The controversy of street portraiture

Depending on where you live, it seems that it is becoming ever more difficult to take pictures of strangers in the street. People see the camera and automatically turn away or look annoyed. And yet the ironic thing is, we live in a society, which more than ever, is inundated with camera surveillance. How many CCTV cameras capture our movements on a daily basis is anyone’s guess but the trend is certainly for more not less observance of our movements. The thing is, we don’t even see the faceless people who watch us through CCTV. I touched on this subject with another blogger yesterday. How is it that we get on with our lives and ignore CCTV cameras but get all paranoid when someone in the street wants to take our picture. It doesn’t make sense. As Richard Guest the other blogger said “part of the reason for the reaction is the closeness of the capture. CCTV cameras are so remote and non-descript-looking that people forget they’re there. Whereas when I point my camera at someone, my intrusion is uppermost in their mind.” That could well be true. On the other hand we all observe other people as we ourselves are observed, even if it is as simple as watching someone while drinking a coffee in a bar. Another example, watch some workmen working on the street. They know you are there watching them and get on with their job as if you weren’t there. The moment you pull a camera out you can see how they stiffen up a bit, but in reality, what has really changed? So what about you street shooters out there. What are your thoughts?

A street capture of a group of nuns in an ice-cream parlour. Also, if you notice, the picture of the ice-cream cone in the window was obviously stolen from iStockPhoto as it still has the watermark on it!

16 thoughts on “The controversy of street portraiture

  1. Nice photo and very interesting post. It’s true, street photography is hard nowadays. I think this is also due to the proliferation of privacy laws, at least in Italy… Everybody seems to be so obsessed by privacy… Can you imagine a street photographer walking around with a pile of model releases to have signed by people? It just doesn’t make sense…

    • Thanks Susi. I know what you mean. I was in Milano walking around one of the markets and one of the guys got stressed about me taking pictures of his fruit…… Model release forms are only needed if you want to sell your work through stock-photo sites etc. I do art photography and exhibit in galleries and you don’t need model release forms for this.

      • This may be true for exhibits, but not for web-publishing, not for the Italian law at least… In order to publish the image of a non famous person (whether you want to sell it or not), you need a release (art. 96 legge 633/41). If you speak Italian, this is an interesting link:
        It’s a very strict law, actually, but I guess street photographers continue publishing their pictures on the internet anyway.

      • Si, parlo italiano ma non ho interesse per fare lo tipo di fotografia (publicita) Preferisco fare la fotografia in lo mio modo del arte, Cosi permettermi essere piu creativo.

  2. image became commodity and we became protective of it…sort of in indigenous people’s style…it takes something away from us, mainly our control of our visage

  3. Interesting post. I suppose one difference might be that CCTV is intrusive to all people, whereas when the photographer aims the camera at an unwitting bystander it is more personal. So perhaps it is the photographer’s selectivity that is bothersome to the subject.

  4. hello russel, seems like Richard Guest made both you and me stumble upon this controversy (see: ) –
    a little story to add another element to the discussion: one of my classmates at the academy had this funny yet poignant idea to go out and take pictures of all the CCTV cameras in his city – he ended up in the police station, went through a thorough interrogation and had our teacher come over to help and talk him out of this situation – btw: great picture with all those white caps resembling melting ice creams 🙂

    • Thanks Katrien. I hate the cliche but society is becoming more and more like the situation in ‘1984’ by Orwell. I just like taking pictures, and in some ways I am tempted to provoke people with my camera.

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