Wednesday, March 28, 2007


This column is about respect for people. It's a contentuous issue among photographers, especially street and documentary photographers who photograph everyday life. Where do you draw the line between your photography interests and the dignity and respect for others? Every photographer has their own criteria, and their line between ethics and disgraceful, as does everyone on the other side of the lens.

This question is usually raised when discussing crossing the line between public and private, and between respect for the homeless or transients and the photographer. On the first issue, between public and private, we all have our own view, in both senses, on being photographed. And while we may not like being photographed, the laws support the photographer when we're in public, or viewable from public space. We often don't like someone pointing a camera at us, but it's the reality of going through life.

I discovered this on St. Patrick's Day when walking around downtown Seattle before photographing the staging and the parade. In one incident in Pioneer Square a woman threatened to call the police if I took her photograph. I didn't because she changed the direction she was walking and I missed the photo I wanted. In another I saw this gentleman sitting in a store.

When I took the shots of him, I waved thanks and he waved back. So, it's a personal thing what we accept and tolerate being in public. My personal view is evolving. While I respect people's privacy, I am beginning to think more as a photographer who wants photos of people in everyday life. I don't have the personality or temperament to confront people getting close or become friendly with people as some great street photographers do in their work. I respect their talents and learn from them, but in the meantime I'll keep my distance, discretion and diplomacy.

The photo? I watched this person walk down the street looking in all sorts of places for something. He then bent over the recycle barrel for interesting stuff and I captured the image. He didn't seem to care I was there and walked on. Such is life on the street and photographing it.


  1. It's a sticky wicket, respect. Some people may regard photographing strangers as the height of disrespect. Homelessness is touchy, although I don't feel there's anything inherently disrespectful about photographing it. It all depends on the situation. I do tend to wince at scenes of degradation or humiliation. For example, someone passed out in a puddle of vomit. Few will doubt that good things often happen when people let their guard down. While it might be more respectful to give them a heads up, it doesn't make for as interesting a photo. If a photographer truly respects the subject, it should come through in the image.

  2. You're right. Every photographer has their ethics on this issue, and walking around downtown Seattle, it's not hard to run into transients and homeless people to photograph most of whom are sleeping or hanging out. I watched the guy in the photo to make sure he wasn't getting sick, but just looking for something he could use, likely recycle for money or leftovers from someone's drink or food. That's still somewhat disrepectful, but I doubt he cares.