Should We Photograph the Homeless?

It’s my belief that a writer’s job is to ask questions. As the owner of a camera shop and the founder of CP, I spend a lot of time thinking about photography, cameras, and what it means to make pictures. But for more than a year now, a certain question has been gnawing at me that pertains to the craft and ethics of street shooting, and after a year of occasional rumination I’m no closer to an answer. Specifically, the question involves photographing the downtrodden, impoverished and homeless among us.

So without judgement, condescension, or pretense, I’d like to air some thoughts on the topic and hear what our readers have to say. Maybe together we can work out what it means (if indeed it means anything) to photograph those less fortunate than ourselves, and whether or not we should do it in the first place.

If you’re into street photography you’ve likely heard both sides’ vehement proclamations, so let’s examine the most common arguments for and against the practice of photographing the homeless.

Many who defend the making of this kind of photo are likely to first cite their right as a photographer to capture the world as they see it, and if that world happens to contain a homeless man begging for food, so be it. On the face of it, this is true. But let’s take a closer look at the “it’s my right” argument. While a photographer does indeed have the right to photograph people and things that are out in public spaces and within public view, this right doesn’t grant the right to impinge upon another’s rights. Get it? For the sake of this conversation, the right that’s potentially violated by a street photographer is a person’s right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.

When we talk about violating a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy it’s very easy to agree what is a violation, but it’s much more difficult to say what is not. For example, shooting through the bathroom window of a private residence to photograph someone taking a shower is immoral, unethical, and illegal, and it’s an obvious violation of a person’s privacy. On that we can all surely agree. But when we start to talk about shooting photos of the homeless things get a little less obvious and a lot more controversial. That’s because it’s much more difficult to define what is and is not a person’s private property if they, in fact, own no property.

In the absence of a place to live, a homeless person has no choice but to be subject to the whims of the public, including those who would photograph them. Without the protective domain of private property, a homeless person has no choice but to be perpetually on display. He or she is without privacy virtually 100 percent of the day. That’s the cold reality. But is that just the way it is? Does a person’s homelessness automatically forfeit their right to privacy? If yes, why? And if not, where exactly does their private space begin and end?

In past conversations with photo geeks, I’ve heard people callously remark that if the homeless don’t want to be photographed they should “get a home.” This is certainly a perspective shared by many, even if many don’t come right out and say it. I find it difficult to align myself in that camp. I don’t pretend to understand all of the massively complex causes and ramifications of homelessness, but I can’t help feel that this kind of dismissive flippancy toward those who are homeless is arrogant at best, despicable at worst, and always a repellant vocalization of an ignorant mind.

There’s an inverse school of thought that says the homeless are in a perpetual state of occupying their own private space. By virtue of their lacking any traditional private space of their own, they in essence occupy an invisible bubble of private space wherever they happen to be. By this logic, shooting a photo of any homeless person in any situation is an ethical transgression and a violation of that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. If you’re a photographer who adheres to this school of thought, any photo of a homeless person is an illegitimate work. I find it difficult to align my thinking with this perspective as well. Surely there are situations in which privacy is voluntarily relinquished by a person?

We’re no closer to an answer.

To keep pushing forward, we can also discuss any social commentary that may be provided through photos of the homeless. Some say that to avoid photographing the homeless is to do a greater disservice than would be done by photographing them. The idea is that these marginalized, mistreated people are already overlooked and ignored by a society to which they’re mostly invisible, and that failing to show them as they are will further encourage this ignorance.

I can understand this idea. Without grit, without dirt, all modern metropolises seem to gleam with brilliant light. The towering skyscrapers and gorgeous buildings stretch above made men and cosmopolitan women, all in perfect clothes. When all we see is sparkling glass and gleaming cars, every city seems like heaven. Were every street shot to show only the beauty of city life we’d have a very warped perception of what it means to exist in an urban area. There needs to be a counter-point to the glamour. I get that. But while I may understand and appreciate the importance of showing the darker side of modern life, I can’t help feel that the homeless just aren’t the right subject.

Without trying to insult anyone, isn’t it safe to assume that if we asked a first-year college student to illustrate the extreme antipode of Wall Street they’d likely take you directly to a homeless shelter? I don’t know if they would, I’m only asking. It just seems like the most obvious demonstration of the counterpoint of affluence. As photographers, shouldn’t we shrink away from the obvious? It seems to me that if a photographer’s looking to illustrate the dirtier side of a city, if he’s really looking to show the grit, a shot of a homeless man sleeping under a Wall Street Journal is low-hanging-fruit indeed.

An artist, whether a painter, sculptor, or photographer, is never interested in the obvious. That’s the true genius of the artist. He or she sees something no one else noticed and presents it in a way that makes the viewer understand the importance of what he overlooked. A true artist takes an ordinary object, a person, an idea, manipulates it, and then shows it to others in a way that makes them wonder, how’d I miss that?

So if the idea is to show the contrast between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots”, if the idea is to show just how difficult life can be, can’t we do it in a less obvious way? Shouldn’t we try a little harder to figure out a way of illustrating the point without exploiting a person who’s quite literally at the lowest rung of society’s ladder?

I really don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is because there are some exceptionally talented photographers out there who have done incredible work with the homeless as their subjects. Steve Huff, of the well-known website that bears his name, has just such a project. Where his work differentiates itself from the majority of uncommitted attempts is in its affirmation of these persons’ humanity. His work is more than just a snapshot of a homeless guy. His work is an introduction to a man, a telling of a story, and an earnestly presented lesson.

And there are others who strive to tell the stories of the marginalized and destitute, and do so very effectively. The unifying thread that’s woven throughout the very fabric of these masters’ shots seems to be a respectfulness of their subjects. To me, the photographers who understand how to respect a person’s innate rights are the ones who manage to make compelling shots of the homeless. If a photographer lacks this ability, perhaps it’s best to try a different subject. Does this mean those of us with less talent don’t have the right to shoot the homeless? I’m not sure. As I said, this is a topic for me which inevitably leads to more questions. If you’ve spent some time thinking on it, let me know what you’ve come up with in the comments. Perhaps with your insight I can suss out my feelings and decide on a protocol for the future.

For now, I’ll keep avoiding those obvious shots and continue to regard the homeless as unfortunate souls who deserve respect and privacy. And if respecting another human being’s privacy means limiting the subjects I can photograph, that’s alright with me. Hell, if I never take a decent photo again they’ve still got it a lot worse than I.

So what do you think? Should we, or should we not make the homeless into subjects of our art? Sound off in the comments.

Casual Photophile is on ElloFacebookInstagram, and Youtube

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Francis.R.
    June 19, 2015 at 6:28 am

    I think that the first concept is that a homeless has the same value than other one. A homeless can do beautiful and horrible things like everybody. With that concept I believe there is no wrong in shot (I mean, photograph) a homeless if it’s just to show as the human (in part bad in part good) he/she is. But if it’s to exaggerate their poverty and turned them in caricatures of misery (maximum of clarity slider for example to accentuate wrinkles) I think the photographer doesn’t care about the person but just to sell or show photos.
    I liked the Steve Huff’s series because they are seeing the camera with dignity, with eyes that say that being poor doesn’t make you miserable, nor a saint neither.

    • Reply
      James
      June 19, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Well said, Francis. I think you’re right on about not exaggerating their plight. Shoot what’s there and do little post-processing. It reminds me of a video I saw in which the photographer was instructing shooters on how to make their shots of the homeless more impactful. Maximum contrast, noise, etc.

  • Reply
    JoeTeaPhotography
    June 19, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    I think so. I think we should photograph everything we can, respectfully, while abiding by certain rules.
    When I photograph the homeless, needy, less fortunate, vagrants, etc., I’ll typically ask, “How about a picture?”, as I slow in passing. Rarely will I be turned down.
    On the other hand, if they approach me and ask for change or a cigarette or something, I’ll usually ask them, “How about I give you [what they ask for], and you let me take a picture?”. Sometimes someone will say something to me or I’ll overhear someone talking and want to take a photo; when I look back, I’ll absolutely remember the words that went with the image. And just a snippet of that person’s circumstance.
    I almost never post any of those photos for public consumption, though, they’re usually just shots that I enjoy after the capture.
    It’s important to me that I capture images of people in their natural state, for any given image could evoke powerful feelings in a viewer. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? I hope so.

    • Reply
      James
      June 19, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      Yessir. Great points. I think what one intends to do with the shots is also important, like you say.

  • Reply
    Elisabeth
    June 19, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Yes, because in my opinion photography and any other art has various reasons to exist. It’s not always about capturing the “picture perfekt world”. I think sometimes it is necessary to portray homeless, poverty & pain… You always hear that saying: “a picture can say more than words” – I think sometimes people need to be reminded of social inequality and the many faces of it. I don’t know for sure, but i hope that such pictures will lead to a change how people think, especially about the economic system… which then hopefully someday will lead to a better life for all humans.
    But of course it’s not easy when you talk about privacy issuses… because privacy and copyright issues concern all people, not only the homeless… so then you would have to be very careful, and when you say “it’s not your right to photograph homeless people”, who says you have the right to photograph the stranger in the street, who doesen’t notice you photographing…?
    Is it better to ask the stranger if you could take a photo? Or is in counterproductive to taking an “aesthetic” portrait?
    I think as a photographer you walk a very thin line.. what is “ethically correct”? Do I invade this persons privacy?…
    It’s up to you what you want to portray, how you want your picture to come across… you have the power to shape the picture and how it is percieved by other people. So if you want to do your best, and not harm anybodys privacy or rights, then it’s best to trust your gut sometimes. Put yourself in this homeless person’s shoes, but also think about, could this picture help other people to view certain things in another light? Could this help the person that I am portraying in any way, or am I just trying to show the “ugliness”, the “rawness” of the city… I think it’s what you make of it… you can change so much in a picture just by taking in from a different angle, taking it in different light… The power is yours… so if you are here with good intends, I don’t think you will do any harm to this person.

    • Reply
      James
      June 19, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Thanks so much for your extremely thoughtful response. There’s certainly a lot there to chew on. Thanks again!

  • Reply
    colin
    April 26, 2016 at 9:48 pm

    Having at one time been homeless I would advise ask first or take a risk that your art may land you on your arse.

    • Reply
      James
      April 26, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      Very well said.

  • Reply
    Bob Gately
    April 26, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Your question seems to beg another question. WHY? What is the rationale or inner motive for taking a picture of a homeless person?

    Why are you or I taking the photo in the first place? Is the homeless person the subject of the photo? Or included in the finished product by virtue of their locale in that instant.

    I’ve taken pictures with a homeless person as the subject, and occasionally posted those pictures on social media. In retrospect I think that in many cases the stark severity of the situation caught my eye and created an emotional reaction I was trying to capture. Sadness, anger, sympathy, or regret to name a few. There but for the grace of god go I.

    In other cases, I may have taken the shot based on less profound emotional responses. And again, in retrospect, I don’t feel proud of those nor do I feel proud that I posted them somewhere.

    We are photographers, we paint masterpieces with light. We capture the world as we each see it and in some cases we do such a great job we can move people, cause the same emotional reaction that we felt when we first made the picture. That’s what I do, it’s how I want and need to be. But the question remains.

    I don’t think there is one true answer. Some things need to be seen, captured, and shared. I like Joe’s approach of asking and while I’m not sure I have the gumption to do that, I’m certainly going to try. I do know that I’m going to be less likely going forward to capture a moment if I’m looking down on or making fun of someone. I thank you for that.

    And I thank the other commentators for their thoughts.

    • Reply
      James
      April 26, 2016 at 11:26 pm

      Brilliantly written and clearly you’ve considered this from many angles. Thanks for sharing your opinion with us. More food for thought.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    May 19, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    The last time I take pictures of a homeless were about 30 years ago.
    A man who watched it get angy and made comments about it so my
    “What are you doing to change his situation ?” left unanswered.
    Still felt bad about it and never didi it again……..don´t know exactly why
    because I made and still make a lot of street photography from people
    by ask or just shot people without they imagine me taking pictures.
    Maybe because of their helpless and unlucky circumstances.
    Maybe it would be different when pictures were taken for a documentary
    to help or change something but otherwise the most pictures for newspapers
    are made for documentary too and appy not to help either………
    Not one war picture ever stopped human starting another deadly conflict,
    so why photographers are still making them ?

    • Reply
      James
      May 19, 2016 at 1:53 pm

      That last point you make is pretty interesting and sad.

  • Reply
    Jordan Myers
    June 11, 2016 at 5:28 am

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, too. I was glad to find this article. My main ethical concern in photographing the homeless has been that it becomes a way in which we consume the suffering of others in the form of images. Part of what draws us to photograph the homeless is their unguardedness. From a portrait photography standpoint, that’s what you are always looking for, that moment of connection. In a standard portrait shoot, you have to work with the subject to get past their public persona- that part of them that says, “everything’s fine and under control in my life, and I don’t need to worry about anything.” You want them to let their guard down so that the portrait is emotionally complex. The homeless, on the other hand, have lost their public persona: they don’t have anything to hide behind, and so it’s easy to be tempted to simply capture that naked complexity. But I think the problem there is that you’re replacing an individual with a situation: your empathy is for the situation rather than the individual, and so it flows only one way. Steve Huff’s work is exceptional more because of the conversations than because of the image quality. And what is the work he’s doing to get those conversation? Exactly the work he would be doing in a studio portrait shoot: talking to the subject, establishing trust, allowing them to open up. As a photographer walking the streets, investing that time might seem like a pain, but it’ll be worth it in the end not only because the photos will be better but because you know that investing your time in conversation is a way of showing respect to the subject. You won’t need to feel guilty because when it goes well, the subject gives themselves to you, rather than simply allowing the photograph to take place. This exchange of respect is evident in Huff’s work, in the eye contact and the facial expressions. The time he spends also pays off in terms of the variety of the shots, since he’s not in a hurry to get out of an awkward situation.

    Short version: You can avoid exploiting the homeless as a photographer by treating the experience as a portrait shoot, taking your time, and talking with the subject so that you can connect on a human level.

    • Reply
      James
      June 11, 2016 at 10:52 pm

      Great points and very well said. It can certainly be difficult to chat it up with strangers out on the street, but it’s something we should all try at least once. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • Reply
    kylem1701
    May 14, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Shooting the homeless is like shooting cheesecake. The vast majority of the time the subject is a way to cover up lack of skill and creativity. Oh! You took a picture of a sexy woman? Automatically good. Oh! You took a picture of human suffering? Automatically good. It also lets the photograph feel like they got social justice and depth of character points by “bringing attention to a problem” that we all already know is there. They’d do better by donating time or money to institutions that directly help.

  • Reply
    Jonathan Doyle
    June 10, 2017 at 7:58 am

    I think most aspects of the ‘human condition’ are worth documenting, if only to inform us in the future what our past was really like. The degree of objectivity and sensitivity we demonstrate in our work, the way(s) in which we show it, and to whom, are factors in which we can strive to balance our right to document against another’s right to be left undisturbed.

    Photography in public places in this context can be divided (broadly) perhaps into the purposeful and the recreational. In the former, given an appropriately valid purpose, the right to document seems stronger the more useful that purpose is to society at large. Conversely, a picture taken purely for recreation, say only for some personal gratification of the photographer, feels like it exploits more than it explains. But, that said, even an body of work which, for whatever reason, is not put to a useful social purpose at the time of creation, or soon after, can still take on a great value eventually. For example, see Vivian Maer’s work in Chicago. We don’t know whether she intended it to be found at some point long after she shot it but we’re grateful now to her for creating it. It’s interest to us is much more than simply the curiosity of discovering a previously unknown talent working on the streets of a big city long ago. In examining her work we can go further in our understanding of the city in which she lived in the times in which she lived there. That brings her work up the social value scale.

    I think photographing street life (including but not by any means only homelessness) serves to tell us many things, both immediately and later, when we compare what we saw now with what we or others are seeing at some future point. We can always benefit from seeing changes in society over a period of time – more or less affluence in an area, more or less consumption, violence, drunkenness, destitution, urban development, or dilapidation, etc etc. Within that, aspects of homelessness, whether showing it as increasing, or decreasing, or being managed, explained some other way, or actually reduced, or just accepted or (let’s hope) tackled with dignity, or simply ‘cleaned away’ in some way out of our everyday sight … will always interest us as a gauge of how society is doing. Unless we have that document of it, we’ll rely on the account of others, or worse, be duped by those whose motives to explain it a certain way may veer off from the truth. Are the homeless there because they take drugs? Because they’re lazy or work shy in some way? Because they’ve come here from somewhere and aren’t trying hard enough to integrate with us? Because some attribute of their character or mental health has left them off the bottom rung of the ladder? There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are people living insecurely at the lowest levels of our societies. Without their own testimony, their own account of what their lives are, served by the objectivity and accuracy of our pictures, we could miss the big picture and never know the truth. Even with them, we may not find it. And, of course, in documenting the world around us, the homeless are not immune to being challenged on their assertions and explanations any more than we’d expect anyone to challenge us on ours. That’s what I meant by objectivity.

    Someone said to me once that photographers working in the social environment should be constantly mindful of the need to do good with their cameras. I think that’s a good way to look at it. Don McCullin, perhaps one of the living generations’ most capable social documentarians even outside his war coverage, said he found it best usually to be on the side of the underdog. I agree that sentiment. Applying those notions to the homeless as a legitimate subject for photography, I think we have two useful tests. What good will your pictures do (now or in the future) if you go ahead and take them, and how close/sympathetic are you to the plight of the subject? Even keeping the importance of objectivity to the fore, are you motivated in taking the pictures to show something of the hardship of homelessness and the often broken lives behind it, or simply the spectacle of it, the aberration compared with ‘normality’, ‘acceptability’ and all those standards by which the haves so often judge the have nots. If you’re in that camp, you’re right back with the Victorian circus freak shows. It’s a measure of any society really to consider how it reacts when confronted with illustrations of those who are very different from the usual (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘normal’ here, as it comes with a high degree of judgement). But, all the same, the ‘inconvenience’ and ‘nuisance’ posed to a communities with, let’s say, tidier lives when looking at homelessness is often striking. If you do take such images, be mindful of their power in the wrong hands … the headlines flow from them ‘High Street blighted by the homeless: Council promise action’. Sure, they wish it wasn’t like it is, which may sound like altruism but too often it has nothing to do with how well the homeless are living. They are seen as a mess to be cleared up so the streets look nice again.

    I’d say, make a decision. Be prepared to defend it. Always act with dignity and purpose and fairness. Then make sure your pictures are effective.

    Cheers
    JD

  • Reply
    Zoran Vaskic
    July 30, 2017 at 11:43 am

    It’s pretty simple from my point of view. I’m no fan of photography parading as art that I feel strongly is exploitive and uncaring. I don’t think it’s as complicated as your article sometimes touches on. When a photograph without people achieves something special it’s because it’s been presented in the ‘best light’. People should also be presented the same way. Always. Otherwise they should be left alone. There’s nothing complicated about that.

  • Reply
    Dave Smith
    August 10, 2017 at 4:04 am

    I am reminded of the street photography of Bruce Gilden in this discussion. I saw a documentary of him at work in the streets of New York with his camera in one hand and flash in the other and when he saw a face that resonated with him he would suddenly snap his arms out in front of said person and take a flash photo of them at incredibly close range – there was one such example involving a small frail elderly lady (possibly in her 80s) who was clearly terrified and thought that she was being attacked (and indeed she was). A thoroughly reprehensible way to behave in order to produce some of the worst photography I have ever seen. I see the usual photography of the homeless in exactly this light, it is intrusive and exploitative and adds almost nothing – your article posed the idea of shooting through someone’s bathroom window but I suggest that we do not need to take the analogy even to that extreme, how about wandering into someone’s living room to take a quick snap before moving on? This is the issue, and has been touched upon in your article and in several comments – this sub-genre of street photography is all too often just a quick snap so as to avoid any meaningful contact and here is where Steve Huff seems to make more important images, by working to avoid the cliched snapshot. Gerry Yaum is a less well known Canadian photographer who has been shooting the severely disadvantaged in the slums and dumps of Thailand and has done so over many years by long term stays in particular areas getting to know his subjects many of whom have become friends and he consequently makes incredibly moving images, find him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/gerry.yaum), well worth a look. I saw an Anders Serrano exhibit in Brussels a few years ago in which he had been commissioned to take images of the homeless and dispossessed of Brussels by the museum and he treated each image as a portrait session and paid each participant a standard modelling fee of a few hundred euros. All street photography should (indeed all photography) be respectful and while I am sure that many street photographers will cringe at that since that would mean missing a dimension of street photography, well frankly the world will be a far better place without the antics of the likes Bruce Gilden and photography will be far better off without such appalling images!

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      August 10, 2017 at 8:29 am

      Thoughtful response well said. I’ve seen the type of shooting you’re talking about and was left with a similar feeling of unease.

  • Reply
    Larry
    August 22, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    Respect is the crux of the matter. Both respect for the individual and for yourself. Fooling yourself into believing your images, when all you do is post it social media, is going to change anything is living in a dream world that simply no longer exists. If photographs were the solution there would be no problem. Should you photograph someone that is less fortunate just to simply post an image on social media? I don’t think so. If you don’t engage in active conversation how do you know what a solution would even look like? If you don’t offer any solution to the person, how can you affect change in the first place? The ethics of photographing anyone should be a consideration of every person that makes images. This is especially true when you are making the downtrodden a subject of your images, and then you simply walk away. You’ve done nothing to change their situation, and try as you might to think you are an agent for change, you aren’t. The truth of the matter is that you are not educating anyone about an issue that isn’t already well known.

    I do believe it’s likely that there are photographers trying to affect change and that their heart is in the right place. I also believe that they are few and far between and not the norm. Garry Yaum is mentioned in a post above. Are his images making a difference? I don’t know and I can’t speak to that particular issue. But having followed him for several years I do believe he might be one of the few with his heart in the right place. His commitment to the projects is evident both with time and financially. But I’m not certain that it is making a big difference. But on the positive side, it may make a huge difference to an individual because he takes the time to get to know the people, and humans he photographs. To me, that is the difference between someone who photographs those less fortunate, and then moves on.

    Bruce Gilden, I won’t even get started on that issue. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan. There is no respect at all in his interactions. He’s a bully and acts as one.

    Sebastiao Salgado once said, and I am paraphrasing here, that to photograph someone and not do it with the intent to make them noble, there is no reason to make the image. A photograph of a person sleeping, or passed out, does nothing of the kind. And it says more about the person making the image than it does about the person in the photograph.

  • Reply
    Stefe
    November 18, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    I don’t often take pictures of the less fortunate living on the streets. Having said that, I once read an art critic comment on the poor and/or less fortunate depicted by
    Picasso during his Blue and and Rose Periods. Paraphrasing, he noticed that all of those depicted still retained some sense of dignity. Although not painting,
    perhaps the thing principles(s) might be applied to photography. In the end, difficult decision.

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