Street Photography: Candid Capturing vs Protecting Privacy

A recent comment from a fellow blogger questioning my habit of generally avoiding having people’s faces in shot in city scenes has highlighted a niggling issue that has always been a difficult subject for me – where to draw the line between capturing a candid shot and protecting an individual’s privacy when it comes to street photography?

To be clear, I’m not talking about paparazzi-style super-zooms virtually invading private spaces here – simply normal day-to-day pictures of people going about their everyday business in an everyday public place, images taken not for selling on but for personal perusal, and perhaps for posting here on my blog.

To date I’ve pretty much stuck with the personal maxim that if the people in shot are simply providing context – are no more than generic figures in the overall scene (like those images I posted yesterday in Street Photography: Stratford, East London) – then I prefer to maintain a certain level of anonymity, either through having them far enough away as not to be recognisable or alternatively have them facing away from me as I take the shot.

Alternatively, if I’m taking photographs in a more touristy environment (of which there’s plenty to choose from here In London), and the person is an integral part of the intended subject matter, then I tend to feel a bit more comfortable (or perhaps a bit less uncomfortable is a more accurate description) about having their faces recognisably in shot. So for example taking images of stallholders tending their market stalls poses far less of a problem to me than photographing the individual customers buying their products.

Street performers and the like I also consider to be ‘fair game’ when it comes to taking photographs in public, in the sense that visibility, being noticed by others is effectively what they are aiming for. Also here in London I would expect to take pictures of traditional Pearly Kings and Queens without causing a stir – they too are performing a public role while dressed in all their finery.

But where I come seriously unstuck is in taking candid shots of Joe Public simply being Joe Public. I love the idea of the sheer intimacy of such basic street photography but I’m confused at how it makes me feel. I often see the shots I want to take unfolding before me but just don’t seem to take them, out of some psychological sense of propriety or something equally… British… and it frustrates the hell out of me. Unguarded expressions can appear almost to expose the soul, and the possibility of unwittingly capturing such exposure unbeknownst to the subject makes me feel inherently uncomfortable.

And it’s this emotional discomfort that I struggle with so subconsciously when considering street photography. I’m sure eventually I’ll find my own way through, as ever, but in the meantime if anyone has any helpful advice or guidance to offer on the matter I’m open to all ideas… ๐Ÿ™‚

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7 thoughts on “Street Photography: Candid Capturing vs Protecting Privacy

  1. I once was taking photos of teenagers on boards at the beach. One kid caught a wave and quickly fell into the sand. Before even cleaning off, he ran to me to ask if I got a photo of him while upright. I showed him what I had and he asked me to post it and he asked god my Flickr name. I doubt that helps but it made me feel better.

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  2. Hmmm… I probably over-think this too much, and that gets in the way of me actually taking any proper ‘people’ photographs. I think I maybe need to go with the flow a bit more – perhaps I need to get a better ‘feel’ for potential photographic situations as they arise and just see what comes out of it all ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. Hi Ruth, I think you just need to do what makes you feel comfortable. Photography should be about happiness with your choices. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, then I would suggest that you take a picture of something that doesn’t. Also, put yourself in their shoes – would you want them taking photos of you?
    Personally, I don’t do that sort of photography, and generally flowers don’t seem to care, so I am not talking from experience really, just commonsense about the way it makes you feel. Of course, you could always blur their faces out afterwards if you wished, but that might spoil the integrity of the shot.

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    • Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right that photography should be about happiness with your choices of subject, but my problem right now is that sticking within my comfort zone isn’t currently making me happy – I feel like I need to move beyond some of my own longterm emotional barriers to get closer to where I want to be with my photography. I do like the idea of putting myself in their shoes though – if the resulting image isn’t being judgemental or mocking or offensive then I think that’s probably the point to start from for me ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. I am always very wary of taking pictures with people in unless it is a crowd shot, I guess because I am a writer rather than a photographer my issues are more about the possible story of the picture, you know silly things like what if that man and woman are married not to each other but to other people, what if that person has skivved off work and it got back to their bosses,silly things which the chances of it ever mattering are minuscule but I can’t help the way my mind works. I try to always avoid photos with kids in other than my own unless they are involved in something like a carnival parade or sports event where the parents are aware photos will be been taken

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    • Thanks for commenting, Paula! Pictures of kids I’d always be wary of too – but with adults in public places I think with all the CCTV around these days we’re constantly on camera in our cities, indoors and outdoors, so for me the whole ‘privacy-in-public’ issue is a bit of a moot point these days. And it also depends on which images are taken and which are not – I’d never deliberately cause anyone harm or distress, so would never photograph accidents or obviously very intimate private emotional scenes, but otherwise for me the bottom line is that as adults we are all responsible for our own behaviour in public, and here in the UK there is no law against taking photographs in public places. Morally it all seems so complex, though – nothing is definitively clear, and that’s partly what makes me feel so uncomfortable about it all, I think? ๐Ÿ™‚

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