Photography on the streets and the capture of history

Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most famous photographers of all time. His images, taken during a period when photography was still a rare thing, provide us with incredible insights into ordinary life in France, China, India and other countries, particularly during the first half of the 20th century.

Another more recently famous photographer is Vivian Maier who took pictures on the streets of Chicago in the mid-20th century. Maier's work only became known, by chance, after her death in 2009 but such was its breadth, quality and importance that she became, almost overnight, one of the most important street photographers of the 20th century.

What both Cartier-Bresson and Maier have in common is that they were street photographers. They took candid pictures of people in the street, usually without their subject's knowledge. In doing so they created bodies of work that provide us with lasting insights into society in their times.

The suspicious photographer

David Brewster, 2011

Street photography has a history as long as the history of the camera. However, in more recent times it is increasingly frowned upon. And it's not just street photography that is getting the glare. Any form of photography in public places can be deemed questionable.

I was recently questioned by two police officers while taking pictures of Flinders Street station in Melbourne for my calendar, my 'crime' seeming to be that I had stood in the one place for too long (I was waiting for the right light) and was therefore suspicious. In their defence the police were polite and understanding, and were only acting because a member of the public had alerted them to my presence.

As a recent post on the Capture magazine website put it, "modern day fears of terrorism, perverts, and brand devaluation seem to be a sort of unholy trinity driving a push to restrict photographers". Combined with ignorance on the part of much of the public and, it seems, most security guards, it is not unusual to find yourself feeling guilty simply for wandering the streets with your camera.

The great irony of this situation is that there are now more cameras on the street, and people using them, than ever before. And many of those pictures are shared with a global audience within seconds – something Cartier-Bresson was certainly never able to do. Somehow phone cameras, despite their modern capabilities, don't count but DSLRs do, but that's another discussion for another day.

David Brewster, 2011

Public perceptions versus the law

Thankfully many photographers are fighting back, armed with the truth. And the truth is this: while the detail varies from state to state, in Australia it is perfectly legal to take pictures of people in public places. There is no inherent right to privacy on the street, nor even 'from' the street (so close your curtains).

David Brewster, 2011

There is equally nothing to prevent a photographer sharing their 'street' photos online or anywhere else, including selling those images as art. The only restriction on the sale of images is that they cannot be used for 'commercial purposes'. This means that they cannot be used on merchandise or in any form of advertising without the specific agreement of the subjects.

Photography in the street, and indeed in any public place, is not terrorism. Nor will it lead to abuse. It is simply a way of capturing our time. Remember that this summer, no matter which side of the camera you are on.