Click! A street photographer captures a moment in time, a story of a public place that will live on forever.
Street photography is an art form that allows us to explore the world and document the human experience. But is it necessary to ask for permission before taking photographs in public spaces? And what are the legalities of this creative pursuit?
As a photographer, I think it’s essential to put some thought into what subjects you should and shouldn’t photograph and whether or not you should ask for permission from subjects. This article will discuss street photography’s ethical implications so that you can capture those meaningful moments respectfully. I also take a look at getting permission for street photography on a legal level, as I don’t think you would be able to practice much street photography if you’re locked up in the slammer.
Is It Legal to Take Pictures of People on the Street?
In general, people have the right to privacy in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside their homes or in their backyards. However, in places where there is no expectation of privacy, such as on a public street, people do not have the same legal protections.
If you’re a fan of street photography like me, fortunately, it’s legal in the US since there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces. That means street photographers are free to capture photos of people without consent in public areas, including public parks, sidewalks, and city streets.
Many other countries have similar laws allowing street photography. However, some countries restrict what can be photographed in public places. For example, in some parts of Europe, such as France and Germany, street photography is legal, but restrictions apply. In Germany, you’re not supposed to take photos of people in a helpless situation, such as they’ve been in an accident. Similarly, in France, you’re not supposed to photograph people if it would cause them harm.
These are examples of countries with some restrictions on street photography, but in general, the penalties are not severe, other than the potential of being sued by individuals for damages caused. Many street photographers practice their craft in these countries, so it’s more of a case of being respectful and avoiding taking photos of people in compromising situations.
Knowing the laws in the places you photograph is important to avoid legal issues, as laws are nuanced and vary from one country to another. So if you’re unaware of the laws where you live or if you’re thinking about doing street photography while traveling, it’s a good idea to get familiar with them.
International Variations in Street Photography Laws
Street photography laws and regulations vary across different countries, reflecting different cultural attitudes towards photography and freedom of expression and free speech. For photographers who frequently travel and practice street photography, it is important to be aware of these variations to avoid legal complications.
Some have enacted strict privacy laws and rules, making it illegal to photograph an identifiable person without their explicit written consent. One example is the United Arab Emirates, where taking photos of someone without their consent is illegal and considered an “actionable offense”. Violation of their photography laws may result in “a fine and a minimum of six months to a one-year jail term“. This is on the more extreme side of things, and I’d prefer to stay out of an overseas prison, so I wouldn’t risk it there. The important thing is just knowing the laws relevant to where you photograph.
Cultural Attitudes Towards Street Photography
Some countries have different cultural attitudes towards street photography, which are sometimes reflected in their legal frameworks. For example, in some countries, people may feel more concerned about privacy and would be uncomfortable being photographed in public spaces without permission.
In Germany, for example, people are a little more uptight about having their photos taken. If someone asks you to delete a photo, I recommend just complying with their request, as there’s no reason to get into an unnecessary confrontation over a single photo.
In contrast, in other countries, there may be a more relaxed attitude towards street photography as a form of artistic expression or as part of daily life.
Permission to Take Photographs in Public Spaces
When it comes to taking photographs in public spaces in the United States, permission is not required by law. This means that street photographers are free to capture candid images of people without seeking explicit consent.
However, it’s worth noting that if you do ask for permission to take someone’s photo, you’re veering into something that’s not necessarily street photography, and you may lose the spontaneity and sense of candidness that defines this style of photography.
Of course, individual perspectives vary on this issue. Some photographers believe that it’s always best to ask for permission, while others feel that candid street photography is more authentic and true to the spirit of the art form. Ultimately, it’s up to each photographer to decide how they want to approach this ethical issue and what feels most appropriate to them.
Regardless of your personal philosophy, it’s important to remember that there are significant limitations to what is considered acceptable behavior for photographers in public spaces. While permission may not be required, I think it’s still important to be respectful of people’s boundaries and to avoid making anyone uncomfortable whenever possible. Common sense and ethical considerations should always come into play when doing street photography.
A Note on Government Buildings and Areas with Heightened Security
When it comes to street photography in and around certain government facilities and buildings, there are additional rules and regulations to consider. In areas with heightened security, such as near government buildings that house important officials or sensitive information, there may be restrictions on photography.
Government buildings that you’re not allowed to photograph around typically have signs posted indicating that photography is not allowed or that it’s only permitted in certain designated areas. If you don’t notice the signs, you may find out anyway by getting a visit from someone in a black suit and sunglasses telling you to stop having your photographic fun.
I don’t have any moral quandaries with taking photos at one of these sites, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the security guard may not be very pleased with you if you get spotted.
Permission to Take Photos at Private Property or Businesses
Taking street photos on private property is another issue that I don’t have any ethical reservations about, but the laws on this are entirely different than taking photos in public places or public property. In the United States, it’s up to the property owner as to whether they allow photos to be taken.
If the owner or representative of a private property doesn’t want you taking photos, they may ask you to stop or even delete your photos. Taking photos on private property isn’t illegal, but if you don’t comply with the policy of the property owners, you may be asked to leave, and if you don’t, that could be considered trespassing.
Expectations of Privacy in Public Spaces
When it comes to street photography, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces. In general, individuals are not legally protected from being photographed in areas accessible to the public. However, just because you can legally take a photo of someone doesn’t mean you should.
As a street photographer, I think you should be mindful of others and be respectful. Just like in any other setting, a little etiquette in street photography goes a long way.
It’s important to use your own judgment and consider the impact of your photos, especially if your subjects are vulnerable or in a sensitive situation. By being considerate and thoughtful in your approach to photographing public spaces and people, you can help to create a positive, respectful, and ethical culture around street photography.
Guidelines for Considerate Street Photography
When it comes to street photography, I’m very much in favor of doing it respectfully. While there are generally no legal barriers to taking photos of individuals in public spaces, there are still ethical considerations to keep in mind.
Using some common sense and trusting your intuition when taking pictures of people goes a long way. This means being mindful of your subjects and avoiding taking photos that could be invasive or disrespectful. I put more thought into it if I come across a situation that could be embarrassing for someone. Additionally, you might not notice everything in the moment, and you may come across photos in your editing process that don’t line up with your ethics, in which case you refrain from publishing the photo.
If you do street photography for long enough, you’ll invariably come across situations in which you’re confronted. My advice for these situations is to remain calm and explain that you’re doing artistic photography. It helps if you have a small portfolio booklet with you or if you have your portfolio easily accessible on your phone that you can show people. I like having a QR code that you can offer to let people scan, that takes them to your website. I’ve found that most people are pretty reasonable if you give them an explanation as to what you’re doing.
I mentioned it previously that in some cases, people will ask you to delete any photos you took of them. Again, I think it’s best to respect their wishes and move on. Keeping photos of someone who asked you to delete them is a hill that you don’t really need to die on, as the situation doesn’t happen frequently enough to affect your street photography output on any significant level. I sometimes offer to delete photos after explaining what I’m doing, even if no one asked for it, if I think it’s going to help diffuse a situation. Ultimately, the important thing for me is getting on with things so that I can continue taking street photos.
In general, I believe that as a responsible photographer, you should consider the potential impact your photos could have on the people in them and act accordingly.
Respect for Homeless People and Other Vulnerable People
I think street photographers should be mindful of the impact their work may have on vulnerable populations, such as homeless individuals. Rather than exploiting or exoticizing their situations for commercial purposes, photographers should strive to capture the humanity and experiences of these individuals in a respectful and dignified manner — if you photograph them at all.
For many homeless people, homelessness is not a static situation but one that can evolve and change over time. Many homeless people get into their situation from having a catastrophic event happen in their lives, such as having an illness or becoming disabled. My biggest concern for including homeless people in street photography is that it may cause them shame or embarrassment about their situation, which is far from the goal of my street photography. I also wouldn’t want to harm a homeless person’s ability to get employed/improve their situation in any way. Lastly, I don’t think prominently featuring a homeless person in a street image is particularly compelling visually and is too easy.
I’ve seen some compelling photo projects on homeless people, but they were done in a documentary photography style with permission from the subjects, and the photographer was formerly homeless.
Should You Ask for Permission in Street Photography?
In general, my advice for street photographers is that no, for the most part, I don’t think you should ask for permission because then it veers into something other than street photography. It would be impossible to ask everyone in frames with a lot of subjects anyway. In general, I think you should ask for forgiveness after the fact rather than asking for permission, although there’s a lot more nuance to the subject than that.
There are several factors to take into account when making the decision to ask permission to take someone’s photo on the street.
First and foremost, consider whether the photograph could reasonably cause harm or embarrassment to the subject. If the answer is yes, it can be a good idea to ask for permission.
I don’t shoot photos of the homeless (unless they’re a small part of the composition, maybe), but if you’re thinking of photographing people who are homeless or other vulnerable people, I would ask permission, as the person may not want to have their photo taken in their current situation.
Of course, if you’re going to take street portraits, then, by all means, ask for permission. I think street portraits are a related but different genre. Although I do think street portraits can work in a street photography project.
Another situation I think where it’s reasonable to ask for permission (or strike up a conversation with someone but not explicitly ask for permission) is when you’re in a space where it makes it completely obvious that you’re photographing someone. In situations such as this, I’ve talked with people up close to me and included them in the first layer of the frame while photographing subjects further away that I didn’t get permission.
When it comes to asking for permission in street photography, I think the important takeaway is to be considerate of others and put some thought into who you’re photographing before clicking the shutter button.