Exploitation, or driving social awareness in Street Photography?

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Walking Past

I wrote a Facebook post in February, expressing some disquiet about exploitative street photography.

Street photography is legal in most public spaces in most countries, and is enjoying enormous popularity. Yet at what point does photography veer from story telling and  observation, reportage and documentation, possibly with a view to raising social awareness of issues – and at what point does it move into pure and unneeded exploitation of helpless subjects?

The post raised quite a debate, which I took as a very good thing. The “Thinking Photographer” is alive and well.

The image above was taken on a recent Paris trip. I at first hesitated to publish, as I wondered if I fell foul of my own concerns. Yet,  there is an important story here, of passers-by completely ignoring the plight of the woman. Both passers-by and the woman are completely anonymous in the image. Yet I admit to still being in two minds about sharing the picture. On due reflection I have decided to publish, with the aim of telling the story, and also of encouraging further debate on the ethics of street photography. I would welcome any comments.

I also thought others would appreciate reading the original Facebook discussion, reproduced in full, below.

Mick Yates

Just a concern. I love street photography, its rawness and its spontaneity. It is a technical and artistic challenge – and a psychological one, too.

When one can find and illustrate the “story”, it is hugely satisfying, and puts a little dignity and reason into the lives of the people in the image.

But, and it is a but, I am getting very tired of pictures which exploit.

Sleeping homeless people. Poor street kids. Badly processed images taken “because it can be taken”, not because it’s truly worthy as an artistic endeavour.

Random images of people with no story, no comeback. Making fun of people for no reason other than “you can”.

Maybe I have been guilty too. But it’s got to stop.

It is a very fine line. At what point does reportage become voyeurism? At what point does street become exploitative?

Would welcome people’s views.

Michael Walker-Toye I agree entirely Mick. I stopped taking images this year until I could find a message or project. Street photography is much more than snaps of random people isolated with a short focus plane.

Laurent Scheinfeld Let’s say photography becomes pointless when you do not ‘appear’ on your own pictures …

Maxime Hibon Indeed …

Maxime Hibon It’s even more discomforting when it happens here over the ‘net in a room full of strangers who rarely know one another l, adding huge post production and well not telling a story …

Snap snap snap see what comes, retouch and see how many likes.

Rarely is there even a technological challenge, intended to further knowledge of skills.

Don’t shoot for likes… Shoot to indeed find yourself, shoot to challenge, to explore… Have different silos and do build over time a coherent story beyond that of misery and machine gun style opportunity.

Mick Yates Very well said, Maxime. The “social web” does serve as an extreme megaphone and amplifier, for good and bad.

Sarah Lee Tru dat!!!

Paul Borg Olivier II in the age where everybody is a photographer (phone photography) I fear that your suggestion to your concern is simply a utopia.

Ingrid Yates I hope it is not. Irrespective of all the technology, we all have an inner conscience and hopefully always will.

Michael Rees I agree, I don’t do much Street photography but if I do then I normally try and not photograph any humans or animals. I think the architecture should tell the story not the the people.

Mick Yates I find it hard to tell a story without people, Michael, but I completely respect your intent and thoughtful approach.

Michael Rees True Mick everyone has different stories some need highlighting but some don’t.

Paul Borg Olivier II it is very true…the line between reportage and voyeurism is dignity and respect to the story teller who is the subject and not the photographer…but this is philosophy.

Mick Yates Indeed Mick, indeed. The question is thus what judgement we use to decide to tell that story!

Tony Carson I absolutely agree.

Mick Yates Well said Paul.

Paul Borg Olivier II in fact I had a complex last night to post this photo from he last marathon … hold on …

Paul Borg Olivier II sent you PM as not sure I should publish ..

Mick Yates Cool, Paul.

Michael Rees Well my thoughts are when you are setting the shot up in your viewfinder in your conscious are you thinking great shot!! :- I can use this to highlight their plight or who can I send this to to use in an article or shit how many likes will I get for this one. I for one would probably take the shot but seriously think about whether to use it at all.

Mike Staresinic My visual literacy has progressed to where I do not look at images I judge to be exploitative: voting with my proverbial eyeballs. We can seek out incredible photographers who make an ethical calculation in what they photograph: VII, Magnum, and other press photographers. I need not necessarily agree with where they draw the line. I appreciate when such an ethical calculus is part of the conversation one has with the image.

Mick Yates Mick, that’s exactly right. Conscious image making, not just at the moment of capture but thinking ahead to how it will be “used”

Steven Hunter Whole heartily agree.

Hans van Leeuwen There is a very fine line indeed, Mick Yates, when is picture exploitive ? When you are making a portrait of a street kid in a far away country which in its turn is enjoying the attention ? For me staying at the right side of the line is receiving consent (implicitly or explicitly) for making the picture. Dignity and respect comes with the consent.

Mick Yates Mike, we can always “vote with our eyeballs”, exactly as you say. We each have that ethical line. I am just concerned that the “group dynamic” pushes too many people without thinking and examining that li


Mick Yates Hans, well said, too. This is clearly an issue on many people’s minds.

Hans van Leeuwen Yes it is. Sometimes, when I feel I crossed the line it is trashed straight away. Same applies for snap shot of lunatics and people with reduced awareness such as homeless or drunk people. If you do, you should be well aware what you are doing and what you want to achieve. Gavin Mills, made a great series of homeless people, but with the right mindset.

Mick Yates Hans – 100% agree. We all take such, almost instinctively. So then the question is whether to trash, and if it will be used, why?

Stephen Cosh Agree with the homeless aspect unless you know the person or have at least spoken to them and listen to their plight and try and tell their story through the image. Gavin Mills does this very well and in my opinion he should not stop. Taking the shot for self gratification (or likes) is very base though and should be criticised.

Allen Ng I posted this comment elsewhere: On one hand, you could view it as social documentary. On the other, the subjects may not appreciate being photographed. Is it a pleasure to watch the suffering of others? It is a very fine line and I will try not to post such pictures unless I can benefit the person and provided they agree to it …

Mick Yates Stephen – completely agree, and I 100% respect Gavin’s work here. Its the gratuitous others I get a bit annoyed with.

Giles Penfound I try to remember that “The Truth” is only my truth and that I need to be honest with my representation of the scene before my lens. Take images of everything and everyone, spare nothing and no one the gaze and inquisition of the lens, but always be prepared to justify the images you make and don’t winge when people don’t like what you do. Connect with your subject, make human contact and remember they are not there just for your gratification. Ignore the bullshit titles and claustrophobic genres and just make images that connect with other people on a human and emotional level. Most of all remember that the images on social media are just a mathematical illusion and ‘likes’ are as meaningful and fairy wishes ….

Stephen Cosh Well said Giles, especially the bit about Facebook likes. Facebook likes are purely down to the friends you have, not the quality of the image.

Mick Yates Love this statement Giles “Ignore the bullshit titles and claustrophobic genres and just make images that connect with other people on a human and emotional level”. And couldn’t agree more on FB likes!

Gavin Mills Interesting thread Mick and thanks for the kind comments . I have a rule that if I make someone’s picture and especially my work with the homeless, that if they saw it would make them feel good about themselves or at least they’d feel it was an honest and true representation . Also I’ll only take their picture if I have time to stop and talk . I liked the term Paul mentioned, it’s about dignity.

Mick Yates Gavin – “images with dignity” could be the bullet that sums this thread up.

Paul Borg Olivier II Gavin’s series is definitely not voyeurism – but images with dignity. The eyes and hands in his series speak more than all one finds around the Rockefeller Centre.

Tianliang Hau I think it’s down to the intention of the photographer. I recalled I had sent a PM to Paul Borg Olivier II long time ago to consult him about the law governing the privacy and posting of Street Photography. Once you are doing thing according to the law and have no intention of hurting others, I think it’s OK.

Daniel Fleury A huge subject and not limited to street photography and the homeless. How about war or crime pictures, beheadings and all the forms of human misery? On the one hand, Internet must remain a space of ¨liberty to show¨ but on the other hand, must respect the sensibility of the subjects shown and the viewers alike. A fine line to walk indeed, especially because everybody has a different sensibility to the images … and to the notion of dignity likewise. A great thread.

David Matthew Knoble Mick Yates, coming in late to this discussion. Nice points raised all around. I learn every day from the fine photography here and have been working on documenting the small town Main Street where I work. I’ve only been here five years, much changes and when I least expect it. So, I find that some images, while they don’t speak as much to me when I snap the shutter, speak more when something changes and I could no longer get the image. The ironic part is that most of my images are early morning twilight, and most without people. This group inspired me to make a resolution this year to photograph more people. But, that is hard. It is very hard as a hobby. But as I come out of my shell and take chances, I have met a whole new group of people. They live and work around me and some ask me regularly now to take their picture. I guess I cannot fathom shooting randomly around town at what strikes me and still think ahead, but I believe in the integrity of personal rights. I would not publish an image of someone that I would not publish of myself. Thanks Mick for making this statement. I always enjoy learning here.

Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer Actually the line is not so fine – the photographer just needs to be always present and mindful emotively …  and that is hard – most of the time when you press the shutter on these “exploiting” occasions – your mind does feel a certain twinge (I feel it) … should have / shouldn’t have question – and if I have been hasty to have pressed the shutter, I share/show the picture or apologise (eye contact and soft sorry) or plain and simple – delete and don’t publish (intelligent regret)- and never never publish instantly unless it is violet sunset!!

If you think of the golden rule and apply it with full faith and trust in your ability (Mantra:I can produce good pictures despite the exploit and disrespect) and when you’re home processing the pictures simply delete and not publish the ones that are “disturbing” or just random or pics like Mick Yates says “those can be taken”.

I am guilty too – sometimes you go for the jugular and want to dramatise the suffering or the anguish or the depraving conditions etc but go home and be mindful for a moment and APPLY the golden rule – would you or your mother or your sister be like to seen in that way … probably not – so unless it is a authorised and permitted assignment (even then you can be creative, gentle and do it with respect and dignity) – do onto others what you would want them do onto you and the second part, which applies here, is do not do onto others what you don’t them to do do onto you …

Street photography is morphing fast and has changed so much – thanks to social media etc – memories and documentation and editorial values are so different now – take for instance the idea of taking pictures of your food and posting them …. many photographers out there are growing into the hobby and profession too rapidly, the learning curves of skills and reportage are NOT matched with the learning curves of values in the profession for example – an experienced press photographer of the 70’s and 80’s was a different animal altogether.

Having said all this and I am certain there are more factors to be weighed in, I feel a dose of mindfulness, golden-rule, contemplation and respect towards the HUMAN behind the lens and in front of the lens is much needed.

A good debate to be had and something that the leaders and the knowers should share and teach …

Chris Jackson Your statement poses the question, “what is STREET?” With enough data from the practitioners the scholars may then develop the theory of STREET. Based upon the feedback from you and your practitioner friends the theory will preclude such voyeuristic and pointless visual data.

Elisabeth Maurice Very late here too but totally agree i have a very classic vision of street photography. A good image for me is one telling stories. and for me again implies knowing and caring for the people around and the place, enough to take an image that tells as well about them as about yourself. those images are getting very rare unfortunately. Very classic girl I know.

Tom Szabadi Whoever I take photos of my intention is out of respect. I stay away from homeless or those in vulnerable positions. I agree with you Mick.

Elisabeth Maurice Still there are very few photographers taking some beautiful portraits of homeless people. But those are really different in the sense the photographer knows them and tells about them and their life. Those photos are not stolen, are taken with love and give them a presence and dignity, give them the feeling of existing when taken I’ve been told – on the contrary to what we sadly currently see.

Mick Yates Woke up this morning to find the thread growing in energy around this fascinating series of issues. My take away from all of this is that “the thinking photographer” is very much alive and well. I agree with Ramesh that the proliferation of image-capturing technologies and the associated sharing capabilities can in some ways reduce the thoughtfulness in the photographer at the time of capture. Still, the comments here suggest that those of us that take photography seriously have and are building a solid set of values and rules which accompany our craft. I find that both inspiring and heartwarming.

Tony Cearns Completely agree. Big difference between taking photos on the street and the art form we know as street photography. But most photographers don’t really get this.

Colin Scott Johnson Let’s not stop there. why not add in staged photos, people walking past other people’s art, people obnoxiously shoving a flash in someones face, reflections in puddles and all the other lifeless, soulless shit masquerading as street photography. There is truly a death of imagination.

Mick Yates Colin – I do agree there is a lot of thoughtless work around with little to commend it. That said, I am optimistic that there is also a lot of positive, creative work around too!

Viv Youell Perhaps this is up your alley?
Sequential City: Panel Discussion
27 February at 19:30 
Anise Gallery in London, United Kingdom

Mick Yates Looks interesting Viv – thanks for suggesting.

Yuji Ktjm Thank you, Mick for the great post. It has been my big concern for several years.

Mike J Pratt Unless there is a greater story to be told and/or strong context – taking photos of poor, homeless or the disadvantaged is often tasteless. Also, and far too often, street photography these days has become too random. These usually thoughtless snapshots will be processed to death and then posted online to receive heaps of accolades. I suppose this is what we’re all being accustomed to – unfortunately. And nearly all of us are guilty of producing the above mentioned work at some point.

This is MY opinion, to all those who might disagree with what I wrote.

Mick Yates Mike – just to add a point of agreement: “random shots over processed”. I don’t like either, though the “randomness” of the image is the real villain to me. The processing may not be to my aesthetic taste, but that’s just a matter of creative choice.

Colin Scott Johnson Then there’s the over zealous use of the black slider. Do you seriously expect us to think that light is natural? Whatever, it’s boring and unoriginal …

Marley Mak They are taking photographs of those as Mike described them as poor, homeless, disadvantaged … because it was before an award winning shot & still today?

Marley Mak Also, only these people agreed to post processed their photos to have great details of wrinkles on their faces …

Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer This article echoes a lot of the sentiments discussed in this thread – being sensitive, asking permission, not sensationalising and just being kind and human – Uddin has done a marvellous job of living the life and making the images “with” them and not “of” them for some competition or blog etc …

An Embedded Photographer Empowers the Poor

A Bangladeshi photographer who grew tired of seeing …