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Stephen Leslie on confrontations

Busted! Stephen Leslie on being confronted while taking candid street photos of strangers.

Stephen Leslie | The question I get asked the most is, Do people mind you taking their photos? To which I usually reply that most people don't even notice. Then I usually get asked, Do you ask permission? To which I reply, no, I don't, unless I want to take a more conventional, posed portrait. 

What often happens next is that the conversation often veers towards morality or ethics, Don't people have the 'right' not to be photographed?The right to privacy? When I explain that, in this country at the time of writing, the law is still in my favour, that as long as people are in a public place I'm legally allowed to take their picture, as long as I don't then go on to use it for advertising, many people are surprised. 

I will point out that we are recorded by the state and private companies almost all the time (more so here than virtually anywhere else) and that also, without taking candid photographs of people going about their lives we risk losing what will one day become valuable social historical documents but still some people are outraged or upset. And I can understand it, this thing that I do is not without its issues and problems but, maybe, that's what makes it interesting?

Let's consider some of these photos. The dog on the park bench definitely spotted me, we exchanged looks and I took the photo, I like dogs, none have ever complained I'm violating their privacy. Yet. The headless tiger doesn't have a head and even if it did, it's an inanimate object, so no dilemma there, the plastic head in the bag on the train is also inanimate but creepy, I feel it might have cursed me but its owner, never noticed me so that's no bother. The discarded photo of the bride is sad and I imagine if the bride ever saw this photo of her wedding chucked out with the trash then she might be upset but this is a.) Very unlikely and b.) I imagine she's over all that by now. The woman on the train with the extraordinary hair, well she was reading and I honestly don't think she spotted me or cared. If you walk around with hair like that you'll be used to people gawping and even though it was taken a long, long time ago I don't remember her reacting at all.  

That leaves four more photos. The sunbathing bloke was both asleep and also a massive show off, he has made a complete spectacle of himself and is effectively asking to be noticed, so that's precisely what I did. The bloke peeking through his curtains is, I'll admit, morally slightly dubious. He's inside his own home, in private. However, the context to this photo was that it was taken up in Ashbourne during the annual Shrovetide football match, when an entire town goes crazy for a weekend kicking a football about. Everybody in the town is involved in one way or another and this bloke was simply peering out at the chaos outside his window, you can see the reflections in the glass, so I figure this photo is just past and parcel of that.

The kids in the van are looking out at me looking in at them, they are also both partially obscured and the whole thing was so fleeting that I doubt it would even have registered. That just leaves one photo. I have absolutely no memory of taking this photograph. I know that I did take it, along with several more like it on the same roll of film and I also know (by looking the date up online) that I took it on Saturday 20th July 2013. I was attending the Latitude Music Festival in Suffolk, as were all these other rather grumpy looking people, sitting down wearing their 3-D glasses. They were hoping to come and marvel at one of the most important bands in history, the German electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk who were touring an incredibly ambitious 3D laser light show. Instead what they got (although only briefly) was a middle aged bloke, swaying about in front of them, off his face and taking numerous flash photos with his camera. Every time I look at this photograph I seem to spot another annoyed person. It's not just the girl in the front row flicking me a V sign or her equally non-plussed boyfriend in the orange hoodie or the irate people next to them, I think that almost everyone there is pissed off with me. 

And I'm sure Kraftwerk themselves would also have been a bit miffed, if they ever found out.  

However, I still like this photograph and I also think it raises an interesting question about intention and artistic agency. If I have no memory of taking this photograph, then can I claim credit for it? And if not, then who is the author of this image? Even if I'd been completely sober when I took it, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate all the expressions on all the faces there when I took the shot, that effect is caused by my blocking their view and then lighting them up with my flash, so I've created the photograph in one sense, which sets it apart from my usual technique which is to try and capture moments happening that have nothing to do with me but, and this is vital, in this case I was operating on auto-pilot (if that). I wasn't really conscious of what I was doing. So, again, whose photograph is it? I'd like to think that it's a photograph taken by drugs and alcohol.

That would please me. 

Stephen Leslie is a writer, photographer and filmmaker from London

2 Responses

Martin Greenberg

Martin Greenberg

May 31, 2023

As a street photographer I agree with the law as it is on my side. there is an old legal Joe. When you have the letter of the law on your side you cry the letter of the law. When you have the spirit of the law on your side you cry the spirit of the law. When you have neither you just cry. People out in the public have no expectation of privacy.

On the other hand, there is the question as to who owns their own image. When I take a picture of someone on the street that image is mine. It is a persons image though. I can see where they might be upset. I especially understand when I take pictures of children and their parents get upset. When asked nicely I will delete an image. When people tell me to commit sexually impossible ask or try to steal my camera I do not.

I like the last image. This is reminiscent of a life magazine photograph from the 1950s. I wonder if you’ve seen this image before?

Mask On Nurse Marty



September 14, 2022

This is a nice, fun little article about an issue that often gets treated heavier than it needs to be.

I love the way you’ve phrased the point of taking candid photos as a social document.
It reminds me of the quote from Strand saying that deceiving his subjects was the only way he could “be faithful to them”.

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