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The Challenges of Street Photography lll

with one comment

I was planning to end my short discussion of street photography for now, but friend David Stensby pointed me to a post on Kirk Tuck’s Visual Science Lab. He’s well worth reading. Among other things, Tuck provides a thorough discussion of the laws on street photography in the United States.

With few exceptions (national security, etc), photographers in the US have the right to photograph anyone who is clearly in public. According to Tuck, you can even photograph a person who is on private property as long as he or she is visible from the street. This all assumes you’re not going to use the photograph for commercial purposes. You’re free to show your work to others as “art” or “editorial commentary.”

But Tuck argues that just because we have a legal right to photograph someone in public, this doesn’t mean that you should without permission, whether it be a subtle nod of the head or a distinct “yes.” He argues that in a civil society we should respect a person’s personal space, regardless of the photographer’s legal rights.

“If I’m part of society I need to understand that there are some unspoken rules that we all (to some extent) share.  One of those is to respect a person’s sense of security and safety.  Another is to respect a person’s circle of comfort and finally a respect for a person’s ability to control their own public image.  I may have the right to do something or take a photograph of someone but that doesn’t give me the ethical or moral strength to create unpleasant situations for the subjects.”   (The Visual Science Lab 05.08.2011)

Kirk goes on to say that he takes most of his street photographs with permission, and that “sneaked images seem like a cheat to [him].”  The exception is when something is fast breaking or funny. If noticed, he tries for a smile or some sign of approval. I wonder what he does when his shot contains several people, more than could be reasonably asked. That might need many smiles and nods, too many for me.

It’s hard to argue with Tuck’s insistence that in a civil society photo enthusiasts should be guided by moral restraints — social contracts. On the other hand, many good photographs, including some of my own, wouldn’t have been taken if permission were required.

Paris Jews at Prayer 2006


Washington DC Fountain 2010


Written by Ron Greene

January 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm

One Response

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  1. For me when you start getting permission you start moving into the realm of street portraiture rather than street photography… With permission people try to portrait what they think you want rather than the unguarded interactions that make street photography so interesting… But like I said thats just me 🙂
    Love the fountain shot.


    January 5, 2012 at 4:10 pm

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