When it comes to street photography, is it ever OK to take pictures of children without parental permission? I think the answer is, “it depends.” Let me start out by saying that I’m a big hypocrite. As a father myself, I would feel completely uncomfortable if a random stranger were to point a camera at one of my children. But as a street photographer, I sort of have a different take on things.
For the sake of our discussion, let’s get one thing out of the way right now. Yes, it is 100% legal to both photograph and publish images of children without parental permission so long as they were taken in a public location and aren’t being used for advertising purposes. In public, there is no expectation of privacy (even for children) and the law is very clear in this regard.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for permission if the circumstances warrant it. A few years ago I was photographing in downtown Pittsburgh at a public water fountain, and I literally got chased down by an overzealous security guard. At the time I didn’t know what the law was, but I did the right thing by asking permission from a few of the moms. I simply explained that I was a fine art photographer and that images of children playing in a fountain on a hot summer day were iconic. They had no problem. Having a business card or offering to send them your pictures can only help.
A few days ago I captured an image (featured in this post) of a young man sitting on a curb in Palm Springs, California. It was taken during a nighttime street fair. Although the picture doesn’t show it, there were hundreds of people around at the time, yet I was still able to capture a frame where it appears as though the boy is completely isolated. As a street photographer, I was drawn to the moody painterly lighting and to the theme of solitude. Undoubtedly, everyone will have their own interpretation when looking at my final image.
After posting this image to my Facebook timeline, I got a message from one of my good buddies that read, “Dude, recent picture is great but be careful with photography of children. That’s always touchy and I don’t want to see you get into trouble for it. That would just suck.” My other friend thought the picture was wonderful, but he understood why it might be perceived as creepy. Let’s face it, seeing a kid sitting on what appears to be an empty city street could conjure up images of a lost boy in a dangerous part of town.
Not all photography should be about cupcakes and roses. Sometimes photography challenges us. Sometimes photography makes us feel uncomfortable. If photography evokes some emotional reaction in the viewer (whether negative or positive), I view this as a success. In many cases, the photographer’s interpretation (and motivations for taking the shot) won’t necessarily align with those of the viewer, and that’s perfectly OK. Everyone looks at art through the filter of their own eyes and experience.
As a street photographer, I do find it a bit sad that we’ve gotten to the point where any photographer that aims a camera at a child is automatically labeled “Chester the Molester.” I can assure you, I’m not Jared from Subway. But we do live in different times – and it is fair to say that not all adults with a camera may have honorable intentions.
Some of the most famous historical images ever taken have involved children. Two good examples are Henry Cartier-Bresson’s “Children Playing in the Ruins” and Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl.” Make no mistake, photographs of children can indeed be timeless—which is why they continue to be a noteworthy subject.
As photographers, we just need to exhibit common sense when photographing children without parental permission. There is no doubt that society is less innocent and trustworthy than it used to be – which may explain current views and reactions. We live in an age of overt political correctness, where privacy-invading paparazzi run rampant and where the media has made us all feel like we’re living inside an episode of “Criminal Minds.” The truth is, there probably isn’t a serial killer in a beat-up white van lurking around the corner waiting to abduct our children—which is not to say that we shouldn’t be diligent as parents.
Although we shouldn’t be afraid to aim a camera at a child when we feel like there is something worth photographing, we need to be sensitive to each situation—taking into consideration the perilous times we now live in. We need to ascertain whether the creative ends will justify the means. Legality aside, parents can be highly protective and there’s always the risk of getting our asses whooped by Momma or Papa Bear (or getting into a confrontation with an un-informed security guard or police officer).
Street photography is often a game of risk and reward, and sometimes we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone in order to chase the compelling shots.