Ethics of photography

City Road, Sydney

Originally uploaded by scroobious_pip

On the weekend, I went out with my friend ‘4’. We often go for drives to take photographs – Bondi, North Head, Waverley, Sydney Harbour – all over the place. Mostly I take photos from the car, often while we are moving. At present I’m using a lens on loan from my brother (thank you!) a 70 – 300mm, so I’m often a long way from my subject.

Last Sunday, I was taking shots and 4 noticed a woman from behind with dreadlocks. Or rather one big dreadlock. We were in the middle of City Road, Sydney and on the move. I aimed in the general direction and took a photo.

The photo was too quick for me to notice any details. Only later when I reviewed my picture on the camera did I notice how thin this lady was; how ill-fitting her clothing was. I wondered whether she was homeless.

I then returned to a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while – the ethics of photographing people in public. No one thinks twice of photographing a landscape – although some councils are wanting to cash in! Often I feel people are part of the landscape. Of course if I wasn’t so far away and wanted to take portraits, I think it only right to ask permission. However, I’m with the artist John Salminen who said that people change once they become aware of the camera. He uses a telephoto lens so he can capture his subject from at least half a block away.

I looked at this photograph again and I wondered why in particular I questioned whether it was ok to take this photo. I seem at ease with taking photos of many people walking down the street. I asked myself whether I thought it was disrespectful to take a photo of someone who is clearly unwell. Then I thought… well, I would take photos of my friend who is blind without thinking that it was inappropriate because of his disability, so why should disadvantage and poverty be any different to disability? If I suppress the photo for fear of being disrespectful, have I just ignored this woman?

People who are homeless often report loneliness and social isolation as one of the worst parts of their situation. People describe feeling invisible. I felt if I erased this image this lady would be invisible to me. And that didn’t feel right. So, right or wrong, I publish this photo today.


Posted on August 24, 2010, in Art and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think we all feel the dilemma, even moreso today than when I started doing street photography in 1969. I often feel diminished by taking a person’s photo unawares. In San Francisco last June, I snapped a picture of a very dishevelled looking woman crossing the street next to a shiny new maserati, as the contrast was too perfect to pass on. She saw me, and came up to me without breaking eye contact. “Do you want a great photo?” She asked, opening her jacket. Underneath the thin cotten jacket, there were hospital dressings, dirty and oozing. “I just had surgery” she said “What’s the matter, don’t you think that was a great photo?” She walked away without waiting for an answer. There are other stories like this, of course, and mine isn’t the worst. But it caused me to wonder what my motivation was to “take” a picture. We don’t have the option of “giving” a picture. It’s always “taking.” Some photographers have begun paying street people for their photos. That is weird, as though their job is to miserably colorful now. I have decided for the time being to make eye contact, so the subject knows they are being seen and acknowledged as a person, and not an object. Then before I click I wait for a sign from them. IF they flinch or wave me off I smile and walk away. If they pose, so much the better. The only payment I give them is a direct friendly smile. If I don’t feel their equal, I discard the photo. It is a tough discipline. Really feeling others as equal is a tough discipline.
    And of course, I slip and fail too.

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