Close-up street photography involves the production of images in which the camera is positioned very close to the face or body of the subject. The aesthetic aim of positioning the camera in this way is to capture the subject with a strikingly candid expression such as shock or alarm. In close-up photography, the subject is ordinarily caught unaware, or may realise that an image is about to be taken only moments before it is recorded. In such cases, the photographer intrudes upon the physical space of the nonconsenting subject in the same way that a person in a social exchange may stand inappropriately close to another person. Given that close-up photography involves taking subjects by surprise and potentially causing them distress or irritation, the risk of violent confrontations or awkward exchanges between photographer and subject ensures that close-up photography is the less common form of street photography.
The signature style of the famously combative New York street photographer, Bruce Gilden, is a close-up image of an unsuspecting subject taken with a hand-held flash gun.Footnote 4 Consider, for illustrative purposes, Gilden’s Untitled, New York, 1993. The picture is of a middle-aged businessman wearing what appears to be a vintage overcoat and hat. His mouth is agape and he is looking to the right at something that has caught his attention. In Untitled, New York, 1990, Gilden captures an elderly lady with a look of astonishment on her face. She appears to be wheelchair bound and is being pushed by a second, seemingly younger, woman who is grimacing. In both images, the subjects look startled or, at least, apprehensive, if not outright fearful.
While photographing unsuspecting subjects up-close may allow a street photographer to promote the sought-after artistic valuesFootnote 5, the element of surprise and the proximity of the photographer to the subject render the practice ethically contentious. As far as a person’s experiential welfare is concerned, instances of surprise may not be phenomenologically neutral but instead can have a valency. In line with the theory of wellbeing known as hedonism (Gregory 2016), anything that causes a person to feel a negatively-valanced emotion has a negative impact, however brief, upon the person’s wellbeing. Assuming that bad feelings are reliable commonsense pointers to any red flags a person’s conduct may raise, then it is safe to say close-up street photography is contentious because of its potential to negatively impact upon a subject’s wellbeing. The extent to which the nonconsenting subject feels a negative emotion such as fear, anger, irritation, or distress will be the degree to which a particular instance of picture-taking is bad for their wellbeing. Subject’s that are caused to feel very bad will experience a significant negative impact; subjects that experience only low-level irritation will experience only a minor negative impact. In cases when a subject does not feel bad at all, then, while the picture-taking may not actually have had an impact upon the subject’s wellbeing in those instances, the conduct of the photographer is nonetheless open to criticism because of it’s potential to negatively-impact upon the wellbeing of the subjects. In such cases, the photographer displays a self-interested willingness to risk causing a negative impact upon the subject’s wellbeing to get the desired image.
It is true that, in comparison to other unsettling events that a person may endure when out in public, having a camera thrust in your face, even in cases when the flash-gun fires, is a low-level form of harm; more akin to, say, a stranger bumping into you without apologizing than someone shouting directly at you. Nevertheless, when considering the ethically concerning aspects of street photography, the potential to cause a subject to have negative experiences is an obvious consideration and when bad feelings do arise the actions of the photographer are clearly causally responsible for them. In fact, when the element of surprise and proximity work in tandem to produce the sought-after image, the photographer purchases aesthetic value at the expense of the subject’s wellbeing.
The conduct of close-up photographers is particularly contentious when the subjects they represent are women, children, and people with disabilities. Such subjects are especially vulnerable to the physical power and caprice of male photographers. Against the background of social pressure to conform to ideals of beauty, female subjects often face predatory behaviour from street photographers that practice their craft like a hunter intent on capturing prey.Footnote 6 Physical or cognitive inequalities can make it difficult for children and people with disabilities to object to being the subject of photographic attention. Children and people with disabilities may lack the conceptual knowledge and life experience to comprehend the situation and could be physically unable to take evasive action in cases when the photographer is persistent.
To say all this, however, is not to imply that a street photographer may never be justified in causing a negative impact upon a subject’s wellbeing. There may be cases when a close-up photographer produces an image that causes a subject to have bad feelings but, subsequently, upon publication and viewing by many other persons, causes a net aggregate balance of positive wellbeing to be produced in the world. Presumably, by the lights of classical utilitarian theory, the production of the image in such a case would be justified. In fact, an implication of classical utilitarianism would seem to be that close-up street photographers must disseminate their images to secure the requisite pleasure to override the bad feelings and thereby mitigate the initial problematic intrusion into the subject’s space. Of course, the dissemination of an image may well compromise the wellbeing of the subject even further if publication of it causes them to feel additional distress. In line with classical utilitarianism, however, this additional distress will be a means to an end. Other forms of utilitarianism may view the justifiability of close-up street photography differently. An indirect utilitarian may consider thrusting a camera in an unsuspecting subject’s face as a violation of a utility promoting rule to respect the personal space of other persons. The variability of ethical analyses, depending upon the normative ethical framework, reflects the fertility of close-up street photography as a topic of philosophical interest. My aim here is not to apply all the competing normative theories to the phenomenon of close-up street photography, but simply to point out that street photographers can negatively impact upon the wellbeing of subjects and doing so is an ethically contentious aspect of the practice.
Some might argue that the negative experience of having one’s picture taken in public is on an ethical par to any bad feelings that may arise in a commonplace public interaction, such as when a fellow-passenger beats you to a seat on a public bus. The idea is that, just as the actions of the sitter causes a negative experience to arise in the stander, so the actions of the photographer causes a negative experience to arise in the subject. The objection continues: just as the sitter is at liberty to sit, the photographer is at liberty to take a picture. But it is not clear that the cases are relevantly similar. Intuitively, seat taking is uncontroversial and no one can object to a fellow passenger taking a seat before them, so long as the sitter did so within the norms governing the practice of bus riding. In contrast, taking a picture of someone is controversial because the norms governing street photography are comparatively opaque.
In addition to causing a subject to feel negative emotions, close-up photography can also be ethically problematic for considerations independent of any negative emotions the subject may or may not experience. Taking a person by surprise by entering the immediate space of their body is akin to appearing in a living room without an invitation. The problematic nature of proximity in such cases relates, not only to any aversive phenomenology that may arise in the subject, but also to their autonomous agency. At such times, the photographer disregards the subject’s possession of their space, taking it upon themselves to make judgments about the subject’s willingness to share it with others. In this respect, the ethical analysis of close-up street photography and respectable distance street photography overlaps. I will reserve further discussion of the agency-related implications of street photography until the examination of respectable distance street photography in the next section.
A sceptic may respond to the above analysis and argue that a subject’s wellbeing is not important because, like any artist, street photographers have a license to push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. But artistic expression in street photography occupies an analogous place to truth-telling in journalism. Both journalism and artistic expression involve the promotion of foundational liberal values such as individual liberty and freedom of expression. That someone intends to promote a benchmark value, however, does not give them a pass to do whatever they like. Presumably, were a street photographer to make an evocative picture by stepping on a subject’s foot, she would be going too far. In a sense, ethically, the close-up photographer is a victim of her own success at achieving her aesthetic aims. Her images are so aesthetically striking because of her timing and proximity to unsuspecting subjects, and it is these two features that makes her practice ethically contentious.
A further objection is that the scope of the analysis of close-up photography is too broad because it calls into question the ethics of producing any artwork in which a subject happens to experience negative feelings in the process. In line with the objection, the aversive feelings of a shivering portrait sitter, for example, would call into question the ethics of painting or sculpting portraits. But a shivering portrait sitter consents to being the subject of an artwork whereas the unsuspecting subject of close-up street photography ordinarily does not. Were a portraitist to position a subject in a freezer without first asking for their consent, then this would be grounds for calling into question the ethics of the work’s production. Clearly, the feelings of subjects are a legitimate topic of concern when ethical assessments of an artwork’s production are to be made.
A final objection is that the ethically contentious nature of close-up photography is best explained by a violation of the autonomous agency of the subject and not any potential negative impact upon the subject’s wellbeing. But, a focus on the subject’s wellbeing is needed in order to show that close-up street photography can be troubling in two respects, whereas respectable distance photography, as the analysis below will suggest, is likely troubling in only one respect.Footnote 7 If both forms of street photography are viewed exclusively through the ethical lens of autonomous agency alone, then a problematic feature of close-up photography of unsuspecting subjects, namely, any negative emotions that may arise in the subject, would be obscured behind a wholly agency-centred analysis.