber Verlag.

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