What’s the Point of Street Photography? Our History and We Can’t Look Away

There is an uproar over this Paul Kessel award-winning street photograph. People are saying he’s exploiting the woman who is the subject of his photograph. They say it’s creepy he didn’t get her permission. Didn’t even tell her he was making the photograph. Didn’t get her consent afterwards. He made it surreptitiously shooting from the hip while seated across from her on a subway.

They say her dress is too short. “It’s almost an upskirt photo. He must be a perv. Deviant. Snake on a train.”

No, he’s not. He’s just another documentary photographer working in the public street and the internet high and mighties like to get all worked up over nothing. Photojournalists have worked in public since the beginning of editorial photography and street photography is simply a depiction of life in public, ordinary scenes sometimes raised to great heights when time is stopped and a strong subject or moment (or both) can really be seen in a photograph.

And she’s not wearing anything inappropriate. Hey, fashion police, get off her case. It’s like some bizarre reverse victim-shaming that she’s wearing that and he caught her like that.

With kids, no less! Think of the children!”

There’s nothing wrong with that. The internet is what’s wrong. Public outrage over nothing is what’s wrong. Having this platform to be offended by things that are just people living life and photographers depicting life, that’s what’s wrong.

The internet is merely the easy source for amplifying these non-problems to great volumes.

Without documentary photographers working in the street, there would be no Robert Frank photographs. No Garry Winogrand. No Helen Levitt. No Dorothea Lange. No Henri Cartier-Bresson. No Vivian Maier. No Alfred Eisenstaedt. No documentation of our past. No history in photographs.

No photographs like Frank’s New Orleans segregated bus, Elliott Erwitt’s the colored/whites water fountain or Eisenstaedt’s the kids marching jubilantly. The past would be just that, past. Gone.

Do we really want all that to go away? No photographing in public so no photos like this?

And exactly, why?

What would be the result of getting rid of street photography–documentary photographs–what would they be protecting us from?

Seeing who we are?

Seeing ourselves?

There is a lively discussion going on at the Flak Photography Network on Facebook about this topic, if you are interested in reading others’ points of view.

It seems like we like to make ourselves afraid of each other. And street photographers are a target group that can be feared. They’re working without our permission, so they must be up to no good.

I think fear is the problem, that and the amplification platform called the Internet. Street photographers are simple documenting what is in front of them, people living their lives in the current times. Nothing nefarious. Nothing creepy.

I say be wary of those who call others so scary that they need to be feared. That all are untrustworthy.

Documentary street photography is simply showing us who we are. Maybe we don’t like what we see, but it’s truly us.

And maybe we need to take a longer look at some of the less fortunate to really see who we are as well. Maybe all the photos aren’t pretty.

Street photographs can show us the difficult as well as the joyful. It’s a mirror up, showing us ourselves, and letting us look longer at things we don’t like to see.

It’s a reminder of who we are and where we came from.

And it reminds us to look longer at those that maybe we don’t want to see.

Street photography is vital photojournalism of life in our time. Photographs of ways that will not always be as they are today.

That’s why they’re essential. To not forget where we came from.

To not erase our past.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Street Photography? Our History and We Can’t Look Away

Add yours

  1. Hi Kenneth,

    You’re so right. People are forgetting they enter public space themselves out of their free will. Anything you do in public space will be noted by others in that same public space. And yes, sometimes there is a street photographer who records what’s happening in the public space. It is called life, society etc. And documenting it is important, demonstrated by the great examples that you mention in your post. It reminds us of how we live and in a few years what life was like in the days.

    And nowadays we get all worked up when a photo was published without explicit permission from the subject. People want to control everything, But the simple truth is that from a legal perspective anything in the public space may be recorded without permission. And we live in squeamish times apparently. There’s many photo’s from the 60s and 70s that probably would not pass the thought police.

    best regards

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kenneth, I agree with every thing you have said, no need to add any more. My only ‘forbidden subjects’, as far as I can think at this moment, are people in distress in the street, heart attacks and so on, or children. If they walk in to the wider frame that’s not a problem.
    Some years ago here in the UK someone, probably the police I forget now, decided that photographing policemen would be prohibited, it was a fear of terrorism thing, the idea was soon abandoned after street photographers started taking lots of pictures of policemen. Mike


    1. Time makes it very valuable. It’s why Fred Herzog was discovered long after he started photographing Vancouver. And the Vivian Maier story, too. It’s difficult to appreciate when we can look outside and see the same thing people are photographing. It’s only once they’re gone that they take on value.


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