Is It Okay to Photograph Children in the Street?

Good lighting and exposures are very important. Color and proper focus are both critical. That’s all. lol. Okay, just kidding. But you didn’t REALLY think I wasn’t going to make a defense of street photographers taking pictures of kids who aren’t theirs, did you?

I originally published this about a year and a half ago and it met great controversy when I posted a link to it over on DPReview. Some people threatened my physical well being. Or at least it seemed that way to me.

In the interim, the state of California actually implemented a law last year preventing celebrity hounding paparazzi (not judging, I’ve sold many celebrity images via a celebrity photo agency and some of them were surreptitiously taken) from taking images of the children of, you guessed it, celebrities.

First, let me say that I’m just a little appalled that celebrities have the power to win the passage of special laws that benefit only them. That you can trot a couple of lovely weeping actresses like Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner out in front of the state legislature and get a law protecting only their children is kind of an outrageous proposition.

But I was also relieved to find out that it did only apply to them and their children. Sort of a dichotomy I guess you could call it. I’d thought of ranting and raving against the passage of the law and hounding the governor of California, Jerry Brown, to refuse to sign off on it but, honestly, on the one hand, I’m not supportive of the idea that children of celebrities should be targeted by a stalking paparazzi. That is unacceptable.

But had that law included ALL photographers, and made anyone taking images of children in a street photography situation law breakers for doing so I would have been even more outraged. There is a price of celebrity and that price should be paid by celebrities and not free citizens doing what photographers have had free license to do since the advent of photography.

Anyway. Here it is. I can only give you my answer to the question of whether or not it’s okay to take pictures of other people’s children, in public, with no permission from anyone. It is the answer that I’ve come up with that applies to me. Every single person reading this has to come up with an answer that works for them and please don’t take anything I’m writing here as legal advise or even suggestions as to what you should or should not be doing with your cameras or with your lives.

The only immutable law, I would suggest, is that you’d better be taking pictures of kids for good reasons and with the best intentions. And there are many and you have a right to those reasons and intentions. (as far as I’m concerned. Not necessarily according to the law or customs where you happen to be located. Or not. See what I mean? Me neither.)

Children tell stories, with their expressions, their body language and gestures, in an unfiltered and psychologically complicated way that adults very often don’t. And you have a right to grab those stories and record them on film or a digital camera sensor when and wherever you find them. (But don’t hold me to that statement as legal advice. I’m not a lawyer and it is not legal advice or guidance.)

The image at the top here is one of my favorites. There’s a lot of information in this shot. You have what would appear to any resident of Los Angeles to be visitors from somewhere else. It is summer and probably this is their vacation together. It is a family with three lovely daughters sporting matching outfits.

Their parents obviously take great pride in their brood here and it appears that two of the girls might be twins. The third, standing off to the right, seems a year or so younger than her sisters. That she’s wearing the same outfit nevertheless seems to indicate this family feels a desire or need for a certain degree of family conformity. I’m not passing judgment. I would probably be looking for three of everything myself if they were my children.

Mom looks like she’s ready to take a picture herself which further indicates to me that this moment, here on an icky sticky Santa Monica sidewalk, represents some holiday memory that must be preserved forever. Seems like they may have just gotten out of their rental car.

But kids are scary scary things and a set of three like this would give me nightmares if I was their father. You have three beautiful daughters, you dress them alike to show how much pride you have in your family. But then there’s the one with the broken arm to remind you how delicate and fragile your precious family is and how precarious and elusive will be your grasp on their lives for the rest of your own.

The second shot is a collection of three individuals connected by something technically invisible, meaning you can’t see a wire or a string or a discharge of energy like a lightening bolt or anything like that, but that is there nevertheless and is probably stronger than just about any physical connection could be. Love and adoration and maybe, again, family, sisterhood; this time it looks like a loving grandparent.

I like to say that I take pictures of things that a lot of photographers don’t typically set out to photograph. Things that are happening inside a subject’s head that are maybe very subtly represented by other things happening on the outside of their head or in their gesture or posture or physical relationship or interaction with other people in the photograph.

This picture is an example of what I mean by that.

19 comments

    1. I can only hope what my photos tell you about me is favorable. Some people are looking at this latest post and assuming something dark and nefarious about me. As far as what my images can tell you about the people in them… there’s everything from truth to conjecture to out and out lies in front of a camera lens. What I’m always looking for when I shoot is some form of communication happening. Maybe it’s between subjects in the image. Maybe it’s something being communicated by the subject or group of subjects to the world. When it’s not there, there’s really no reason for me to take an image. When it’s there, I try to shoot it. Thanks for looking and commenting, Stephen.

  1. Some of the greatest street photographs have been of children. I see nothing with this – though we are all different, and what is fine for one person might not be for another. I’ve never had any issues from parents and if they catch me I lay it out for them. “I’m a street photographer, here is my business card with my website and email address”, etc. One time, my street shot of a couples child resulted in me being offered additional payed work from them to do some family portraits!

    Photographers often get a slap in the face by ridiculous rules/laws that seem to be created out of thin air.

    Nice shots, Donald! Keep on shooting!

    1. It’s true. Some of the greatest street photography by some of the greatest names in the history of photography were taken of children, and not in a situation where permission was asked or given.

      I’ve always not claimed the misdeeds and bad behavior of others. It’s not easy, but I think it’s something we all have to do sort of reject. Along with the fear and paranoia associated with it. I reject it.

      And I claim my right to do what other photographers throughout history have done. I’m only on this earth for a short time. I’m going to reject the guilt associated with the behavior of scoundrels and take the artistic license that was taken or assumed by other photographic ‘artists’ on any and all fronts, when and where I decide I want to create.

      If any of that make sense dictating it into my iPhone. (since edited)

      Anyway thanks for the comment, Mike. Thank you.

  2. In 50 years time people will be wondering if children really did spend all their time on their computer games, never to be seen outside in the fresh air – there will be few photographs to prove it at the rate we are going. A whole slice of history is being lost.
    On the other hand, I’m led to believe the world is full of pervs – I’m not one, I don’t know any (not that they go round proclaiming it) so they must all be somewhere else – perhaps round your way.
    The problem with ‘surreptitiously’ is that it’s laden with the sense of guilt – an effort being made to conceal ones activity – why? Do we know we are doing wrong?
    For the most part, ‘street photography’ nowadays seems to fall into several categories – there’s the political/social comment work but there is also the seedier side too – what I call the ‘funny hahas’ trying to use juxtaposition to make fun of somebody, grim stuff, exploitation – arses hanging out of trousers, fat people sitting on benches filling their faces – you know the sort of thing I mean. Then there’s the long lens crew hiding behind pillars and corners – long beige raincoats come to mind.
    The question I ask myself is – ‘What am I going to do with a photograph of somebody I don’t know?’ If I can’t answer that properly, I certainly not going to start to take pictures of children I don’t know – unless I’m asked – but it becomes something altogether different.
    Please don’t think I have a downer on legitimate street photographers – I absolutely accept that to take a photograph that is a true likeness of somebody that person most certainly should not know they are being photographed,
    cheers

    1. There’s a lot of bad taste in photography, period. Street photography being maybe first and foremost as a repository of individuals who have no eye or sensibilities about what they’re doing.

      An overweight person stuffing their face might be a bad photograph by a tasteless photographer or a great and even beautiful photograph in someone else’s viewfinder. I don’t think that anything going on in public in our world should not be photographed if given the right approach and intent. There’s no check list of forbidden subjects as far as I’m concerned, except, of course, the obvious examples of sexually explicit or provocative images of children.

      Great photographer working in Mexico in the last century who was pretty much known for his images of dead bodies at accident scenes. A trip over to American Suburb X will show the range of difficult subject matter that contemporary art photographers OF NOTE commonly delve into.

      Some of my own personal favorite images I’ve taken were of children. Images that changed me as a photographer they were so important to how I was thinking and came to think about my photography. Children are almost explosively unique in just about every aspect of their being. Their affect, posture, the relationships they have to their environment… all are things that NEED to be photographed. Should be photographed. I don’t want fear and paranoia and control or the horrible behavior of others to prevent the documenting and capturing of any aspect of the world we’re all living in… and that certainly includes children.

      Anyway. Thanks again for commenting Stephen!

      db

      1. Well said.
        Of course, we do need to remember cultural differences.

        One thing we tend to skim over in these discussions about ethics, because that’s what we’re talking about, is it’s not the actual photograph making that’s the problem, it’s what use that photograph is put to. A photograph may exist in our personal libraries which we know could cause a sensation on some (seedy) quarters, but our ethics don’t allow us to ‘put it out there’.
        You may capture a celeb on your local patch which you then send of to a publication as ‘News’ – you may not be altogether comfortable if the editor then chooses to use your photograph to lambaste that celebrity in a way inappropriate way – the problem is not that the photograph exists, but how it is used.
        There’s also the question of model release….. it seems strange that a photograph should have to protect themselves when they have permission to photograph and yet not protect themselves when they ‘snatch’ a photo – not I hasten to add for the photograph but for what the intended use might be.

        (Now where was that empty field with a single tree in it? :))

  3. Sometimes I think what Cartier-Bresson would say about this…
    Totally agree on the taste of the photographer. I think that “common sense” should be applied to this matter but still, whenever I have a street shot with people involved, I feel insecure about posting it 😦

      1. Please go ahead and publish those images. I’ll be waiting.

        And I liked how you described the first photograph in this post. It’s a great photograph indeed.

  4. That reminds me of a “Dear Abby” type column I read recently…the letter writer had expressed utter disgust for the pictures of ‘naked’ babies being flouted in ads and other places…the response was that babies are creatures best left without clothing…that in their natural state they are happier pulling off the clothes, and they mess them up so fast they require several changes a day, etc. It did make perfect sense. Babies are often depicted without more than a diaper, because THAT’S THE WAY THEY ARE. The letter-writer tried to infer that people who take or enjoy such pictures are of some deviant or perverted mindset. Thankfully, the response was closed with putting the letter-writer to shame instead. There really is nothing more beautiful than the innocence portrayed in pictures of children acting naturally.
    With these pictures, the children are doing just that. What isn’t natural, but is actually a secret norm: mothers insisting that children dress alike! LOL! My mother did this with my little sis and I the first 10 years of our lives and we were constantly being asked if we were twins! I would loudly assert and defend, “NO! I am the OLDEST! We are 13 months apart.” So there! Lmao!

    1. Ah. lol. I’m right there with you. About the only thing I have to say critically about anything in these photos is the matching outfits in the first shot. I hope this doesn’t sound wrong in any way but … I can say this because I’ve lived here for 25 years and I’m a pretty constant observer of the life around me… they’re not from around here. Westside Los Angeles moms, like say Greenwich Village moms… not likely to be dressing their three children in identical orange outfits. 😉

      Thank you very much.

      db

  5. Interesting and thought-provoking post, Don!

    I recently remarked on one of my posts that people look at you slightly differently when carrying a camera (me with my Zeiss Ikon…) around THEIR children, even if you are only trying to photograph YOURS.

    Example here: http://iftimestoodstilldotnet.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/roll-24-3.jpg

    My situation is even slightly more awkward: If someone asks to “see” my photos (encountered in a Pub recently…) I can’t even show them, because they are on film.

    Truth is, everyone has an 8+ megapixel camera in their phones nowadays–if I was trying to photograph children (or anyone for that matter!) for nefarious purposes, I would most certainly use that surreptitiously over my manual focus rangefinder!!

    The only strict rules I adhere to are these: 1) Don’t photograph other people’s children alone (ie. make sure your children are there too, or that there are adults present–I’m not sure why this matters, but it is my principle…) and 2) If someone asks me to stop, I do. I may have the “right”, but I don’t try to go out of my way to assert it!

    Best regards,
    M.

    1. People ask Me how do I feel about the fact that everybody has a camera these days and everyone is taking pictures. And not just with cell phones, people walking around with DSLRs around there neck are just as common.

      I’m like… I LOVE it! I’m so much less likely to draw attention by lifting camera to my face.

      Yeah as far as children, I dont want to give the impression that I spend a lot of time taking pictures of children in the street. It’s just that I don’t shy away from taking pictures of children. But certainly, if someone’s objecting to what I’m doing I certainly would stop.

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