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Capturing strangers - My opinion and approach

Since nearly every image I publish on my Instagram (street.nomads1605) contains a human subject, many questions reach me on how I capture strangers. So I decided to share my thoughts and my approach in this post. Before I start, I’d like to point out that I am not a lawyer and the upcoming thoughts on this topics are my personal opinion and do not represent any kind of legal advice.

In 2016 the EU introduced the new „General Data Protection Regulation“ or „GDPR“. Among many other fields taking pictures of strangers was one of the things the GDPR addresses. Without diving too deep into legal aspects, taking pictures of strangers in public without their (written) permission is generally not allowed any more. This has led to a big outcry amongst streetphotographers in Europe. If you google „GDPR“ and „photography“ you will find loads of articles on this specific topic.

The main objective of GDPR is to regulate the processing of personal information. At first sight an image of a person does not contain any personal information (e.g. name, adress, age …). But since it´s basically possible to identify a person by using a face detection software an image can be regarded as personal information as well. This becomes even more relevant when additional information like location or time are embedded and readable in the EXIF data of the image. As a result one might tell when a certain person visited a certain place by analyzing a picture. This is not wanted under GDPR law. Not completely clear is how the relationship between GDPR and national art regulation laws or the right of free expression should be interpreted. Before GDPR was implemented by the EU each country had (and still has) its own kind of legal framework to deal with art. Under most of these frameworks, streetphotography generally was regarded legal or at least tolerated in most cases. Some see these regulations still in place and as a consequence do refer to streetphotography being an art form. I think this is at least a grey area that courts have to deal with.

If this interpretation does not give you a save feeling allready, there are some potential walk-arounds helping you in the streets.

The most elegant and obvious walk-around is that the persons face isn’t visible in the image. In this case a face detection software cannot identify the person and hence no personal information worth protecting would be embedded in the picture. I use this walk around a lot in my photography by incorporating human subjects as silhouettes.

Taking back portraits can be an option too.

Another way I tend to use very often are scale shots with persons just being shown relatively small. Even if a face is basically visible in these shots it should be too small or too grainy when zooming in for current face detection softwares.

Another thing I have experienced in the last couple of months is that the attitude of people being photographed differs between countries and sometimes even cities. In Hamburg for instance people are very aware and skeptical if a guy with a camera is around. Stockholm or Vienna are completely different. People do not seem to care a lot. Berlin is similar as well. But New York is still another level. Also it seems like women often have less trouble in the streets compared to men. Wearing a mask in public places hasn’t helped either. On the other hand, wearing normal clothing (e.g. a coat instead of a leather jacket), using compact (touristic) gear and looking friendly helps to be relatively inconspicuous in the streets. So does fading into your environment instead of going straight into ones face with a camera and the biggest lens available.

Leaving all this technical and legal points aside for a second the basic idea behind GDPR isn’t bad at all. Yes, me as a passionate streetphotographer just said that! Those of you that saw my work know that this opinion does not stop me from doing streetphotography. For me it is a question of how people are shown in a picture. I always try to be respectful and wouldn’t publish an image containing a person looking awkward (e.g. yawning, being drunk), being disabled or being obviously homeless. This does not mean that a person can’t look sad or lonesome as long as it is represented in a respectful way.

For me keeping this moral rules makes me stand behind my work and defend it if necessary against critics.

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