Should you photograph the homeless?


My decision

Photographing the homeless has become one of the most controversial subjects in street photography. It can be hard to get a definitive answer as everyone has their own personal take on the situation.

Personally I made my decision a long time ago and that was not to. I’m not saying you shouldn’t (we all have to make up our own minds) but it makes me feel uncomfortable. Especially when they are already down on their luck.

I will admit to having taken a few but found when I looked at them I didn’t feel at ease so I deleted them.

Justifiable cause

I do however sometimes believe there can be a justifiable cause. For example, highlighting their plight or situation. If you were commissioned to do a homeless project then that would in my opinion be slightly different as you would no doubt become more integrated into their world. Spend time with them, get to know them, commit time and energy to it and aim to make a difference. It would also be better if there was a reason for the project or an end goal. Perhaps an exhibition or a book to raise awareness or money.

There are those that will argue they are in their home and therefore it’s an invasion of privacy and those that argue they are in a public place and therefore fair game. To me it just seems to lack dignity and respect.

Personal choice

At the end of the day what you shoot is up to you. In my opinion taking a picture of someone lying on a park bench isn’t interesting or telling a great story. It’s just annoying.

I’ve personally seen some photographers act like complete idiots with their cameras around homeless people.

In conclusion

When all’s said and done it’s an ethical question which only you the individual can answer for yourselves.




  • Tough call. There’s no doubt that photographs, from the cameras of social activist/photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, pioneers of social documentary, to Dorothea Lange and fellow Farm Security Administration shooters — Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, et al — who brought the plight of Depression-era dispossessed to light, made an extraordinary contribution to the fight for social justice.

    It could also be argued that, in 2015, that fight is just as important as it was in the Dirty Thirties, when the repercussions of the Robber Barons’ predations were similarly reverberating through the land.

    What is clear, when we look at the images made by those great social documentarians, is that the dignity of the subjects shines through. Look at Lange’s photos of sharecroppers — in particular, her iconic portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, victim of the depression and drought, AKA Migrant Mother — which came to symbolize the plight of thousands of indigent workers.

    Approach and compassion is everything. Photography reveals both sides of the lens. Walker Evans’ journals make clear his views, and his image of Allie Mae Burroughs also demonstrated great compassion (though, as in the case of the Burroughs family, not all subjects were happy to become a symbol of the failure of the American Dream.

    Likewise, Sebastião Salgado is another example of the power of documentary photography in the hands of a great advocate.

    Too often we see people with cameras wading into the genre without the all-important prerequisite humanitarian virtues of the aforementioned photographers. At the worst, we see pure exploitation.

    Social documentary is a calling. Those not called should stay out of it.

    Personally, I avoid poking my camera at perhaps already feel objectified by social rejection, if you follow me. To really justify a project, I believe a photographer should be ready to at least spend some time understanding and developing a relationship to their “subjects.’

    • Thanks for your detailed response Raymond. You make some very good points.

      The photographers you mention (some of which I had to look up to be honest) Had the right approach and it defiantly shows in their work.

      I think the whole genre has changed these days and many so called street photographers seem to care a lot less when trying to get their shots.

      Thankfully there are still some people trying to do it the right way, Chuck Jines for example is currently doing a heroin project to fund a book and raise awareness.

      As you conclude when done in a correct and sensitive way it can be a powerful tool.

  • Very cogent points. I have mixed feelings on the point. I feel for these people, yet I feel a little too close to the subject emotionally. My younger brother has spent time on the streets. Great guy. Tough circumstances. What I like about photographs of those less fortunate is putting a face to the hardship rather than leaving in anonymity those who have already been marginalized. I haven’t taken photos of the homeless at this point, but I like the idea of doing a series at some point. In this case, I would want to get to know the people in the images. Providing some humanity.

  • Hi Steve and thanks for your reply. I know someone who did a homeless project and got to know them well. He found it quite hard to detatch himself and it became quite harrowing for him in the end.
    I hope your younger brother is doing well now and good luck with your project if you decide to go ahead with it.

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