Q&A: The ethics of street photography

Woman in Tokyo tries to block the camera with her hand There are no laws in the UK to stop people taking photographs of anyone in a public space

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Eric Kim is a street photographer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Seoul, Singapore, and Melbourne and he teaches street photography workshops in cities around the world.

In this Q&A he explains to BBC Religion and Ethics how he manages to walk the fine line between invading a person's privacy and capturing their true image.

What would you say you aim to capture in your street photography?

My aim is to uncover the joys and also the pains of human existence in society. Having studied sociology at UCLA as an undergraduate, I am interested in studying people and how society creates certain pressures and expectations of them.

As a photographer, I see myself as a sociologist, with a camera as my research tool to observe and record the people and world around me.

A woman's hands, with incredibly long painted nails

What situations have you been in whilst taking photos that made you uncomfortable? Is there any picture that you regret taking?

Approaching and photographing people is one of the most difficult things about what I do. After all, in most societies around the world it is considered impolite or a social taboo to photograph someone without their permission (or without them knowing).

I tend to be uncomfortable photographing the poor and destitute. There have already been so many projects that have done it so well and humanely.

I often think to myself: if I photograph a homeless person or a drug addict, am I doing it to reveal something positive about them? Or am I doing it because I wish to make an interesting and gritty photograph? I think that is a fine line that all street photographers have to be wary of.

Of course I am not saying that no poor or destitute people should be photographed. They are a part of society and often times it is important to raise awareness about their issues.

On rare occasions I do photograph them, but only when I have the opportunity to talk to them and connect with them on a deeper level and hear their life story. But I generally tend to avoid it.

What is the most negative reaction you have had from someone as you were taking their photograph?

Believe it or not, the majority of the reactions I get from photographing strangers are quite positive. My rule of thumb is whenever I photograph somebody, I make eye contact with them after, smile, and say "thank you".

Although the majority of the time I photograph without permission, there are also many instances in which I first talk to someone I find interesting and then ask for permission.

However there are of course people who have negative reactions, but they tend to be the exception.

I do have a few stories though.

Once when I was in Melbourne I photographed a woman who was walking around in public who I found interesting. She called the cops on me.

Of course I wasn't doing anything illegal (in most countries you can take photographs of strangers in a public area without their permission). The police came and told her I wasn't doing anything wrong, and I went about my business.

And in Toronto I took a photograph of an old Asian man on a bike, who instinctively karate chopped me in the back of the neck. Fortunately he was a senior citizen and I reckon he probably hurt his hand more than the back of my neck.

Another time I was in Tokyo and I photographed a tough-looking guy who was smoking a cigarette. After taking the photograph and walking on, he turned around, chased after me, and kicked me in the back of my camera bag. He was furious, and I quickly bowed, apologised, and got out of there.

But these are probably the three worst things that have happened to me out of the hundreds of thousands of street photographs I have taken.

Two people stand behind images of Kim Jong-il and Julian Assange, with their legs appearing connecting to the large heads

What tips would you give people to overcome their fears of invading people's privacy and capture the best shots?

One of the most important things I learned studying sociology is that you never know how people will react to you until you experiment. I always thought that if I photographed a stranger without his or her permission I would get punched in the face.

But based on my experiences shooting street photography, I think the best way to approach someone is openly and honestly.

This means if you take a photo of someone (without permission) you don't pretend you didn't take the shot. You then approach the person and tell them why you took the photo and what you found interesting about them. You then take a potentially negative experience and make it into a positive one in which people actually feel humbled to have gotten a photograph taken of them.

Also, I would encourage people interested in street photography to take an extraordinary photo of an ordinary person, rather than taking an ordinary photo of an extraordinary person (homeless, street performer, etc).

Is there one photo that you're most proud of?

One of my most proud photos I took is of an old lady in Hollywood, a photo I call "Jazz Hands".

I saw her strutting down the street with a beautiful hat and the sun shining down behind her. I crouched, was about to take a photo, and then she wiggled her fingers towards me in the "jazz hands" type of way.

I also found out afterwards that she was wearing two mismatched earrings, which I feel shows her flashy personality. She isn't someone who wants to be hidden, but someone who wants to be seen.

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