A Lot of Street Photography Is Just Bad and Exploitative
Street photography is a particularly tough genre to achieve success in: it takes a combination of a quick eye, good instincts, and a dose of bravery, and even then, a little luck certainly helps. Personally, I think that even with that taken into account, a lot of street photography is simply bad photography and exploitative of the subjects.
Before I jump into this, let me be clear that there are absolutely some street photographers whose work I adore and have nothing but the highest artistic respect for. There is the underappreciated work of Helen Levitt, which is a gorgeous, instantly nostalgic look at life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century with a particular penchant for humanizing its subjects. There is Elliott Erwitt’s work, which often takes a refreshingly lighthearted approach to the genre.
There is André Kertész, whose work is the sort that makes you stare at an image for minutes at a time. And of course, there is Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photography is absolutely a genre that when done right, can produce stunning works of art that can teach us a ton about photography. Unfortunately, it often seems to go wrong, and those photographs still somehow get elevated.
Of all genres, street photography probably is (or has the most potential to be) exploitative. This is because it is one of the few genres in which the subject often does not give explicit (or even implicit) consent to having their photo taken or might not even know it is being taken. For example, photographing the homeless is almost never advisable. One could argue photojournalism falls into the same categorization, and it does on the surface, but the motivations for photojournalism are much different.
If you look at the work of the best street photographers, you will not find telephoto lenses. It is always a 35mm lens or something similar. Such a focal length does not allow the photographer to spy from afar. Rather, they have to be among those they are photographing as a part of their environment. This encourages the photographer to do a better job of empathizing with and humanizing their subjects. It generally forces them to interact with those whom they are photographing, and that can result in not only better photos, but less exploitative, more symbiotic, and more respectful interactions. Using such a focal length generally forces the photographer to make their presence known and to address the concerns of their subjects. And if we are going to use people for our art, isn’t it only fair that they at least have a say in that?
This is the sort of street photography I hate the most. It is more an assault than it is photography. What I am talking about is the sort of photography where the photographer intentionally invades the subject’s personal space in a brash way so as to provoke a reaction. I am talking about the Bruce Gildens of the world. You can see what I mean below:
Of course, if you intentionally surprise someone by jumping in their face with a camera and flash, you are going to get a reaction. What is that accomplishing, though? The photo you caught is not genuine. It is not the person in a state natural to them. It is not the person interacting with their surrounding environment. All you have captured is the person reacting to being harassed by you and your camera. What photographic value does that have? What artistic value? I know this sort of photography has some sort of audience, as it still gets views, but I personally hope that the test of time is unkind to it and relegates it to a footnote that says it was more about harassing people for pictures than any sort of skilled photography.
Legal But Not Right
This builds off the previous point. Under American law, essentially, if you are in a public place, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy and are fair game to be photographed. This is often used as a fallback justification for people taking photographs in questionable situations. But you do not have to be a student of history to think of plenty of examples where legality did not coincide with morality.
There are plenty of situations in which it is legal to photograph someone, but it is not necessarily right. Of course, every person has their own set of moral guidelines as well as a range of behavior they deem acceptable, but there are certainly situations in which I think the majority of people would agree that using a camera is not right. I personally don’t like any sort of photography that makes unwitting people uncomfortable for the sake of the photographer’s art, though I understand that in a genre like street photography, there will be situations where that happens inadvertently despite the best of intentions, and in that case, it really comes down to a photographer’s ability to be empathetic, diffuse a situation, and show respect. Rather, I am talking about more blatant acts — things like photographing a car accident when you aren’t a photojournalist or standing at the edge of a playground with a long telephoto lens.
This is probably what all my gripes with a lot of the genre come down to. Being empathetic means understanding that many people do not share our level of comfort with cameras, particularly in environments where their presence is not expected. It also means acting in a way that respects that level of comfort — or lack thereof. To ignore this in the pursuit of one’s own creative endeavors is inherently selfish. Of course, what level of this is acceptable is an individual decision, but I think street photography often falls on the wrong side of the line. The truth is, I do believe that street photography is a really important genre, especially as it acts as a document of everyday life. But I also believe it needs to be done with respect for its subjects.
Yes, I spent this article on a moral high horse, and you are perfectly within your rights to tell me I have no right to sit there, lobbing moral judgments at an entire genre. It is just my opinion at the end of the day. What do you think?