Street Photography’s Snakes on a Train?

Street Photography’s Snakes on a Train?

An image of a young mother in a short dress on a New York City subway raised ethical questions and the ire of some commentators on Twitter. Some found the “award-winning” photo to be stunning, while others questioned the photographer’s methods – sitting across from the woman for 45 minutes while holding his camera on his lap.

Unlike the conversation around “newsworthy” images and the First Amendment, street photography often occupies a much creepier and ethically ambiguous space. But what exactly made this image so objectionable? And how does it differ from Tom Brenner’s image of Senator Mark Warner, or anonymous photos of New Yorkers and their dogs on the subway. Sarah and Allen discuss.

Also on the show: Emily Ratajkowski tries using the Fair Use defense in her copyright infringement suit, World Press Photo shifts to a regional model, and photographer/director Joshua Kissi says LinkedIn is the real social network for pros. 

We mention the following photographers, articles, and websites in this episode:

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 22 comments for this article
  1. RT Simon at 3:31 pm

    One of the strengths of street photography is not just a decisive moment, but the environment that inevitably changes over time. This can make even innocuous street photo important.

    The camera is not a weapon. It should not be used as an instrument to track people for some concept of aesthetics that are not universal to the subject. From the photographer’s POV, it could be a wonderful shot, but the subject is oblivious. For the photo in question, how many frames did the photographer shoot potentially looking up a stranger’s skirt. Did he delete all the failed images that he would be too embarrassed to reveal he took?

    It all comes down to ethics. In a different ethical situation, a very senior Canadian photographer was accused of taking a photo on friend’s deathbed, after he died, who was also a very well known photographer. This man before he died looked horrible. Did he consent? I do not know. Another person who was present was very offended. This man would not want to be remembered this way. These photos remained private, did this friend sell this image to private collectors? This would be offensive because these two men had a history which was not a fairytale. In fact it was also offensive.

  2. sey at 4:21 pm

    The typical knee-jerk reaction by the pseudo-PC hypocricy and ‘moralism’ that has been stirred up by the hysterical media.
    There is no expectancy of Privacy in Public.
    The only thing creepy about this image is the absurd caption. Images should speak for themselves.
    This is a marvelous image showing the great interaction between the mother and her children.
    Obviously the woman is proud of her legs as she should be, so she wears a short dress.
    This is simply a fabulous People In-Public Street Photograph. The self-apponted ethic moralists are often reacting out of envy or thinking of making a quick buck.
    The other point being, why are woman photographers not accused of creepy photography.
    Unfortunately there exists a large segment of the ignorant viewer population that are unable to understand and judge an image for what it is, rather than assume search for the ‘creepiness’.

  3. Mark S Estabrook at 6:08 pm

    Interesting subject. In 2014 I covered the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine:

    Ever since, Google has shadow banned my site in search results for “Euromaidan Revolution,” I assume for violations of their violence policy. Who knows? I feel my work is historically significant not only as a photojournalist but as a street photographer as well.

  4. RR at 6:40 pm

    Should one need consent to write a description of what they saw on the train? What if it is turned into a short story? Or a painting? People should have privacy protections, but they also need to have artistic liberty. One has to be free to document one’s experience, and certainly when it’s in step with local laws. As this image was.

  5. Nick Turpin at 7:08 pm

    This whole article implies some sort of impropriety on behalf of the photographer which is kind of insulting. The photographer is making a documentary image, a record of the way we live in the public realm. And the clue is in the word ‘public’, there is no expectation of privacy in a public place, in fact it’s vital that what happens in a public place in a democracy is a matter of public record.

    • Mark S Estabrook at 8:31 pm

      One of the world’s original stealthy street photographers was documented here:

      The only impropriety was that of the New York Times in their assassination of Gareth Jones in his documentation of Holodomor in Ukraine. His story is just as relevant today as it was in 1933. His photos were improper in Moscow, but even more so in New York City.

      All of us street photographers have no idea what is coming in terms of censorship…

    • RT Simin at 9:26 pm

      What you are suggesting is that the ‘photographer’ has achieved some higher moral perch from which to surveille society, for reasons representation. In the age of digital representation, or image totalitarianism, this point becomes moot because everyone has a camera, and cameras can shoot an over-kill number of images that becomes nauseating to the act of photography.

      The fact that the photographer observed the subject for 45 minutes like he was an anthropologist, is like re-visiting “Muybridge on a subway”.

      At this point, the photographer is a recorder of pseudo-social aesthetics. Why is it nauseating? Imagine if everyone thought like that.

      Don’t get me wrong. The sensor has captured parts of the world never before seen. It is wonderful.

  6. PETER LEVITAN at 8:38 pm

    Do not take secretive photographs of strangers. Especially in intimate situations, not that this is a critical reason not to. Is this actually something up for debate? WTF? The core issue with sneaky street photographers is that they do not have a decent idea other than to walk around and shoot people – yes, shooting with their camera as if this is, um, cool. Sorry, but get a real idea and do that. Or, maybe, if you need to feel ‘artistic’, learn to photograph without stealing people’s images, ask people if you can take their photo or learn to paint or sing. This is 2021. We should be awake a bit.

    Just imagine that this is your wife, friend or sister… mother and you saw this image at an award show?

    Yo men, since women actually understand the issue, when you are pissing in a bathroom at the airport in a “public” space can I come up and take a picture?

    • @ofeykalakar at 5:03 pm

      This appears to be a staged photo, and as a matter of fact if this was entered into a photo contest, because the individual(s) are recognizable, a model release would need to be provided. As for art for art sake. street photography when done to capture a scene rather than everyday banal existence can be timeless like a scene out of a movie.

      • Ronald Simon at 7:42 pm

        That a particular street photo may become timeless is because it is part of a practice of seeing small slices of society framed by a history of formal conventions that are curated into the public. Competent street photos in only a matter of decades become documents of history. Street corners, signage, clothing, hair style, changes in perception of what is a landmark or how people may culturally express themselves. That is the power of street photography. It ages like fine wine.

        When a camera is used as an instrument of surveillance in order to get the best shot over a period of time, and discards the possibility of a one-of-a-kind moment is where the timelessness may end. Imagine a 12k camera with an f1.2 lens capturing 120 frames a second pointed at the same person for 40 minutes. That is no longer ‘timeless’. It is a manipulation of time.

  7. Peter at 11:27 pm

    A discussion that lends itself to further limitations on Americans first amendment rights is bowel clenching.

    On Public property you have no expectations of privacy. That does not mean you can’t get in the photographers face and tell him to back off.

    The caption was either real dumb or a publicity stunt. It’s classic street photography of the human race in our environments with all of our daily activities and trials. I did not see anything inappropriate in the photo. Why is everyone obsessed with the woman’s legs? Why are we assuming he took photos of her legs wide apart, and what is he doing with those. The Super Bowl halftime show last year embarrassed me as an American. Two over the hill washed up corporate whores gyrating and sliding into the camera with their legs apart for 50 million viewers and children was degenerate. And what about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema being followed into and filmed in a restroom by pressure groups Just last week? ’Definitely illegal, yet some politicians are saying it’s ok??? That’s a definite lawsuit.

    I saw a kind of similarity to Dorothea Langes ‘migrant mother.’ I would have tried a black and white version as well. Any outing with a couple of young children can make you weary. Imagine navigating the nyc subway. The subject is not a migratory farm worker, harvesting peas, and living in a shack. But all three of them are very tired. The kids are worn out, one is down already. Did the mom put in 40 60 hours at a job that week. Is she catching up on her sleep. Is living like this any better then the Great Depressions migrant workers 83 years later?

    I sense a definite cancel culture aura around this, especially if it gives ammo to revolutionaries to further diminish our liberty.

    • John B Turner at 2:55 am

      It’s interesting and useful that you are the only respondent here so far who has noted what’s going on in this beautiful documentary record. The mother is meaningfully depicted when turning her head to gently give attention to her still-awake daughter and its that beautiful parental communication, that others have responded to with good reason. Rather than focus on just the sensuality of her bare legs, the whole image has a sensuality in all of its detail and sense of real life that sets it apart.
      I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Walker Evan’s secret subway photographs and that he withheld showing them early on to lessen any imagined anger or discomfort from his unwitting “sitters” should they see them. Look up his book titled ‘Many are Called’ .

  8. Luke Burke at 1:35 pm

    I have seen this image a number of times and pretty surprised that people find the short dress such a talking point – I never noticed it as an issue and never saw it as exploitative. 45 minutes across from someone though is an incredible amount of time to not get noticed – so I would presume the photographer has been noticed and accepted in the journey – this can happen in street photography as any street photographer who has stuck with a scene will attest.

  9. Jez Coulson at 9:29 pm

    The podcast in this space is also very odd for a nominally pro photography organization…. photography is part of our democratic protections that never seems to get a mention… its a critical part of journalism and reporting … all these black lives matter issues rise out of let’s have a true record of what’s really happening … not the with permission of the police version … lets see what life looks like for real in moments of extreme but also in the everyday …
    Photography its part of the artistic record of how we live now …. yes because of famous magnum images made of the subway in the 1980’s we have an authentic record of those times … they were not engineered with permission from the police or educational institutions involved and there are no model release slips from the parents of the youth … this is a record of reality ….its not a public relations excercise ….
    ….and yes if someone makes a picture of you eating pizza in the street …? So what? In North Korea you could make sure the police or party representatives are there to ensure no images of reality are made …. why would we want that ? The person wanting to punch a photographer for making a picture of reality ? Its odd they are on a photography blog ? Surely there has to be some recognition at PhotoShelter that all the photographs they hold are made by photographers …. out there with cameras …. this kind of chat seeks to pretend photographs would exsist by chatting about them …. no … all the photographs on photoShelter and all other platforms are made by photographers with cameras in real life…. in real world situations ….. as if 99.99% of them would even exsist if the police needed to be informed and the local party representative on the council for images and image use …. to ensure all grand parents alive or dead and parents alive or dead of anyone under 30 had been contacted prior to any camera equipment being liscenced for use in any given vicinity.

    Most photography is about real life let’s leave it like that. Let’s not make it about form filling and permission from the police.

  10. David Horton at 12:13 pm

    People’s “creepy” or “sexual” interpretation of this image says more to me about them and the way they see the world than it does about this image or the photographer’s intent.

    The commentators seemed most bothered by the fact that the photographer photographed the scene for as long as he did. That somehow made him really creepy. Shame on both commentators (Sarah and Allen) who represent a photography blog for not understanding what it means to work a scene until THE shot reveals itself and being able to explain that to the audience.

    That anyone sees this image as sexual or exploitative is truly baffling to me. What, because the woman is wearing a short dress and her legs are exposed? Really? The image has nothing to do with her legs or dress. The power of the image is above the waist—the beautiful and poetic dynamics between the mother and child. But any legitimate photography blog would know that and put their energy into defending the photographer’s intention not reinforce the opinions of the real creeps out there that see this image as anything other than beautiful.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 5:18 pm

      Thanks for your comments. I think it’s really simplistic to suggest I don’t know what it means to work a scene. If I followed you around the city for an hour trying to taking a picture of you without you knowing, would you find that behavior acceptable? Some might, some wouldn’t. We never suggested that street photography should be illegal, but we did raise the fact that intention matters, and street photographers might consider how it makes their subjects feel. It’s a well-composed photo, but is photographer seeking validation by entering it in contests?

      • ofeykalakar at 5:15 pm

        As I indicated if this was entered into a photo contest, because the individuals are recognizable, the photographer would need to provide a model release. I believe this was a staged photo if a release exists

        • David Horton at 12:59 pm

          Before you make ignorant claims like this photo being staged (which it is absolutely not) learn the basic laws of street photography in America. Releases are not required to enter street photography contests.

  11. David Horton at 1:19 pm

    Following someone around the city taking pictures of them is not working a scene—it’s stalking—and that is not acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, the information Paul shared about how long it took to get that image was intended for the street photography community (not the general public). In that community, it means something if an image is a one-off shot or a “worked scene”. Taken out of that context, to the lay person, it could be misinterpreted, and it was. The fact that he sat there for 45 minutes does not mean he was shooting the whole time, and any street or documentary photographer knows that.

    I don’t think you’re suggesting that street photography should be illegal but you clearly don’t understand or appreciate the genre. And, as a prominent voice on a large photographic platform, I think that is really unfortunate. You’re not helping to educate the public on an often misunderstood genre of photography; you’re adding to the problem.

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