Street photography: Legal or not?

The question that hangs above the legality of a piece of street photography is what the piece is all about. Are you diving into a person’s private life with the story that you’ve decided to tell? If you are, then you might want to back up and reassess what you’re doing.

It depends — as it does with many things law.

I think a good point of summary for determining whether a piece of street photography is legal is by examining the topic of the piece. If, as it says in the law, the story contained within that bit of street photography is of the interest of the public, as a piece of news or educational materials would be, then it would be legal. If pictures of, say, buskers performing along Bonifacio High Street were used in an article about life in Metro Manila, for example, I think they would be permissible under the law.

What’s important to note in the aforementioned case is that the private lives of those individual buskers weren’t the primary subject of the photograph. The right to privacy grants protections to the intimate life of each person. If the piece of photojournalism doesn’t dive into the individual life of the person or treat that person as the subject of the story, then it should be permissible under the law, as the limited amount of intrusion into that person’s private life isn’t enough to be counted as a breach of their privacy. It should also go without saying that, whatever story is put together through that bit of photojournalism, it ought to be honest and truthful. If you’re going to incorporate the likeness of an individual in a story, that story must not be a fabrication or a lie.

Street photography can be done legally — but there are some moral considerations that should be made. If you intend on earning from your piece of street photography, for example, then that person is in some way contributing to your future earnings. It wouldn’t hurt to secure permission from your subjects, since you’re also putting their likeness out into the market.

Finally, as the photographer, it also becomes your responsibility to protect the image and likeness of your subject once it enters into the public sphere. Copyright law comes into play here — as the owner of the work, you can keep unscrupulous individuals or outfits taking your work, and the likeness of the subject captured within, and using it for purposes outside of the story you originally told. Street photography may be legal, but since you were the one to prop these individuals up in front of the world, it is also your responsibility to protect them from harm.



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Alo Lantin

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories.