Photos of Homeless People Aren’t Art

Guest Post by: Nora DiSanto, Junior Marquette University

Throughout the progression of photojournalism, mostly due to technological advancements, the time between the occurrence of a news event and the release of photos or videos to the public has shortened drastically. Photos that once first premiered on the cover of the morning newspaper, now surface instantly on the web, and videos that are highlighted on the nightly news are now old news after being shared on YouTube. Because of these developments the ethical questions married to photojournalism also went through dramatic adjustments. “Once, the most instantaneous ethical decision in photography was: ‘Shoot or don’t shoot?’ Today the question has added layers: ‘Post or don’t post?’ Or: ‘Go live or not?’ Or: ‘Do we use this ammeter video?’…Making the right decision can be the difference in being applauded for integrity or being criticized for insensitivity” (Patterson & Wilkins, 188). All of these factors add up to what has now coined the phrase, “the citizen as a photojournalist.” While this can be a really great tool in getting news out quickly and more efficiently, it also may cause many ethical issues because of ignorance towards what is ethical or not.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 5.11.22 PM

Photo by: Eric Kim

One example of this that really has an effect on me is the photos of homeless people such as the one above. Photos of homeless people aren’t art. The homeless are individuals with a right to respect and privacy just as much as you or I am. However, this is not saying that all of these photos are bad. Sometimes they are an important and necessary step to show people the reality of conditions people live in. Yet, if it is just for an “artsy shot,” clearly ethical ideals were not thought about. Imagine you, yourself, sitting against a building looking for rest. Would you want a camera pointed at you?

Yet again, there is right and ethical way to do this. According to Eric Kim, a street photographer in Berkley, California, “If you decide to take photos/portraits of homeless people, try to get to know them as human beings. Don’t look at them as “different” or strange, but someone equal to you. Have a conversation with them and lend an ear to them. I have had many conversations with homeless people on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. And, many homeless people just have made some poor life choices or lost their lives due to health problems, family issues, or even mental problems.” I think this is solid and ethically sound advice, if the decision to shoot is mutual with the subject and they are treated as an equal individual rather than just a street-snapshot, the photo is not only ethical, but much more powerful.

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