Huge thanks to everyone who came to my Street Photography talk at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute, we also saw a fabulous collection of vintage cameras by collector Roger Burrows and Max Harris Photographic Collection.

Liberty or Liability?

These are not easy times for street photographers, for whom acting suspiciously is an occupational hazard and loitering with intent a modus operandi. Tightening privacy laws and fears about terrorism have created an environment in which to stare, pry, listen or eavesdrop is increasingly to invite suspicion.

A poster campaign run by the London Metropolitan Police in 2008 summed up the change in attitude: ‘Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd?, it asked, encouraging the public to report anyone with a camera who seemed to display unusual levels of curiosity.

It has become much more common for street photographers to be reprimanded informally, to have their film or memory card confiscated, or even to be stopped and searched. Some have responded by setting up or supporting campaigning websites such as ‘I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist’ and ‘Photography Is Not A Crime’. One direct response to the London police campaign reworked the text of the advertisements to read: ‘Millions of people take photos every day. Some of them are brown. Please do not shoot them.’ Most photographers have simply voted with their feet by continuing to get out and make pictures.

Street photographers will always face threats or violence from those who expressly do not want their pictures taken, but most accept this as an intrinsic risk of the profession. In an increasingly litigious era where lawyers will take up their cudgels on behalf of anyone who feels they may been offended, violated or harassed by a photographer, we can expect further legal battles over the right to take photographs of strangers in public. Street photographers argue that if they are forced to rely on model release contracts and posed portraits, they will only be contributing to the manufacture of a stage-managed, air-brushed future. ‘Street photography is an important part of the documentation of our time’, argues New York photographer Jeff Mermelstein.

‘Some of the most significant images in any art medium in the last 150 years have been made in the street by people like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. If that’s discouraged, in the long term it will be a substantial loss.’
– Taken from Street Photography Now, Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLean