I had a great shot set up. The sun was setting behind a vendor cart in the Jamaa el Fna, the great square of Marrakech in Morocco. Smoke was rising from the cart’s grill, diffusing the warm light, and long shadows were radiating into the image’s lower corners. Everything was almost perfect, and I was just waiting for someone to enter into the image frame on the left edge to fill in the empty space there. And then a guy walked by giving me the finger. That moment perfectly captured the simultaneous joys and challenges of street photography.
Street photography is the study of the human condition. But even more than that, street photography involves capturing ephemeral moments when subject matter, mood, composition, and light come together to create a meaningful or artistic photograph. The challenge of street photography — and its unique appeal — is finding a way to turn the mundane things we see every day into art.
Part of what makes street photography special is that it is from the hip, an exercise in capturing unscripted, genuine moments. "Spontaneous truth telling" is at the very core of street photography, but that vital authenticity can be lost when your subject becomes aware of you and your camera (like the guy who gave me the finger in Morocco). I call this the Uncertainty Principle, borrowed from physics.
Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, determined that our observations have an effect on the behavior of subatomic particles (P.S. I am not a physicist, so if I don't quite get this right, please forgive me). Bounce a beam of light off of a particle to measure it, and you gently nudge its position or velocity, meaning that your observations of either are never quite 100% accurate. Basically, this Uncertainty Principle dictates that, to a certain extent, the act of observing alters the reality being observed (at least at the subatomic level).
Unfortunately, what holds true for electrons and quarks and the many flavors of bosons also holds true for human beings. If you point a camera at a person to take a photo, and they become aware of this fact, then they change their behavior. Once this has happened, the truth of your subject you are trying to capture is altered.
The best street photos, then (one could argue), are candid shots made when your subject is unaware that their picture is being taken. But, if they are unaware, that means they cannot consent to having their likeness captured. Although it is true that in the U.S. and many other countries you have a legal right to take photos of people in public spaces, just because you can doesn't mean that an individual's personal privacy concerns are irrelevant. I’m certainly not saying that one should never take images of people without their consent, but if you are going to do street photography, you need to first recognize that the act of taking a clandestine, candid photo of a stranger is not without its moral ambiguities.
I have to admit, this makes me uncomfortable when I'm taking street photos, and I often feel a bit sheepish about “stealing” from people in this way. This is part if the reason why, when taking pictures of people, I prefer to render my subjects in as abstract a way as possible. I’m not looking to take a photo of a person, exactly, but rather I am interested in the interaction of shapes, colors, and light. That’s why I like to work with long exposures with people so that they are creatively blurred, or to capture them in silhouette or with their faces hidden from view.
Of course, one can’t always render human subjects as pure abstractions. But, I think it is fair to say I’m looking for a version of reality which is fleeting, ephemeral, and less than fully solid—whether photographing nature or the human element. But, regardless of how my final photos are rendered, I believe that something is lost when my subjects become aware that I am taking photos. I prefer to capture moments that are spontaneous, unscripted, and genuine.
There are some street photographers who approach their potential subjects, striking up a conversation and getting consent before starting to take photos. This is certainly an option, but the end result is often photos that are posed and staged. There's nothing wrong with this, and I've done my fair share, usually when doing travel photography. This different approach leads to different photographic outcomes, however, and spontaneity can easily be lost.
The Uncertainty Principle poses both artistic and moral challenges when taking street photos. If you want to take unscripted photos of the wonderful tapestry of the human condition being constantly woven around you, then a clandestine approach is necessary. That said, I think you need to do your best to respect the people you are photographing, to avoid harassing them, and to make sure that your photos don't embarrass them or reduce their dignity. And by all means, if they figure out that you are taking their photo and object, respect their wishes. You've already fallen victim to the Uncertainty Principle at that point anyways, so there's really no reason not to move on. There's always more to discover in the wide world of photographic opportunity out there.
Personally, I think every photographer should try street photography, as it is a great way to really learn composition and the creative use of shape, light, and the magic of the moment. If you want to learn more about the art of street photography, check out my ebook Taking it to the Streets, available in the Photo Masters online shop.