Giovanni Savino

It gets late early out there.

Street photography and ethical behavior in the age of street surveillance


Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of “ethical behavior”, something I try to practice in all my daily activities, including photography, and I highly value in anybody else.

Reading an article by Joerg Colberg “The Ethics of Street Photography”, I agree with most of what he writes, but, based on my personal experience of photographing in the street of New York City, a few observations popped to mind.

Colberg writes:” Over the past few years, the public’s understanding of photography appears to have changed considerably in various aspects. In particular, people appear to have become much more wary of being photographed without being asked. Of course, this would appear to be ironic given that there are surveillance cameras everywhere. But I think one needs to understand that there is a difference between these two. If you enter a store that you know has surveillance cameras you implicitly give your consent to being filmed or photographed.”

I agree. And trying to focus back to “strictly street” privacy issues (that is photographing in public spaces), I share the following, from the Big Apple, where I live: 

“…there are now approximately than 15,000 surveillance cameras in public places in Manhattan as a whole. On average, that’s ten cameras per city block.”

Please be aware I am quoting an old article written in 2005, which also states:” Times Square contained (at least) 258 surveillance cameras, fully twice the number we spotted in 2000 and more than three times the number spotted by the NYCLU in 1998. In May 2005, we counted 604 of them.”

And, from the same old article an interesting clarification: “If the number of surveillance cameras in Times Square has dramatically increased over the last five years, it is because more and more private companies are putting up more and more cameras. The inability of these cameras to deter or prevent crime is no obstacle at all to private companies or the security firms that they’ve hired. Private companies don’t care if crimes take place on their premises, provided that they have the insurance to cover their loses. And getting insurance (of all kinds) is much easier when you’ve installed surveillance cameras, because they can be used to cover a very broad range of risks, including those associated with fires and explosions, slip-and-fall accidents, theft by employees, workplace sabotage, strikes, etc. etc.”

Again, that was the situation in 2005.

So, I think it is quite clear that we are all constantly being photographed, like it or not, all the time, in public spaces, without our consent, for whatever reason.

I read on Joerg Colberg’s article: “In actuality, it would be impractical to ask every person in the frame whether they’re OK with a picture. That said, if someone clearly does not want to be photographed or if they are for their photo to be deleted after the fact, then I do think those wishes have to be respected.”

I am not sure I entirely agree with this, as the privilege (or the right) to have a photo erased could be solely exercised by asking a photographer whom you have actually noticed taking a picture of you, while Law Enforcement and corporations, constantly monitoring and recording your activities, cannot even be confronted with such a request.

Besides, Law Enforcement/ corporate recording is mostly automated and remote, usually from a high vantage point, on a pole or a building wall, so most people, don’t even think (or feel particularly aware) of it.

I often ask myself questions about the degree and necessity of intrusion in one’s privacy. While photographing in the streets, I establish borders to my “art driven” intrusiveness, simply based on common sense and respect for my fellow citizens, in an antithetical attitude of what Colbert defines “macho culture of the Winogrand era street photographers”.

But a security camera can “unobtrusively” close-in a detail fifteen blocks away and there are no information available on the ethical righteousness of the person at the controls, nor a clear indication of how the image recorded will be used and by whom.

Perhaps it’s just my own problem, not being able to accept and digest the great number of Civil Liberties I am witnessing being constantly eroded, silently and often without any widespread public indignation in our society, but I don’t really think a “street photographer” should be attributed such great responsibility in the invasion of privacy, nor that he should be penalized (by asking him to erase a photograph) until the indiscriminate and rule-less visual surveillance going on in our cities is also subjected to an accurate scrutiny and much firmer rules.

An important element in this “case study”, which I experience daily, is that of visibility and presumed purpose of the act of photographing.

If I take a photo in the street I am visible and my purpose is mostly assumed to be a desire to monetize through my photographic activity while not offering a monetary compensation or the option not to be photographed to the subjects in my frame.

If Law Enforcement and corporations photograph us, from a high vantage point, undetected by us, we tend to think it is strictly for “security” purposes, to protect us from something hiding amongst ourselves, hence we condone it and even support it, as a clearly ethical and certainly necessary image gathering exercise, perhaps a little annoying, but useful to us and the whole community.

Mayor Bloomberg recently said we’ll soon have drones in our cities, taking even more pictures of us, from even better, hard to reach vantage points. He also said: “that’s the future…there is no going back”.

An interesting question we could ask ourselves is: why someone would ask you to erase a photo you take of them in a public place?

Any number of reasons, of course, but, in my opinion, mostly because of an increased popular awareness of the power, the implications, the dangers of being photographed today while retaining no saying in the fast, potentially worldwide distribution, the type of usage, the manipulation, the de-contextualizing an image of us can be subjected to by any unknown individual.

All of which is not only absolutely possible but also fairly unavoidable in our visually hyper-connected digital world.

Today, open access to the photographic evidence of our existence is something particularly uncomfortable to accept for many of us but increasingly difficult to avoid.

Actually, I think deleting a street photo of an unwilling subject of ours won’t help matters very much.

However, courtesy, a friendly approach and civility always go a long way, and the picture can even get erased in the end. No big deal, 99% of the time.

Whether a photo deletion happens or not, this whole issue rings one more alarm call invoking for a different approach to our lives and all our activities: a reality check about who we are and how we interact with one another, a plea to master fast advancing technologies and not be mastered and manipulated by them, to try much harder exercising good judgment and common sense in all we do.

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Street photography and ethical behavior in the age of street surveillance