The ethics of shooting people

I’ve been sifting through the rest of the photos I shot in Paris last September. Among my rejected images I found this frame:

As a photograph, it’s nothing special. But the story behind it set the tone for my entire trip.

I shot this photo on my very first day in Paris. I was aiming for a typical street scene, with the bouquiniste’s wares in the the foreground and a bit of the city in the background.

But no sooner did I raise my camera than the shopkeeper turned and charged me like a bull elephant. “Never photograph people!” she was yelling. “It’s forbidden!” She threw in a few blue words and a couple of insults to boot.

“Desolée,” I apologized. I explained that I’d been shooting her kiosk, not her. I showed her that I was erasing the images that clearly showed her face, but she was not mollified. She continued to cuss and swat at me as I backed away.

I felt shamed and humiliated. I’d become the ultimate Ugly American. And the experience had such an impact that it colored my photography for the rest of the trip. I didn’t shoot many people over the two weeks that followed—and when I did, there was an obvious self-consciousness to my images.

I was reminded of this incident recently while reading Mitchell Kanashkevitch’s lovely e-book on travel photography. In his chapter on “people relations,” he wrote:

… being humble, kind and respectful means that you’ll never purposefully offend, anger and embarrass your potential photographic subjects, nor will you make them look indignant in your images.

I think his thoughtful, gentle approach is reflected in his beautiful images.

But for me it’s not always so simple.

Maybe it’s because of my background in journalism—or because I admire classic street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson—but I think sometimes it should be OK to just shoot the image.

Although I would never seek to deliberately offend someone or invade their privacy, sometimes I want to capture an authentic moment, exactly as it’s happening. And sometimes that means not asking for permission first. Other times, it might mean photographing someone who (already) looks indignant, or snapping a photo of a bemused stranger on a train.

Gilles Rigoulet, métro, 1977

Is it unethical to record those moments as they’re being lived, and in the process perhaps risk unintentionally making the subject feel momentarily shy or uncomfortable?

Yanidel, one of my favorite (modern) Parisian street photographers tackled the topic recently in his own blog. Alas, he offered no magic bullets.

As in all shades-of-gray matters, the ethics of street photography are complicated. In short, it depends on the photographer—and the situation.

For me, this forum post summed up the question beautifully:

Only you can decide if it’s right. … I believe photographers should bear witness to what they see and that exploitation is a deliberate act, not something that occurs by chance. … Photograph what you’re compelled to photograph.

Whether we’re conscious of it, photographers make a series of choices about every frame we shoot. For me, my experience with the bouquiniste has added a new, unexpected twist: I now sometimes find myself wondering whether I should shoot at all.


  1. “Is it ethical to photograph someone against their will? Is it exploitative to shoot someone who is disabled or hurt or just not quite at their best? And once you’ve obtained these images, is it OK to publish or otherwise profit from them?”




    (With exceptions for special circumstances, e.g. a police officer taking a mug shot in the first instance.)

    This is not an ethical grey area, but usually a very clear cut matter of respect of others rights, dignity, and privacy. Notably, as to the last point, the consequences for the victim can go far beyond mere discomfort. Indeed, in Germany, were I live, there are definite legal restrictions on under what circumstance others may be photographed.

    In an analogy, I note that the claim “The public has a right to know!” in movies is usually used exactly when 1. The public does not have a right to know. 2. The reporter will gain direct or indirect personal benefit from spreading the story.

    • Hello, Michael. Thank you very much for your comment. Your thoughtful response made me realize that the scope of my post was too broad—and that I hadn’t clearly articulated my point.

      I’ve rewritten my post so it addresses only casual “street photography,” and I’ve re-framed the question as one of unintentional consequences.

      Although I would never deliberately invade someone’s privacy or assault someone’s dignity, what I’d intended to explore here was the unintentional consequences of shooting people in public. In other words, should photographers abstain from shooting if there’s even a hint of a risk that someone might be offended? Or should it be OK to document everyday events as they unfold around us? With that perspective in mind, I’d be curious to hear what you think.

      Again, thank you for your thought-provoking response.

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