Simply defined, street photography produces a document of life, human behavior, and truth. Because it deals with the personal lives of people, street photography can pose both legal and ethical challenges. It’s also important to consider the practical aspects of street photography before pounding the pavement, with camera and tripod in tow.
The Ethics – Surreptitious images are the definers of history. These Images provide pictorial records for eras of time, wars, revolutions, earthquakes, and other major events. Some of the most heart-wrenching photos of families in the United States were taken during the dust bowl of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Most of these photographs were taken without the family’s knowledge or permission. The photographers were creating a documentary of a horrific tragedy that descended on the nation. Today there is a large online collection of photographs taken during the Great Depression on the website of the Library of Congress. The pain of a country can be seen in the faces of its people. Personal ethics must be determined by the photographer, therefore it’s important to consider the importance of the proposed image and what value it contributes to society.
Street photography, at its best, tells the story of a time, place, or event. It should not degrade, embarrass, or intimidate the subject of the photograph. Newspapers and television crews take still shots and video of people without asking for permission. Usually, the video or photograph is taken in conjunction with a newsworthy event. In most countries of the world, permission to take a photograph is not required when it is not used for commercial purposes. However, it is inappropriate to photograph someone else’s child without permission. You can be sued, and in some states you can be arrested. Ask permission, and if it is granted, have the parent sign a model release form. Without a release form you have no legal protection if the parent changes their mind at a later date. Often permission is happily granted in exchange for a copy of the photograph.
The Images – There are thousands of possible images that fall in the realm of street photography. Some photographers prefer to document a certain area of human behavior, such as graffiti artists, street performers, striking workers, the homeless, and similar subject matter. Daily life includes shopping, sitting on a park bench, worshipping, participating in cultural activities, and poverty. There are other images that stand the test of time in the genre of street photography. Structures, such as bridges, monuments, public buildings, cathedrals, and schools are kept alive long after their ruin, through the art of photography. As long as there are cities and people, you will never run out of image material. Park your car, start walking, and you will find yourself surrounded by life.
Black and White is Best – Some people find it unthinkable to shoot black and white images, but traditional street photography almost demands it. Black and white maximizes the dramatic impact of the image, and it removes the distraction a variety of color produces. Contrast is the key to black and white photography. Shadows and soft pastel shades in a color imagine become clearly defined in black and white. Color, however, has its moments in street photography. A fruit and vegetable stand is a perfect example of when shooting in color is preferable. Additionally, parades, costumes, and flower shows are venues where color is works well.
The End Result – Good street photography needs no explanation. When the images are viewed, they speak the story captured by the eye of the photographer. The images appeal to all people, language barriers are torn down, and emotion often interprets what the camera captured.
Street photography is both challenging and rewarding. Freezing critical moments in time, capturing the attitudes of society, and preserving history in all its facets is beneficial to future generations. Take a walk with your camera, and discover the secrets of the streets.
How to Do It — Your equipment choices will be determined by the style of street photography that you wish to do, as well as the subjects and locations. In this first example, I was shooting in Turkey, in the 1970s. Getting candid images of the people, as they went about their daily business proved to be a challenge. In some cases, Turkish men did not mind having their picture taken, but they all wanted to strike a stiff, formal pose. Many women, on the other hand, were very private and shy, and would cover their faces, or turn away, at the sight of a camera.
Trying to get a slice of daily life required that I hide the camera in plain sight: It was clearly visible, but I seemed to be paying no particular attention to it.