As a working photojournalist and avid street photographer, I do both; I make and take photographs. In the United States, where I work and reside, it is legal to photograph anyone in a public space because there is no expectation of privacy. That begs the question: is there a difference between legal and right?
Stockton Street, San Francisco 2019 | Photography by Scott Strazzante
A discussion arose recently over an image by street photographer Paul Kessel. The photo is of a weary young mother traveling on the New York City subway with her two young children. Kessel captioned the image, a 3rd place winner in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2020, like this: “I photographed a mother with her two daughters who were seated opposite from me on the subway for about 45 minutes. It was candid. The camera was on my lap and they never noticed me.”
The image is like hundreds of other subway images that I have seen in the past. In fact, if you went on Getty Images, there are tens of thousands high-res photos of people sleeping on trains available for purchase. However, an issue many have with Kessel’s approach to capturing the image is how he seems to be gloating about his ability to photograph a young woman for almost an hour without being noticed.
Michigan Avenue, Chicago 2013 | Photography by Scott Strazzante
Over my 30-plus year-long career, I have photographed thousands of people in public without their consent. If I focus on a single individual, I’ll inquire if it is okay to photograph them and I’ll ask for their name — but many times it’s impossible to get everyone’s approval. Sporting events, protests, parades, high school graduations, breaking news events are just a handful of examples.
On the other hand, when I’m doing street photography, I am actively photographing people without them knowing it. The reason I do that is that I do not want people play-acting in front of my lens like many tend to do. I want to create images that are pure reality and not tainted by camera awareness and the best way to accomplish that is by photographing people before they notice me.