On Respect in Street Photography
Just like it’s very important to know and understand what Street Photography is, and specifically, what Street Photography is for you, it is essential to understand your own boundaries with respect to what is acceptable to you in terms of street etiquette, respect, boundaries, privacy, and personal spaces.
If you have set boundaries for yourself, and they are fairly strict in that you do have boundaries and you abide by them, then I applaud you. If, on the other hand, you have few, if any, boundaries, then I ask you why? It’s easy just deciding “photographing homeless people is OK” or “bumping into people to photograph their reactions is OK” because why not? Other people do it.
The question I have is, how did you get to that conclusion? Did you put any thought into it, or did you “decide” that easy, self-serving decision? Did you only think about yourself? About how it will make your Street Photography life easier with no decisions to make while shooting and no boundaries? And, did that decision-making process include any thoughts about the homeless people themselves, their situation, the people you run into, or other people’s personal spaces?
There is way too much to think about and talk about but let’s talk about a few points when it comes to the homeless, and then I’ll let you know about some of my boundaries.
The homeless are not homeless. The streets, or rather, certain places on or near the streets, ARE their home. They often pick and live within a community because they like the feel of the community, or perhaps the community is more respectful than other areas, or perhaps they get more handouts in the community they choose to live in, or perhaps it’s the neighborhood they grew up in. There could be a multitude of reasons but remember that some have mental disorders, others have addictions, and some choose to live on the streets, perhaps because of financial difficulties. You and I have what we would consider “Homes” to live in. A place with walls, a roof, heat, water, and bathrooms.
More important than all those physical constructs is that we also have our Privacy. The laws are very clear on this; within our walls and in our homes, we can and should expect privacy. The homeless are not afforded that privacy by law in North America. Some countries have made it Illegal, including a general ban on Street Photography, to protect their citizen’s privacy. Think about this for a moment; you have Privacy when you eat, sleep, read, or do anything in your home. People with homes on the streets do not have that privacy. But they should. Perhaps the laws do not afford them that privacy, but your decency and respect should. And, in that truth, I always give them that privacy.
I think about where they eat and sleep as their homes.
Another thing Street Photographers do is trade coins or food for photos thinking this is acceptable. Again, an easy conclusion is made without any thought. From a respect perspective. Think about this, they are caught in this trap they cannot get out of, perhaps because of alcohol or drugs, but more likely because of mental disorders and often just because of bad luck, but in any case, they are stuck, trapped. Then a photographer comes along and offers them food in exchange for their photos. Think about this situation. They have no money and no food; they may be extremely hungry. How do you think they will answer? And, more importantly, do you think they have a choice?
If someone asked us the same question if we walked down the street, we WOULD HAVE A CHOICE to say, “No Thanks!” Our next meal would not be dependent on whether we let someone take our photo or not. The only reason most homeless would say yes, would be because of the predicaments they are trapped in.
If you think offering someone that is starving and may not have eaten any real food in several days is a noble deed in exchange for their photo, think again. If they turn down your offer, they may retain a little dignity and respect, but they will not get to eat. If they accept your offer, they will eat, but they will lose some self-respect that they are already very low on. Please do not put them in those situations. If you want to do a noble deed, give them food, no strings attached.
For me, I handle these situations in a different way. If I see someone that is not sleeping (I will never photograph homeless people sleeping) that I believe are photo worthy because of their look, or the space and lighting they are in, I will decide beforehand that I will give them money. Period. I will give them money whether they choose to let me photograph them or not (See my photo of Tony in a previous post.) I will then talk to them and will eventually introduce myself as a photographer, and if given permission, I will photograph them or not. Once our interactions are complete, whether I have images or not, I will give them the money (or often gift cards) that I had already decided to give them.
Using this method, they choose to allow themselves to be photographed or not without the pressures of deciding to starve or not. And, when I leave with or without photos, I know I respected them and their privacy in their home.
I frequent some neighborhoods over and over and often meet the same people that may have turned me down in the past. Once in a while, these same people have asked me to take their photos without any compensation. I will always abide if it will make a great photo or not.
I used to always go by this gentleman that was missing a leg and in a wheelchair that I spoke to on many occasions and would give him $5 most Fridays during my lunch break. He had originally turned my ask down, but I continued to talk to him, find out about him and his family, and his predicament, and one day, several months in, he said, “Hey, why don’t you take my picture and he gave me a huge smile, missing teeth and all.
I also carry these photos with me and hand them out when I see them again. Once I have photographed them and met them several times, and befriended them, I always ask them if they would like their portrait taken so that they can send photos to family. I have even given out envelopes with stamps.
I hope that this post makes you revisit your decisions on respect and privacy and that it makes you give it all some thought. If, after some real considerations, you decide that taking photos of the homeless is acceptable for you, perhaps because you are doing a ‘project’ on the homeless or not, then at least you have contemplated it and made an informed decision.
I will later post part two to this blog, where we will discuss Bruce Gilden and his adversarial Street Photography tactics.
For now, I see you on the Streets.