Privacy in Public; some thoughts on street photography

I need to write this post to continue things I wanted to say about the third assignment ‘The Decisive Moment’, otherwise known as ‘A3’.

I clearly went way, way over the word limit for the assignment (500 – 1000 words) and I don’t usually do that. I tend to stick quite clearly to it so the person reading it isn’t there all night. But this time I felt I wanted to write a lot more, so to save my poor tutor from all this reading I’ve decided to write a separate post about street photography and why I decided not to do it.

I wrote to my tutor that ‘I don’t take images of people,’ and that is certainly how I see myself. I feel I have a real problem with it, even when people want me to do it – like tourists in London for example who always seem to hand me their mobile phone with a slightly uncertain ‘do you mind’ kind of look on their faces – I still find it hard.

I spoke to my art teacher about street photography and my discomfort with it. She agreed with me. She said that she almost felt like she was stealing from the people involved, and I have had exactly the same thoughts myself. But sometimes I do try it if it seems appropriate. In Man at the Louvre for example, the man knew he was being photographed. I didn’t hide what I was doing, it was obvious. He clearly decided to pay me no attention and let me get on with it.

Man at The Louvre
Man at The Louvre


As part of the research for A3 I looked at the work of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, in particular his series ‘Heads’. I suppose it’s more portrait photography, but it’s taken in a public place, actually on the street. Here is an interview with him you can watch, it lasts 5 minutes and it’s really interesting. He set up lights to take photographs of unsuspecting passers-by; for ‘Heads’ they were on some scaffolding in Times Square. One of the people he used was clearly upset enough to sue him – perhaps others were just as upset but couldn’t afford to do that? Anyway, DiCorcia says

“I’m not sure I would like it to happen to me.”

Which begs the question -why do it to other people then?

Apparently, even though he wouldn’t want it to happen to him, it’s okay for him to do it to others. He maintains his right to do it, there are surveillance cameras everywhere and so that, apparently, makes it okay. The very existence of surveillance cameras means that, to him, there are

“no expectations of privacy in a public place anymore in this world.”

The obvious point being studiously ignored here is that people don’t tend to take images from surveillance cameras and show them in galleries as portraits. If they do and I’m wrong (and yes, sometimes I am), then they are going to be of such poor quality that even the mothers of the people involved would be unlikely to recognise them. There’s also the fact that no, people don’t expect privacy in Times Square, but they don’t expect a portrait photoshoot to happen without their prior knowledge, and they don’t expect to see a portrait of themselves that they might hate ending up in an art gallery.

I think this photographer’s attitude is disrespectful to the subjects. If I took a photograph and someone thought they might be in it, even at a distance, and felt upset by that then I would delete it immediately. I’d feel a moral obligation to do that. I certainly wouldn’t put someone through legal battles if they were upset with an image they appeared in.

Myself, I try to take images that don’t reveal too much of the people that appear in them and no, I don’t take portraits. It’s something I find really hard to do as the sense of connection seems quite intense.

Mona Lisa


Spider in the Tate Modern


Selfie with Vincent


For a while there was someone taking photos in the town I live in. He was (usually but not always) sitting in his car, snapping away and posting the images online. These included images of children, elderly and vulnerable people. I know one of the elderly people involved, a very sweet lady who talks endlessly about her younger days. She used to go into a cafe for lunch every day and it was a really important social event for her as she lives alone. But he decided to post her image online, and she was so upset and uncomfortable about it that she felt a need to change her whole routine and was left feeling vulnerable and shaken by the whole experience. She hasn’t been into that cafe since, as that’s where he took her photograph. But he too maintained his ‘right’ to do that. He just wanted to have a laugh at the expense of the people who he was using.

Clearly the issue of street photography is messy and complex. Every time I start taking images that include people I am thinking about the ethical aspect of this. Taking pictures of crowds, taking pictures in museums and galleries all seem okay to me, but maybe that is me justifying something that I do? Taking pictures of people in the street is fine, it just depends on the context; what they’re for, how they’re used and where you are when you take them. If I’m in central London I know I’m going to get in someone’s shot eventually, even if they really didn’t want me there. I took photos of people in The British Museum last week, I saw someone taking a photo that I would be in. I think I have a photo of that photo. There aren’t any hard lines. The rights of photographers have to be protected too.

I find myself wondering though, what I would do if I manage to get a photograph of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia that he didn’t like? Vigorously maintain my rights because everyone carries a phone with a camera so there is no longer an expectation of privacy? No, I don’t think I would do that. But I just can’t look at his work without feeling annoyed and upset that he’s put some of his subjects in a position they’re uncomfortable in. It changes the whole flavour of it for me.

The photo of a photo, as mentioned above.


Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


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