Digital Media Post Due Tuesday by 5pm

Ethics Of Street Photography

Street photographer, Eric Kim, doesn’t feel comfortable photographing certain social situations. Please respond to his discussion of photographing these situations and people “humanely.” What is your reaction to excluding certain social situations or members of society from the corpus of historical documentation?


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19 Responses to Digital Media Post Due Tuesday by 5pm

  1. Elana says:

    What I found most interesting was Eric Kim’s idea of taking a photograph first and then telling the person that you took the photograph afterwards. That way, you get the affect of the unexpected photo AND you get the permission of the subject. It’s genius yet so simple and obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

    I understand that people take offense to photographing impoverished and underprivileged people because they believe it is taking advantage of people in poor positions.However, I think photographers would be criticized if they didn’t take photos of people in those social situations. Critics would accuse photographers of being discriminatory for not photographing people on the lower end of the financial spectrum. In the end, people will always find a way to be critical. As long as the photographer has good, honest intentions and the subject does not mind his photo taken, I see no harm if photographing people in unfortunate situations.

  2. The street photographer Eric Kim argues that he photographs people humanely because he acknowledges the person after taking their photograph, perhaps as simply as making eye-contact with them. He advises approaching the person afterwards and explaining why they took the picture. He himself occasionally starts a conversation beforehand with the subject of his photographs. However, Kim states that he feels uncomfortable taking pictures of the poor or destitute, as he feels that he is taking advantage of their situation just for the sake of an interesting image.
    While I don’t believe that history should become a form of propaganda, with only certain images that have been approved by society documented, I do not believe that this is the issue with street photographers such as Kim. It seems that here the choice of whether or not to photograph certain people, particularly of a much lower social status, is mainly out of respect for their privacy and dignity. As Kim mentioned in his article, there have been many collections of photographs dedicated to depicting the poor, and have been done very well. A truly accurate documentation of history would include images of people from all social backgrounds. This may be near impossible considering the vast diversity of the world, but at the least no groups of people should be purposely excluded.

  3. knkern94 says:

    I find it very interesting that Eric Kim does not consider himself a photographer or artist, but instead a sociologist when taking street photography. It is not a matter of creating art or being fancy and it isn’t even about starting a movement or causing awareness for something. He does this simply because he likes studying people and enjoys documenting their lives. Eric even goes as far as to call it “research”.
    When Eric comments on not photographing the homeless or impoverished, I don’t really like that he uses that its already been done before as an excuse. I like that he says he has taken their photos and gets to know the homeless personally, but I think it’s kind of a cop out to not do it because it already has been done. If all people thought that way then the world would not be evolutionizing(is that a word?) and changing. Is he scared to do it wrong and get criticism because he might do it “inhumanely” in others opinions? Who cares! Maybe photographing homeless isn’t his thing but I guess that comment just really bothered me.
    I do commend him for being brave and continuing his work even with altercations. It takes a lot of courage to photograph someone you don’t know at all and even more courage to make eye contact or go and explain yourself. He is certainly “humanistic” in that sense.

  4. alangdon93 says:

    I also found it interesting to take street photography to one of a sociological and even historical perspective. Yet, by taking this method I feel like it is imperative to talk to the subjects after or before taking the photograph. Just like subjects in other sociological or psychological studies must be asked permission. From a historical perspective, eliminating certain situations from the body of historical documentation seems in bad taste, reminding me of dystopic novels such as 1984. However, photography is not the only part of the body of historical representation. Recognizing its inherent ambiguity and propensity to be interpreted in different ways, may leave one a hesitance to photograph more delicate and complex situations. I agree more with taking street Photography from a more sociological and historical perspective, however, I believe that the courtesy of asking permission should be taken and makes Kim more credible.

  5. I appreciate Eric Kim’s non-intrusive approach to street photography. I think it’s natural and appropriate to exclude certain social situations from documentation. There are certain times in my life I definitely don’t want photographed. That may make for a more skewed perception of the past but I think it’s ok to have more pictures of birthday parties in your photo albums than funerals.

    And in terms of excluding certain members of society, he admits that the homeless and destitute, as a part of society, should be photographed too. Kim even notes that many photographers can do it very tactfully, he just doesn’t want to objectify the homeless. Because of this, he only photographs them after talking to them and hearing their life story, which retains their humanity.

    His objective, in any photographic situation is to ensure that his motives are pure. Kim focuses much more on the subject than himself or his audience. He always asks, “Am I doing it to reveal something positive about them? Or am I doing it because I wish to make an interesting and gritty photograph?” Therefore I support his mission wholly. I don’t feel like this affects his body of work in a negative way and if anything, it gives me peace of mind that creepy self-proclaimed street photographers aren’t unknowingly using me as their muse.

  6. joezim1994 says:

    Kim seems to have confused ideas about photographing certain people. On one hand, photographing the poor and destitute is said to exploit them, but on another, Kim claims that it is possibly to photograph them “humanely”—so much so that it almost seems too easy, something that “so many projects” have done before. He only does take pictures of such people when he has talked to them and “heard their life story” beforehand. Is this, a basic interaction with the subject, all it takes to transform exploitation to “humane” rendering? Can one really purport to understand another person so much by a mere conversation that taking their photograph would no longer be misuse of their situation? He claims that these types of photographs have been done so much before that they are no really worth it. Yes, he does say that it is not as though he doesn’t want them to ever be photographed (since they are “part of society and often times it is important to raise awareness about their issues”), yet, later on he advises other street photographers to stick to photos of ordinary people, not “ordinary photos of extraordinary people (homeless, street performer, etc.).” He removes the homeless from the ordinary, and thus removes them from the potential “extraordinary” moments that he feels street photographers should capture. So, to him, the homeless are both too interesting to photograph and a subject that is only sometimes necessary to capture (this act of capturing their images is, notably, only exploitative if no attempt to get to know them is made beforehand). Ultimately, he seems simply “uncomfortable,” as he says, with photographing them. This comes off as a hypocritical stance for one whose professed goal is “studying people and how society creates certain pressures and expectations of them” and does not otherwise have any apparent qualms about invading privacy. While he claims that photographing the poor is almost too easy, what it really seems like is the opposite: it is easier for him to avoid what he finds uncomfortable. Perhaps there is no easy way to photograph the impoverished, but an important subset of society should not be glossed over for the sake of what is easy.

  7. I think Eric Kim needs to think through some of the details of his philosophy, but the underlying philosophy is strong. It makes sense to take candid pictures, then ask for permission to post them. If the person does not want their photo taken, it can be deleted. But if the person does not mind, Kim has a candid photo, just like he wanted, that he can share with the world. However, it does not make sense to me that this rule has an exception for the poor or disenfranchised. While it is admirable that he wants to protect these people from being taken advantage of, he is also denying them the right that every other person has – to have their picture taken, and to be able to say whether or not they want it published. I think the major reason that I agree so strongly with Kim’s philosophy, though, is that it gives power to the subject of the photo, not just the author or the observer – a power that has been lacking in the other philosophies we have looked at so far this semester.

  8. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece was Eric Kim’s assertion that motives are the element that should tell whether a person should be photographed or not. When he talked about his uncomfortable feelings about photographing the homeless or addicted, it seemed that he feared it through his own motives as a photographer. Was he doing it to simply get a good photograph? Or is he doing it to receive a positive message or to capture the person fully? It is a moral dilemma that he thinks should be considered when photographing others. I feel that the exploitation of certain classes and characteristics has been invariably a go-to picture for the nitty-gritty. That is not to say that they should not be photographed, it just simply depends on the motives behind the photographs.

  9. sjfrazier015 says:

    Kim asserts that the best method in taking photographs that protect the thoughts and feelings of others is to take the photograph first, and then to ask permission after the fact. This creates the ability to capture a candid photograph but to continue to take into account humane treatment of peoples feelings. While this is all well and good, many times I think you have to take particular discretion in what you photograph in the first place, whether you get permission to use it or not. Many times, these boundaries are crossed, and these boundaries differ from person to person.

    I think that there are a lot of times when a situation is not appropriate to photograph, but people do it anyway. At the same time, some of these moments are the ones that create photographs that are famous worldwide (and often win Pulitzer prizes). For example, the photographs taken of men jumping out of the World Trade Center are times in which I would have been appalled to see someone photographing. But at the same time, these photographs are now worldwide images of the horrors of that day. Because it was in a public place, it may be better to say that intimate settings are many times inappropriate to photograph unless directly related (but even then, sometimes its not appropriate. For example, it would be really odd for someone to photograph a wedding that they were not involved in or had no friends or relatives that were part of it. But in the case of a funeral, I would say that it is pretty much never okay to photograph the scene. I remember going to a funeral recently when I saw a woman photographing the events of the day and I was just so put back by what I was seeing. I think a lot of times people cross boundaries in photography, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. But its hard to draw a line when, over and over again, we watch history being captured in the most incredible of ways, at the most “inappropriate” of times.

  10. maxinesrich says:

    I do not feel that Kim was in any way attempting to exclude certain social groups from photography. Rather, he found that it is difficult to include homeless persons in a humane way. He defines a humane photo of such an individual as one that points out a positive characteristic, rather than one that simply serves as an interesting and “gritty” photograph. Kim seems to feel that this is the line that must be walked for a street photographer to behave ethically in photographing the impoverished members of society. Overall, his interview rang with a sense of great respect for people of all walks of life, particularly those who he photographs.

    I personally found it most interesting when, towards the end of his article, Kim encouraged photographers to take “extraordinary pictures of ordinary people,” rather than “ordinary pictures of extraordinary people.” Kim seems to want to highlight the beauty and life within the average person walking on the street, rather than those with the most apparent intrigue, such as a homeless person. This is a fascinating aspect of street photography, in that it often attempts to encompass those often thought of as unworthy of historical records, including them in the historical master narrative, as their life, or a moment of it, is now permanently recorded in a photograph.

  11. Eric Kim refrains from taking pictures of people in dire conditions – poverty or pain, for instance. For him, the good that could come out of the photograph is usually outweighed by the negative implications. After all, there are plenty of pictures that depict people in horrible situations in order to raise awareness of their plight. He does not feel that he could contribute to the broader world’s understanding of these issues by snapping more photos and so prefers not to. Along that line of reasoning, he feels that since he is not tangibly helping these people and is using their suffering to make an aesthetically pleasing image, he is exploiting them. I think that this is a valid argument. He is also revealing that he considers himself to be taking advantage of strangers – but that he only feels guilty in doing so to those he pities.
    To me, Kim’s work does not fit into the “corpus of historical documentation.” His purpose in taking street photography is to take beautiful or interesting pictures and not so much to document history. Yes, technically, his digital photos will be around forever, but future historians are unlikely to use his images to discover what was going on. There are trillions of pictures from which they will be able to draw their conclusions, including plenty depicting the poor. Does it really matter in terms of historical accuracy whether or not Kim decides not to photograph the poor? What is more important is the ethical underpinning of his whole endeavor. He obviously considers it his right to photograph strangers without their permission. He believes that he is doing them a service and is making them feel special, not violated. He cannot make that justification for himself with poor people, though. This indicates that he is uncertain about the ethics of his art, but can ignore that ambivalence when he is taking pictures of people with whom he can relate.

  12. I feel that the fear of using a photograph depicting pain and suffering for its visual appeal intimidates Eric Kim. He avoids photographing in these situations because of the responsibility he has as a photographer. He mentions that he asks himself if the visually controversial photographs he takes reveal something positive in his subjects.

    This to me raises an important issue. I get the impression that perhaps photographer’s self-image as artists obstructs certain photographic opportunities due to fear of exploitation. The sick, the poor and the forsaken of society should not be subject to be photographed for the sake of the aesthetic aspects of their misfortune. A street photographer would often be unsure to capture the destitute’s image for fear of exploitation or to be perceived as exploiting. This would seem to leave a documentary photographer such as a FSA photographer to do record these subjects. Unfortunately, for a documentary photographer, the incentive to photograph the controversial, to document the most intense and flaring images due to their journalistic and awareness-raising appeal would also lead to this sort of photographing for aesthetic purposes.

    Kim is justified in avoiding certain kinds of photographs, but if he did not have to photograph under his name, if he could publish his images randomly, in a vacuum where his identifiable presence as “the photographer” did not exist, then these controversial photographs would not run into such problems. If a photograph just simply existed, as if a machine took it in pure chance, with no intended purpose, then the photograph could not be said to be “exploiting” or misrepresenting. They would only “show” what once was, nothing else. The only injustice possibly done to the subject, assuming the photograph was taken consensually, would come from the way people observe it. The expectations, reputations, and interests of photographers limit what they can responsibly photograph, but this does not mean that certain photographs should not ethically exist.

  13. Emily Schweich says:

    I like Kim’s mantra of taking “extraordinary photo(s) of ordinary people” as opposed to taking ordinary photos of an extraordinary person. Photographs of officials and celebrities are often held in higher esteem than pictures of unremarkable, ordinary people. In truth, these so-called “ordinary people” can have more to say and more to teach us than people who are famous, and they are worth featuring in photography.

    I do feel that by talking to his subjects and finding out their life story, Kim chooses to place a positive spin on his storytelling through photography. However, I feel that sometimes an “interesting and gritty photograph” is necessary to elicit emotions from viewers and perhaps provoke social change. From a sociological perspective, what good comes out of only photographing the positive? It is ignorant to choose to ignore the people and events that so define our world. I understand that sometimes photographs can be gratuitous in their portrayal of violence or poverty, but I feel that, when placed in the right context and properly framed, these photographs can be quite telling.

    It seems like there are is no one school of thought for street photography, however, and it is up to the individual photographer to make ethical decisions about what is appropriate to publish.

  14. Eric Kim feels uncomfortable photographing certain situations or people because he feels it is inhumane to do so. When he finds himself wanting to photograph someone who is homeless, he asks himself whether he is doing it because he wants to shed a new positive light on this person, or if he is just taking another “gritty” picture. As with all of his other photographs, he makes sure that the subject knows they were photographed and why, just so that they are not angry or suspicious. I think this is a good approach to street photography because it encourages a story behind a photograph rather than just being an interesting subject or event. However, I do think that people should be able to say if they do not want their picture taken or if they are uncomfortable, even if it is legal to take pictures in public. I also feel that some situations should not be photographed, but often are anyway. A lot of the photographs in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit at the Newseum were shocking pictures that were very intrusive on people’s emotions (usually the ones documenting death, with the actual corpses in the photograph). Some situations just seem like an odd time to be taking a picture.

  15. I really respect the way that Eric Kim approaches his subjects when they realize that he has taken a photograph of them. Unlike Jason McGordy who essentially just runs away from any awkward moment of explaining what he was doing to his subjects, Kim actually lets the people know why he took their photograph. I Think this technique is much more ethical than running away and it really shows that he respects his subjects and doesn’t just see them as an object to put in an image. I also appreciate how he tries to get to know some of the people before he takes their picture. In this way, if Kim were to add a caption to the photograph, it would be more accurate and less likely to anger the person if they were to see the image in an exhibit or website.

    In terms of excluding some aspects of society in photography, there should be a happy medium. As Kim mention, they should not be completely excluded from the art but when capturing things like the destitute, one needs to be wary when examining their own motive for doing so. People need to make sure that they avoid the trend of taking a picture of something extreme just for the sake of getting something extreme. There seems to be a pattern in which people will see a photograph as being good and “arty” if its an image of the homeless or an addict. This parallels with Susan Sontag’s discussion of how to display people in pain to society and how to avoid de-sensitizing the viewers. I believe that the negative parts of society do need to be captured to avoid ignorance, but it also need to be in moderation and with a motive of awareness rather than just for the sake of getting a gritty picture.

  16. shjones says:

    I find Kim’s approach to photographing peoples and situations appropriate. His method allows for the capturing of a “real” situation (which, as he points out, is completely legal in many places) while also showing respect to the subject of the picture.

  17. rossfasman says:

    What is your reaction to excluding certain social situations or members of society from the corpus of historical documentation?

    Kim proclaims that while he often feels uncomfortable photographing “drug addicts” because it feels exploitative, he also recognizes the positive benefits from that portion of society and the subsequent ills and needs of these people. Often times, this is the line that I think needs to be treaded; to me, all photography, if capturing a traumatic event should have a positive agenda to forge political aims, tell individual stories that would otherwise have no been heard, or present news.

    Originally, I was very convinced that excluding social situations or members of society from the corpus of historical documentation would be thoroughly okay if the means of presentation were “artistic” and not scholastic in naturet. However, I had a change of heart.

    I can’t get away from Barthes’ point that the poignancy of photography is that sometimes those captured within the picture have died. That point really disturbs me because in that moment, they are vigorous. In that moment, they are alive. And purposefuly, they can never be the same as they were in that moment.

    The fact that life is ephemeral and photography allows people to capture in a “still-state” is what intrigues me. I was prompted to answer this way by the quote “If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Similarly, if a life is lived and nobody is there to remember it, capture it, store it in memory, then how do we know that there was a life in the first place? That’s really scary to me, and I feel a human life should also be remembered, treasured, or mourned in some way because of its sanctity. If photography is the means to do that, I’m 100% for it.Therefore, we must NEVER refrain from caputuring social situations or members of society because otherwise they will one day die and their life’s story will never be told.

  18. shjones says:

    I find Kim’s approach to photographing peoples and situations appropriate. His method allows for the capturing of a “real” situation (which, as he points out, is completely legal in many places) while also showing respect to the subject of the picture.
    His exclusion of certain demographics (i.e. the homeless) however doesn’t sit well with me. He says that he chooses to exclude this group often because he feels that he would just be doing it to “make an interesting and gritty photograph”. I agree that this benefiting off the suffering of others would be bad, but I think it is also important to consider that as unfortunate as the situation may be, it is part of the society. In order to truly document this society, all aspects must be included.

    (Also that picture of the fingernails? Gross.)

  19. esrayagoub says:

    I thought the way he took photos was ethical and the reactions he got were understandable but misguided. Those people were mad that he could take a picture of them, the weren’t mad at the photographer himself. I think his decision not to take pictures of certain people is slightly offensive. I feel as though he is saying that he doesn’t want to take the time to explore there world, simply because he believes other’s have already done so. I think it is ignorant of him to say that. No one had defined what that homeless person is going through, he thinks its okay to clump that particular person with all the rest. Although I like the way he defined what he was trying to capture, I think he will never be able to so if he continues to label and even degrade people.

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