Should We Photograph the Homeless?

wide angle lens street shooting

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.

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  • Reply
    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
      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
    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
      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
    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
      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
    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
      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
      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
      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
      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.

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