Balancing Photojournalism with the Right of Refusal: The Debate Continues

A University of Virginia history teacher published a tweet asking what photojournalism and documentary photography would look like, now and in the past, if the photographer’s right to take someone’s image were balanced by that person’s right to say no.

In October of 2020, the New York Post published a controversial OpEd calling street photography a form of “gender-based violence” (and this piece argued against that perspective). A recent Twitter debate continues to question the norms of documentary photography against the right to refuse having a photo taken.

The aforementioned history teacher, John Edwin Mason, cites the story of Florence Thompson, the woman whose face would become the iconic image of the Great Depression, in his argument. Thompson is reported to have resented her photo being taken and dislikes its eventual spread.

The basis of this argument is a discussion of power and agency, and who has it. For Thompson, it is argued she was not in a position to deny “a well-dressed government lady” with a camera. The same could be said of others, even if the photo that was being captured was taken with good intentions.

On the other side of the debate, many argue that were this world that Mason suggests a reality, we would lack images that have since been used to frame major events.

Some have argued that all we would have are commissioned images which paint a false picture of how the world really was.

This particular thread eloquently argues for documentary photography as we know it, but through the context of understanding other conflicting opinions:

The debate of who has the right to be photographed and who has the agency in the situation will no doubt continue to be argued one way or the other. Street photography, photojournalism, and documentary photography along with the most successful photographers who shot in these genres are generally revered in the photographic community. To question the ethics of their craft can elicit strong reactions from those who hold them in such high regard. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the ramifications of photography both as an art and as a practice. What a person with a camera does and what they plan to do with the result is often not clear to those that are the subject of candid photography. It’s no wonder this makes so many uncomfortable and why there are such strong opinions on the matter.

What are your thoughts on the continued debate? Let us know in the comments.


Image credits: Header background image by Jerry Zhang.