“There are no ethics in street photography.” – Thomas Leuthard

by diarmuidmcdonald

Saturday was a good day. I had spent much of my free time during the previous evenings reading various Street Photography blogs, articles on composition, and watching videos on a photographers rights to take photos in public places. As I made my way about Manchester Saturday morning, I took a mix of both candid and permitted street shots, the later predominantly for the purpose of practice and to build up my confidence shooting strangers in the streets. All the while I was looking for ‘that shot’; the photograph that I would use for that day in my project 365.

I saw a young boy climbing on a sculpture (large letters spelling ‘Avenue’) in one of the more affluent parts of town. I knew this would make a great photo and wary of looking sinister, in light of recent scandals within the UK media and heightened sensitivity regarding children in the wake of Operation Yewtree, I identified the child’s father and asked for permission to photograph his son. The father smiled and gave me the go ahead. I took three shots; two of his son staring mesmerised into the camera with his younger brother peeking curiously around from behind, and one of the younger son walking past the large ‘avenue’ letters. I immediately knew that the first two photos were ‘keepers’; there was a beautiful innocence in these shots, the composition was spot on and the protective relationship between the brothers made for a really interesting picture.

I showed the photos to the father, who seemed impressed, and we chatted for a moment about my amateur photography, specifically my project 365. The whole mood during this exchange was very positive, he seemed genuinely impressed and enthusiastic about the photos and I took note of his email address, promising to send them to him later on that day.


Approximately one hundred mediocre snapshots and a five hours later I had the photos on my computer, processed (in B&W – predictably) and was feeling very pleased with the result. Not only was I looking forward to sharing these with the great people of flickr, but I was looking forward to sending this to Daniel (not his real name) because I had come away from our exchange feeling really positive and I knew he would reply to my email singing my praises and thanking me for this great photo of his children.

I send the photos, along with a brief paragraph to explain how pleased I was with the result and how I would be honored to include one in my project 365. All in all, it was a friendly and enthusiastic email. The next morning I had received the following reply:

 “Thank you for the pictures. If you don’t mind I would prefer they were not on Flickr.”

Now, there is ultimately nothing wrong with this; as a parent Daniel has cause for being concerned about protecting his children, what I found so frustrating and demoralizing was this apparent U-turn in his attitude. Before I go any further I should say that I replied to Daniel, expressing a mild disappointment, further emphasising how pleased I was with the photos, but stating that I would respect his preferences.

The absence of any comment on the photographs gives me the impression that he simply viewed the attachments for a second before disregarding them. Further, the exchange left me feeling as if I had caused him some injury or offense, leaving a sense of guilt that perhaps (despite his prior approval) I had acted inappropriately. Parents love to have photos of their children, and these photos were perfectly innocent – the kind that a parent would take of their own child, albeit nicely edited, composed and on a higher quality camera. As people often pay for professional photos (I am not saying that I am in any way professional, just more adept than Joe Bloggs and his smart phone), I felt that by giving him these photos, he benefited by getting free, quality photographs of his family and I in turn benefited by having these images for my portfolio.

Once this confusion had passed I ended up getting pretty frustrated about the whole situation, which has really put a downer on my whole attitude to my photography at the moment. As selfish as it may sound, I began to view the whole situation as an injustice done to me by this man. He was free to print these photographs, put them on his Facebook, or simply disregard and forget about them (most likely), and I was stuck with them on my computer, unable to share them with anybody.

I spoke to a few friends and family about this ‘dilemma’. My stepmother’s advice being that before I took a photograph of anyone I had to ‘ask permission to take their photo and put it on the internet’. She didn’t seem to appreciate my retaliation echoing Thomas Leuthard’s sentiment that “You either go candid and forget the law or you follow the law and lose the spirit of street photography.” (www.thomasleuthard.com/Books/GoingCandid.pdf).

Family Portrait 039

Ultimately I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and chose another picture for my 365 (above), but the whole episode has left me feeling pretty empty about my photography and made me question the ethics of Street Photography and the sharing of other people’s personal images online. In this instance I am content to respect Daniels preferences for the time being. I decided to begin this blog with this article predominantly to get the whole issue of my chest, I also wondered if any one else had any thoughts on the ethics of Street Photography, or any similar episodes to share.

Anyway, thank you for reading. More to come soon I hope! 🙂


Further reading / viewing: