Street photography vs travel photography vs moral beliefs

Travelling in Thailand

As a street photographer I am often asked about my style of photography where I get up close to strangers and take their photo.  My students (and others) often ask if I have ever been chased or hit in the face for taking photos of complete strangers.  While this has not happened to me in the last 10yrs of being a street photographer, you do learn which subjects not to take photos of, however that is another post in itself.  The aim of this post is to talk about a recent discussion I had about street photography vs travel photography and possible moral conflicts.  

Over the last 10 years (or maybe longer) I have travelled extensively around the world with a camera trying to capture the essence of each place I visit.  I have been trying to capture what makes each and every destination so special and I want my photos to reflect that particular moment in time.  I want the photos to capture the people and everything around them.  What I don't want are photos of artificially developed tourist situations.


"Happy Photo" taken with Olympus E-PL2 12mm lens

Now while I often refer to my photography as travel photography, many refer to this type of photography as street photography as I am capturing what happens on the street often in a public space at a particular moment in time.  Street photography is about taking a snapshot of the people and associated cultures at that particular moment in time.  However, recently I had a discussion which was triggered from recent photos I had taken in and about the city in which I live.  I was told that it is not morally right to just walk around the city taking photos of other people and if I did take photos I should at least ask permission before taking the photo (even in a public space).  Now knowing that I was in my own right to take a photo of people (and even buildings/landscapes) in public spaces where I live, I decided to justify this further through a chat about their photographic habits.

Lets start from the travel angle - I asked them if they had you ever travelled to another country and photographed buildings, landscape and even what the people were doing?  Of course is the response I receive with an explanation that they are on holidays and in a different country.  They then explain that everything is so different and they want to bring back memories of their holiday and the places they visited.  They may have been in the streets of Vietnam taking a photo on their holiday and a friendly person carrying  fruit in the traditional way with a stick across their shoulders approaches them and they snap away thinking how cool that would be to show others back home (or these days its on facebook, flickr, tumblr or even instagram within minutes).  They still reassure me that this is different from walking around my home city taking photos - hmmmmm!

Happiness on the street - Olympus E-PL2 and 12mm lens

I decide to delve a little deeper and draw the comparisons between what they did in their travels and what I am doing walking around the streets.  I then ask them to think of me travelling from another country to this wonderful city of theirs and taking photos.  Eventually they concede and say I suppose its ok if we look at it from that perspective - but the next thing they say is that you shouldn't take photos of children - huh!!!  

Again - I am left thinking how do I talk about this.  I suppose if you looked like some stranger lurking in the shadows with the latest full frame Canon or Nikon with a huge zoom lens and hood, it may look a little "disconcerting".  However, my approach to street/travel photography is more of a direct approach where I have a wide angle lens and  get up close and take photos so that people know that I am there.  I rarely try to sneak in the inconspicuous photo.  Approaching this from a different angle we started talking about travelling and taking photographs and I eventually showed them a photo of a couple of children I had photographed on the streets and immediately they loved the photo.  Its funny how a different location and a different context makes things ok.

"On the Street" - Olympus E-PL2 and Voigtlander 25mm f0.95

I then proceeded to show them a photo I had taken in their city at night of a similar scenario of boys out on the street at night.  Eventually, the response was a hesitated "I suppose its ok to take these photos but do you need to get up so close?" 

"Boys on the street" - Olympus E-PL2 with Voigtlander 17.5 mm lens

Reflecting back on this conversation was obviously the inspiration behind writing this post as it is a situation that many street photographers (including myself) find themselves in.  Often at the end of the day, when someone travels for a holiday and takes photos while walking the streets, then they can also briefly be classified as a street photographer as they are wanting to capture that moment in time.  They want to remember what happened while they were on their holiday and what it was like.  When they are in their home city/town/village - then taking photos does not seem that important or appeal to them as they have often grown up there and its not new to them.  Its like they decide to wear a different hat when they travel back home.  During a holiday, people deliberately pack their camera to take photos and while people often do not replicate this same activity back home there is a new phase in photography occuring right now where most people (children included) travel with their mobile phone and take photos of all sorts of random things.  Services like facebook, tumblr, flickr and instagram are constantly being updated with new images every minute of the day.

"Relaxed Fishermen" Olympus E300 




I share many of your sentiments. Good light to you!

By Justin Bonaparte (not verified)

Thanx Justin

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By Darrel (not verified)

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