Street Photography: Ethical Dilemma


When is it ethical to post a street photograph online?


The photo above has posed a personal quandary for me. Firstly as a fan of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson it’s the perfect “decisive moment” street photograph. Taken a fraction of a second earlier or later and there’s no story, no impact, no photograph worth talking about. It’s not perfect by a long shot but that’s because it’s not staged, there’s no models, lighting or studio. I had to accept the conditions as they were.

Secondly, the subjects of the image are blissfully unaware that I’m snapping them while they munch on an early lunch. And lets face it, this isn’t the most flattering photo ever. I’m sure a lot of people would be a touch annoyed at having their mug stuck on the internet mid bite on burger.

So the question is should I even post it? Well yes, but purely to generate some debate on the ethical question. I’ll come back to this a bit later, but first…

The story behind the picture.

Burger me
The original image. Taken with Sony NEX5, fixed focal 50mm f/1.8 lens.

It was a bright sunny morning in the town centre and I was here specifically to do some street photography. A little earlier I had been to a presentation on the subject by Tom Warland where he also discussed work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. There was a small carnival like parade going on and most people had stopped to watch. I stood there looking for opportunities when I saw this pair sit down with their food. They caught my eye purely because of the juxtapose in dimensions.

The tricky part of course, having realised an opportunity like this may present itself, is lining up the shot without being noticed and then actually capturing the “decisive moment”. Not being noticed wasn’t easy. I had the camera down at waist height using the tilt screen to line up my shots and I pivoted about keeping half an eye on what they were doing and the other on what was going on about me. They did notice me but assumed I was just fiddling with the camera I think and just before the moment happened I turned slightly towards them to frame the shot, paused with them in my peripheral vision, not looking directly at them and >pop< got it.

I didn’t even look at the picture on the camera, I smoothly pivoted away and continued to watch the parade. I didn’t take any more, just one single photo.

Street Photography or Reportage?

Its my opinion that every good street photograph should tell a story unless it’s actually a street portrait where the subject is an interesting face. This photograph in particular talks to me on a global scale, when I look at it I see not just the obesity challenge we face as a modern western society. I also see a small lean country nibbling its food and ready to face the run for a bus and next to it a large wealthy country shovelling in its food in but slow to adapt or run for a bus even.

For me this photograph is no longer street, its reportage, its gone beyond two people sharing lunch on a Saturday to a statement of where I feel we are as a nation, as a society. This is a photograph for the News of the World to use to headline another health warning. Well it would be without those reflections. Shame it wasn’t the usual flat light we get in Britain. But purely for my benefit, the reflections add shapes and contrast that I enjoy.

So is it ethical to post this image?

Most of the people I have heard answer the question on if its ethical to post a photograph fail to answer but instead leave it down to a personal decision on your own judgement. And to be no exception to the rule I will happily sit on the fence. I would not have put this image on my blog if it hadn’t captured that “decisive moment” and if it hadn’t allowed me to write a post on the very dilemma itself. So, no I probably shouldn’t have posted, but it’s too late now.

Some people will argue that nobody has the right to shove a camera in a strangers face and take the photographs, let alone post them online. Even more so if there are children in them. In fact the issue over photographing children I agree with to a degree, If the subject of the photograph is a child then permission should be sought first in one way or another. I’m a parent and know how I would feel. However I don’t think screaming “Pedo” at photographers or threatening violence should be tolerated either. Its never happened to me because I wouldn’t take the photo but I know at least one photographer that’s been on the receiving end.

As for adults in a public place its fair game but as with this photo I still wouldn’t normally post it online. Maybe I should, maybe my personal uncomfortable line is set a bit too low and I need to adjust it.

As always I welcome all feedback, let me know how you feel about the photo, would you post it? Where do you stand on the moral or ethical issue?

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