Navigating the ethics of street photography in Toronto

Balancing consent with a photographer's right to free expression can be tricky

Adrian Lue’s Instagram feed offers people in inside glimpse into life in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond. A woman gazes out the window of a restaurant, pointing at something in the sky. Three girls lounge on a park bench during the last days of summer. A couple nuzzle noses on the sidewalk, clearly not noticing the photographer’s lens pointed at them.

Lue is a street photographer. All of his work on Instagram has great lighting and composition. But the emotion his images capture and the stories they tell through the sight of people caught in the moment are what make them so compelling.

However, everyone feels different when a camera is pointed at them; some feel as if they’re celebrities for the paparazzi, others may feel uncomfortable when they even see a camera. That feeling may even be more prevalent when the person holding the camera is a stranger.

The world of technology and connectivity has been beneficial for many, but privacy is also highly valued to many, if not, everyone. With those people becoming more anxious about their right to privacy, street photography is becoming more of a hunt than a leisurely photo walk.

“For me the first and foremost thing is respect,” Lue said in a phone interview on Mar. 18. “It’s about working within your means, respecting people’s space and just having the correct intention, which is important as artists.”

Street photography’s beginnings

One big name in the street photography community is Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is viewed as a pioneer of the craft and one of the best photographers of the 20th century. Raised as a painter, his interest veered towards artistry rather than the documentation.

Bresson, who died in 2004, established some of the main principles for ethical street photography, which are still in use today.

A person standing in front of a building

Description automatically generated
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

“Approach gently, tenderly, and never intrude, never push. Otherwise, if you use your elbows, it will work against you. Above all, be human,” Bresson said in an interview with Byron Dobell, which can be found in Bresson’s book of his interviews.

Carrying on the lessons and principles

Lue, a policy analyst for the provincial government, has been doing street photography for about five years as a hobby.

“When you have a job that stifles creativity, you need an outlet,” he said.

Lue, like Bresson, is a candid photographer who relies on viewing the moment, recognizing a scene, and capturing a story that the whole frame contains.

A person out grocery shopping checking the produce. COURTESY ADRIAN LUE

He does not ask strangers for their consent when he is shooting in public.

Lue treats his subjects as part of the whole scene. He says that the photo wouldn’t be the same without people, because sometimes they can create an emotion alongside the rest of the elements in the frame.

“Know when you’re in the right and when you’re in the wrong,” said Lue, who lives in Mississauga.  

He says it’s important for photographers to know when they are within their rights to take photographs of strangers without breaking the law. He also stressed that it’s important for a street photographers to be conscious of how they carry themselves and maintain their professionalism at all times.

Listen to Lue explain his perspective on street photography:

Street photograhy and the law

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists expression as a fundamental freedom. Photographers are within their rights to take photographs in public places and publish them — including photographs of people — even without asking them first.

The same goes for private places that are open to the public, according to PEN Canada, a nonpartisan group that fights for freedom of expression.

“PEN Canada affirms that the rights of people to make photographs and films in public places and in private places open to the public, and publish them, are hallmarks of a transparent democracy,” the group said in a blog post titled “Public photography is no crime.”

“People are welcome to take pictures or film in malls, transportation centers, and the like, unless posted signs specifically prohibit it, or until they are requested to desist by a representative of the owners of the property.”

Reassuring the public

Saadman Taha, an undergrad studying human geography, is another street photographer in Toronto. He has a lot to say about the responsibilities of both the people and photographers.

“I think the logic behind taking photos without consent is to maintain the candid nature of the photo,” he said in an interview on Apr. 8. If someone he’s photographed asks him to delete the image, he says he usually listens to them and does so.

“It’s important because it’s a means to document moments in life that we normally overlook … It’s important to document these things because one day as a street photographer, one would wish to leave behind a body of work that would tell the story of their time.”

Some public display of affection.

Taha said the rights of a photographer and adds that it shouldn’t be an issue if they back up their cause.

Even with the rights afforded to photographers in Canada, he said it’s important to be extra conscientious when dealing with people who are vulnerable.

However, with the restrictions, Taha mentions that those in a vulnerable state, like if they are naked or a state of distress, are off the table for him.

As for the homeless, Taha says there is a need for interaction afterwards to inform their intentions.

“Taking candid photos is the best means to tell genuine stories,” he said.

“If a person is concerned about their privacy, photographers should be able to educate them about what it is that they’re doing and for what purpose,” he said.

Read more from the Toronto Observer:

While photographers may not be able to change people’s uncomfortable feelings of having their photo taken, being informed about what is allowed can deter any future conflict for both parties.

Respect is key for photographers who want to take photos of strangers. As for the people, you may not be a celebrity with paparazzi and feel distressed about this, but you will be a part of a work of art. A part of a bigger story.

Listen to a clip of the interview with Lue:

About this article

Posted: Apr 19 2020 3:02 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life News