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A Lot of Street Photography Is Just Bad and Exploitative

Street photography is a particularly tough genre to achieve success in: it takes a combination of a quick eye, good instincts, and a dose of bravery, and even then, a little luck certainly helps. Personally, I think that even with that taken into account, a lot of street photography is simply bad photography and exploitative of the subjects.

Before I jump into this, let me be clear that there are absolutely some street photographers whose work I adore and have nothing but the highest artistic respect for. There is the underappreciated work of Helen Levitt, which is a gorgeous, instantly nostalgic look at life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century with a particular penchant for humanizing its subjects. There is Elliott Erwitt's work, which often takes a refreshingly lighthearted approach to the genre.

Circus, Budapest, by André Kertész (public domain)

There is André Kertész, whose work is the sort that makes you stare at an image for minutes at a time. And of course, there is Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photography is absolutely a genre that when done right, can produce stunning works of art that can teach us a ton about photography. Unfortunately, it often seems to go wrong, and those photographs still somehow get elevated.


Of all genres, street photography probably is (or has the most potential to be) exploitative. This is because it is one of the few genres in which the subject often does not give explicit (or even implicit) consent to having their photo taken or might not even know it is being taken. For example, photographing the homeless is almost never advisable. One could argue photojournalism falls into the same categorization, and it does on the surface, but the motivations for photojournalism are much different.

If you look at the work of the best street photographers, you will not find telephoto lenses. It is always a 35mm lens or something similar. Such a focal length does not allow the photographer to spy from afar. Rather, they have to be among those they are photographing as a part of their environment. This encourages the photographer to do a better job of empathizing with and humanizing their subjects. It generally forces them to interact with those whom they are photographing, and that can result in not only better photos, but less exploitative, more symbiotic, and more respectful interactions. Using such a focal length generally forces the photographer to make their presence known and to address the concerns of their subjects. And if we are going to use people for our art, isn't it only fair that they at least have a say in that? 


This is the sort of street photography I hate the most. It is more an assault than it is photography. What I am talking about is the sort of photography where the photographer intentionally invades the subject's personal space in a brash way so as to provoke a reaction. I am talking about the Bruce Gildens of the world. You can see what I mean below:

Of course, if you intentionally surprise someone by jumping in their face with a camera and flash, you are going to get a reaction. What is that accomplishing, though? The photo you caught is not genuine. It is not the person in a state natural to them. It is not the person interacting with their surrounding environment. All you have captured is the person reacting to being harassed by you and your camera. What photographic value does that have? What artistic value? I know this sort of photography has some sort of audience, as it still gets views, but I personally hope that the test of time is unkind to it and relegates it to a footnote that says it was more about harassing people for pictures than any sort of skilled photography.

Legal But Not Right

This builds off the previous point. Under American law, essentially, if you are in a public place, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy and are fair game to be photographed. This is often used as a fallback justification for people taking photographs in questionable situations. But you do not have to be a student of history to think of plenty of examples where legality did not coincide with morality. 

There are plenty of situations in which it is legal to photograph someone, but it is not necessarily right. Of course, every person has their own set of moral guidelines as well as a range of behavior they deem acceptable, but there are certainly situations in which I think the majority of people would agree that using a camera is not right. I personally don't like any sort of photography that makes unwitting people uncomfortable for the sake of the photographer's art, though I understand that in a genre like street photography, there will be situations where that happens inadvertently despite the best of intentions, and in that case, it really comes down to a photographer's ability to be empathetic, diffuse a situation, and show respect. Rather, I am talking about more blatant acts — things like photographing a car accident when you aren't a photojournalist or standing at the edge of a playground with a long telephoto lens. 

Lacking Empathy

This is probably what all my gripes with a lot of the genre come down to. Being empathetic means understanding that many people do not share our level of comfort with cameras, particularly in environments where their presence is not expected. It also means acting in a way that respects that level of comfort — or lack thereof. To ignore this in the pursuit of one's own creative endeavors is inherently selfish. Of course, what level of this is acceptable is an individual decision, but I think street photography often falls on the wrong side of the line. The truth is, I do believe that street photography is a really important genre, especially as it acts as a document of everyday life. But I also believe it needs to be done with respect for its subjects.


Yes, I spent this article on a moral high horse, and you are perfectly within your rights to tell me I have no right to sit there, lobbing moral judgments at an entire genre. It is just my opinion at the end of the day. What do you think?

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Andy Day's picture

Loved this vid from Jamie Windsor a few months ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoze3Q8bZ-M

Philip Philippidis's picture

I think this one is more appropriate for the article:


Troy Straub's picture

Both great videos and are definitely worth a watch, but I agree this one is more appropriate for the article.

Christian Durand's picture

I agree 100 %

Myles K's picture

Street photography is whatever one makes it out to be. It has no fixed way of executing, no strict requirements, void of ethics and morality. That is its gift and its curse. And what separates it from documentary photography or photojournalism. The street photographer chooses their own parameters.

There were never any “unwritten laws” that dictated that it had to be or should be documentary-esque, humanistic, natural-looking, non-reactionary, not exploitative or even empathetic. The way Gilden does street photography is as much of street photography as Bresson, neither of them can truly be called right or wrong but merely different variations, ends of the spectrum you could say.

Ryan Davis's picture

Scaring old ladies is wrong, for reasons that have nothing to do with photography.

Deleted Account's picture

Street photography these days means anyone with a camera - or smartphone - can stick the thing in front of you and take a picture, then upload to Instagram and say what a great photographer am I, no thought or style.
At least in Europe, there is this law - the GDPR - General Data Protection Regulation - which means one has to have permission - the person has to give consent - in order to publish any data/image of the person in question. Permission/consent being the keywords here!

David T's picture

And the consent has to be given before the personal data is captured.

Exceptions for freedom of press still apply though.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I speak only of UK law - others I don't know about...

But there is a misconception that GDPR is an all-encompassing data rule that requires consent to use someone's image in a photograph. I had to do a bit of research to check up on it some time back, (so I forget the official terminology for the moment).

Fortunately it isn't as cut and dry as that, and the law also includes a clause where intended use is a function of how GPDR works. So a photograph which effectively gives information of "this person was here" does not contravene GPDR, but if it was intended for certain other uses there could be an infringement. This is all important to the street photographer because it mean street photography doesn't infringe on GPDR rules. (Imagine if it did... we'd never be able to take a shot of anything with anyone without reams of paperwork. Holiday snaps anyone...? :) )

Now public consent rules may vary from country to country, but at least in the UK we're free to document life as it is.

Rayann Elzein's picture

No that's not what the GDPR is about. The GDPR does not overrule the fact that if you are in a public place, you accept being filmed/photographed. GDPR is a good thing, but it's not a magic wand either.

Deleted Account's picture

If a person can be recognised, then there could be a problem. That person could have a legal case, especially if it is used commercially or publically.

Jan Holler's picture

The GPDR of the EU (which is not whole Europe) does NOT address this matter. In fact it talks about personal data and how to handle and store it and NOT about a photo taken of a person (not in a single remark). Please read yourself: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation

Deleted Account's picture

This includes photos of individuals - that in itself is personal data. This can actually be a legal nightmare! So, to be safe one should have with them consent forms - model releases for the person to sign, especially if you want to post them publically or use them commercially - such as selling them on microstock sites.

Jan Holler's picture

"This includes photos of individuals - that in itself is personal data." It is, but first of all: private photos are not covered by the GDPR, second, national law is still valid. Germany, e.g. has its KUG (Kunsturhebergesetz). Have a look here: https://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/faqs/DE/themen/it-digitalpolitik/date... There is this answer:

"Die Annahme, dass die DS-GVO dem Anfertigen von Fotografien entgegen stehe, ist daher unzutreffend." - "The assumption that the DS-GVO precludes the taking of photographs is therefore incorrect."

"Die Datenschutz-Grundverordnung führt zu keinen wesentlichen Veränderungen der bisherigen Rechtslage im Umgang mit Fotografien." - "The basic data protection regulation does not lead to any significant changes in the previous legal situation regarding the handling of photographs."

Your claims are misleading and not correct in the context.

Btw. street photography is not model photography for a stock site. This is not "such as...".

Philip Philippidis's picture

GDPR has nothing to do with that.
What you're looking for is personality rights aka the right of publicity.

Venson Stein's picture

Seems like most modern street photographers are hell bent on NAZI / Gestapo-like rules. Can't do this, can't do that, "that's not Street Bruh." Probably explains why 90% of modern street photography is absolute trash.

Juno Morrow's picture

The best photographers are the ones who make their own rules, not follow arbitrary stuff from others like "no telephotos."

Jason Frels's picture

This is kind of like the "go to a third world country and take portraits of old people with bad teeth smiling" photography. I guess you convince yourself that it is documentary photography.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think the reality is that people enjoy photographing things that are different. Different cultures offer different images and that's usually the attraction.

Bela Acs's picture

Mr. Gilden is a Magnum photographer chosen by the best photographers in the world. Millions of new street photographers try to just copy him with not much success. He looks for characters, not the everyday cliches that these new YT photographers do. Sure, respect is important, but my knowledge, it has to be earned.

Jan Holler's picture

As soon as I read Bruce Gilden I knew this is just another of those innumerable articles with the same arguments over and over again which appear regularly since many years. And it sadly is!

Lee Christiansen's picture

I shoot street work and have been doing so for many years. Eventually there'll be a book with my work - only another 20 years to go... ha.

I shoot with all sorts of focal lengths and whilst I enjoy the dynamic that wider lenses offer, I also want to document life as it is, without changing the behaviour of those I photograph. So many times I'll be shooting at the long end of a 200mm.

Alas some feel that I'm almost settling the souls of those I photograph. There is a worry that I'm invading their privacy, when of course public spaces offer no such thing. It seems I can look, but I can't photograph. What next - I can look but I can't remember, or I can't tell someone what I saw?

I dosage intensely with the notion that good street work can only be with wider lenses, as much as I disagree with the notion that street work infringes on some unreasonable right never to be observed.

I'll be careful never to make anyone feel uncomfortable of course. My rights don't mean I have to trample over peoples' feelings. And I'll be careful what I photograph won't unreasonably reflect badly on someone - an image usually isn't important enough to exercise hurt.

It's strange - I don't like the approach of "confrontational" street work, but I often find myself appreciating the end results. I'm glad I am not one of those that does it and I'm sure it causes offence quite often. But objectively, do we balance that fleeting moment of intrusion against truly amazing images? Given that it doesn't cause lasting suffering or heartache, I surprise myself in accepting this sort of work - if the images are great.

The second we ask permission, is the second we lose the moment. And it is the second we lose any spontaneity. That's fine for some images, but not so much for observational work. I've asked for permission on a handful of images. Half of those that I have, I've completely lost the moment. The other half have rewarded me with great shots. But I still prefer to document a world not aware of my presence.

Street work is important because it documents life as it is now. Billions of images are taken every day by a phone-camera mad world, but alas most of these have little creativity, and most don't offer an insight into society. And sadly most of these images will never see the light of day or even be found in years to come. It seems the more pictures we have, the less we have... Before I fade away, I plan to archive several hundred of my pictures as fine art prints and hope they'll be accepted by somewhere who will keep them safe.

So I see quality stereo photography as an important social document. I sometimes reflect through my collection and see a world passing me by. Without this documentation we'll just end up with iPhone snaps.

Quality work requires a great deal of skill and a fine eye. It can be one of the hardest genres to master.

Juno Morrow's picture

Well said! This resonates with my street photography philosophy.

Carlos Diaz's picture

"The second we ask permission, is the second we lose the moment." Completely agree.

jmhedrick's picture

When you brought up Bruce Gilden and described his technique, I immediately thought of Richard Avedon and the Windsors. Do you know the story? For those that don't, Avedon invoked a response from the Windsors to get an authentic moment from them. The expression that he captured was speaking to the sadness and weariness that existed beneath their facade of affluence and excess. I can't know what Gilden's motives are but perhaps there is a reason for his style. Maybe he selects certain people to photograph instead of arbitrarily "ambushing" people. Just based on the authentic product of Gilden's work, it has weight IMO. Gilden's work sparks a response, of anger, disgust, empathy... No-one is hurt, people move on. I feel that your statement speaks to and holds a noble ideal. However, if all that existed was one ideal, art would be dead.

Hector Muñoz Huerta's picture

You have to break some eggs...

Juno Morrow's picture

Thank you for sharing this perspective!

Martin Parnell's picture

With bird photography, I've noticed you'll sometimes get shit on if using 135mm or shorter lenses!

Irish Streetphotographer's picture

Great read.. I had the pleasure of meeting Jill Freedman and we spoke briefly about Bruce Gildens work.. She deplored the way he takes photos which surprised me.

Marek Stefech's picture

Snowflakes, snowflakes everywhere :D

Anete Lusina's picture

I definitely agree that there is a large part of street photography that is exploitative but I also think there is a very important part that documents the different layers of our society where the end result grows in social value over time. And then, some of it is just snaps that don't really say anything about anything, it's just a photo that may look nice enough for social media today but has no meaning or value as such, which is fine I guess because those photographers taking them saw something there that they felt compelled to take a photo of, and I guess that's good enough reason at times!

Anete Lusina's picture

This discussion actually reminded me of a photo I took in Milan. I was low key following a really beautiful and well put together older lady, I thought she looks very majestic and I wanted to take a good enough photo so was just waiting for the right background. After I took several shots, I came home and realised that in one of them I had captured a homeless man who was sleeping rough in the background. The contrast between the clearly wealthy woman and the man who was for whatever reason sleeping rough was just too much for me and I still haven't dealt with the picture or figured out what to do with it. I never ever take photos of homeless people and so I still have this dilemma of how to deal with a photograph without exploiting the subjects.

Scott Magoon's picture

It's hard to know what to say about that picture without knowing more, or seeing it. But my first thought is that it would not be "exploitive" of the man, which is the factor for many (most I assume) street photographers having a personal prohibition against photographing homeless or vulnerable people. If anything it may be more of a societal critique of the woman having so much in comparison to the man. You should not feel bad for having captured that moment.

D Man's picture

With everything going on in the world today, you could actually use it to show the difference between someone who is living the life and one who takes each day as it comes. Maybe you could be the voice for the homeless and the wealthy.

Life is a funny thing, you only live once, and maybe, just maybe, you captured something that could benefit someone in need.

Look how COVID destroyed our society, it took away a lot of work, people who had jobs and able to feed their families, have a nice home are now having to rely on the local food banks to stay alive and depending on unemployment checks if they are lucky enough to get them.

Street photography can and if applied correctly can benefit the homeless, maybe create additional awareness of someone around them after seeing your photo. Who knows?

You could always blur out the face enough to make it unrecognizable. It will only be you who captured that moment as for anyone else would never even think twice about it.

Just sayin...

Gerry O'Brien's picture

I'm in the U.S. and have been posting street photography on my daily blog for almost five years. I shoot with a long lens and try to be unobtrusive, and most subjects are unaware of me. I try to capture interesting, quirky and dramatic moments, not sad and embarrassing ones.

Steven Taylor's picture

Lee Christiansen writes "billions of images are taken every day by a phone-camera mad world, but alas most of these have little creativity, and most don't offer an insight into society." And you do? Most of those images are snapshots taken FOR friends and family BY friends and family - pictures in Times Square, in front of Bethesda Fountain, etc. These folks are not having internal debates about privacy ... "there is a worry that I'm invading their privacy, when of course public spaces offer no such thing." They are enjoying the moment.

Exploitative photography is not what's legal, but what's not right (as Alex says). Its taking pictures of persons having a really bad day - the homeless, persons off their medication, couples having a fight on the street and, yes, photographing someone trapped under a bus (I held the woman's hand waiting for FDNY to lift the bus with airbags. A crowd looked on. Likely someone took pictures.)

Appreciating someone's work requires seeing that work. What good is it to "archive several hundred of my pictures as fine art prints" if others can't enjoy them now? Lee, I have been pretty hard on you, but I would love to see your work.

Steven Blutter's picture

To me, a long time photo artist, street lacks intentionality. It reminds me of the old saying, 'put a monkey at a piano - after years a snip-it of beauty will emerge. Winogrand snapped thousands & thousands of pics and ended up with about 150 'keepers' over many years. Gilden's doing the same thing: "did I get some 'good ones' today"?

I don't know what to call that it. Its not art and certainly not portrait. I guess those guys like the activity - just something to do, without a care for careful composition, focus exposure or respect for his subjects. I call it monkey snapping. Its certainly not 'work' and doesn't require a Leica in the slightest. May as well get a 16mm film movie camera and drill through 1000's of frames for an accidental 'good one'.

Shoot less, create more.

Lee Christiansen's picture

It depends which type of "Street" you're talking about.

Some street photography requires many hours of observation with only a few exposures taken in a day of wandering, or holding a frame in the viewfinder for an age because the photographer just knows something will happen by watching those around him.

It's almost like wildlife photography at times...

Dan Adams's picture

I love how you discount one kind of art because you don't agree with it. If you think street photographers don't think carefully about composition, focus or exposure then you are just speaking from conjecture because you never bothered to look into some of the great street photographers.

Hell, some people go out specifically with a composition in mind and wait for someone to enter their frame, composition is at the top of their priorities.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Steven, I'd love you to see some of my work. If you look up my profile you will find my website and there is a dedicated section marked "Personal Work." Enjoy...

As to the billions of images, yes it is true that most of these are personal types, featuring friends etc. And there is the problem - where we are potentially missing out on a detached perspective or record of life as it is now.

I watched a fascinating documentary about the history of circus recently. In it there were wonderful pictures taken by photographers in a documentary style. Isn't it great that we have such a wonderful record of days past. Of course most likely the photographers of old weren't even thinking of archiving their work as historical pieces, but we're blessed with them and I'd hope some of the better street work we have today will see a similar fate.

As to what makes for great street work - well who can say. Certainly some of the obtrusive imagery that gets people upset does offer a unique perspective on personalities and faces. Whilst I shudder at the invasion of the photographers who do this, I also find myself glad we'll have these images on record. (At least there isn't actual harm done, so a minor inconvenience here and there may well be worth it - if the images are truly great).

Deciding when to share a set of works is often a tricky thing. Most creatives don't share until the set is complete. Sometimes that takes a while. By no means does society have the right to see an image just because it is impatient, so I'd disagree with the sentiment of "What good is it to "archive several hundred of my pictures as fine art prints" if others can't enjoy them now?" However, I can't resist showing a small taster here and there - hence featuring a little of my collection on my website. (Who can tell if it is any good, but people seem to appreciate it). If you track me down on Facebook, there is a sneaky preview of a mini-book that I actually had printed, because I just wanted to see how a mini-collection would look in that form. I must admit I did feel I'd captured a little corner of London with my "London Life" book.

With respect to respecting who we photograph - well that depends on what we are trying to achieve. My personal aim is never to embarrass detrimentally, and certainly never to take a moment out of context, but if I can see it, why can't I remember it? And if I can remember it and tell of it, then why can't I photograph it? Life in all its glory and sorrow needs to be remembered.

In my years building up my collection I've caught to reflect what I see around me in my home city of London. So that means I have photographed the homeless, I've photographed couples in embrace, I've photographed funny shots of people wolfing down fast food in a less than dignified way and I've photographed families enjoying each others' company. I've shot people in the midst of total joy of the moment, I've photographed some sad scenes, or moments of protest, and there are some with people who are having a private moment in public places. One of my favourites is a girl running through the fountains in summer because it encapsulates pure joy. There is one whet a child crying and one with a child having a sneaky smile at me as he catches me taking his picture. There's a shot with a man in the distance who has seen me in the corner of his eye and those who are oblivious to my presence even though I'm right under their noses.

All of this is to document life, and I enjoy doing it in pictures. They may mean little now, but in many years to come if they're still available to see, perhaps they'll offer an insight of how we lived to those in 200 years time.

Timothy Roper's picture

It's even worse with words. Trillions of words are written probably every day, with no artistic merit or value to society. Just open Twitter for a glimpse into the banality of it all. It's just the way society is today.

Steve D's picture

I'm not a fan of Gilden's ambush style of photography. But I'm part of a large group of local street photographers, none of whom employ those tactics and all of whom seem to have the sort of ethics this writer suggests we don't have. We don't photograph homeless people (that's just street porn) and I rarely see images in our group that would embarrass the subjects. We're all not the crass photographers the author makes us out to be.

Phill Holland's picture

The good street photographers I feel have a strong empathy for their subjects and it may also be their primary motivation for photography. Although, the more empathy your morality code of conducts has, the more difficult the job is.

Morality has been a strong cornerstone for some street photographers, Helen Levitt for example, and often photography of a subject such as the homeless comes from wanting to highlight their plight, rather than exploiting them for success; but then, there is usually no motivation for a street photographer such as for money profit or fame, it's just for you and your own interests in people.

Morality comes in two flavours too, pushing the button at the time and then secondly, choosing the publish the photo after the event. Often you just don't think and instinct takes over, but if you ignore yourself twice and push down that nagging feeling, you cannot really make excuses.

There's also a nagging problem, it's the abundance of CCTV cameras, and they're filming people in perhaps a more covert and underhanded way; at least the street photographer is amongst the crowd, visible, who knows what kind of people the CCTV operators have hired to watch you go about your daily business? This to me is perhaps a bigger issue that needs tackling.

There is a certain hypocrisy too, in wanting to protect your privacy on the street, when you've most likely handed the keys to your whole life to Facebook or social media; I'm not sure there's even anything wrong with taking a stranger's photo in public, it's unavoidable if you're in a busy tourist city; it's just a photo and usually doesn't violate boundaries of any sort. You've likely been on hundreds without even noticing just going about your daily business.

Morality also works in the other direction, the person being photographed; if you're good at street photography, you'd be approachable and open to deleting the photo if asks politely. Sometimes you get people going from 0 to 100 in a few seconds, without room for explanation, the instant rage that you're doing something wrong is difficult to diffuse.

Irina Escoffery's picture

One can see Giden work amoral and insulting but cannot deny artistic value. This photographer controversy creates a shocking element of astonishment and awe. You may like it or not but nobody can say it's not talented.

anthony whisman's picture

You Millennials have to ask permission to pee. Fortunately your kids will rebel. I'm a Liberal but I'm not going to ask permission to show my world in my way, because otherwise, what's the point of variation? Glad to be a Non-Republican Boomer. Here's to invasive Street Photography and random video! In 50 years people will see what it was like. Nelson Sullivan is God.

stuartcarver's picture

Have you got enough cliche terms to describe age groups in your comment, you not want to add a few more?

microteck's picture

I love Street photography because it has so much character.

I have paid homeless people to allow me to take close-up photos of them. Sometimes it was simply because they had selected such an odd array of clothing. Other times it was because their hard lifestyle had aged them in ways that told a story. And finally, there were times I took photos without their permission from across the street. This is really the best way of all because it allows you to capture people naturally. The picture of the guy showed below was taken with permission and I printed a copy for him which made him very happy. I think the way the "Paparazzi" take photos is an entirely different story and I don't approve.

iris-imaging's picture

If you are only photographing to collect a series of images like little trophies, you are missing something. Life is about the journey and the camera is a ticket to allow you to explore it.

I have never met a person who was not selfish, as we are all in constant symbiotic relationships of various types throughout our lives. For someone to label someone as exploited is to consider them stupid or ignorant. I photographed homeless people off and on from 1983 till around 1998, mostly in Cleveland, Ohio. I generally used a 50mm lens and Kodak Tri-film and got a model release most of the time. While most of the men I photographed suffered from some mental illness, I quickly learned they could make a fool out of me rather quickly because of the arrogant paternalistic viewpoint I had when I first started.

Most of my photography is part of larger involvement in issues I choose to photograph. My photography of homelessness was easy as I have been homeless various times over my life. My work got me a job as a photojournalist at a Thompson newspaper, which opened the door at Akron Beacon Journal later for a number of projects. I have supporters and critics.and do not care.

If we are not symbiotic, we lose, and the world remains ignorant.

This is my first street photo it is of a man named Russell Kennedy whom I photographed for over a year. He was murdered under the bridge where he lived, I id the body for Social Security as we were working to get him off the streets. He was a veteran, had worked for the phone company until an accident which left him with a plate in his head. In course of photographing him, he lost most of his fingers to frostbite. He lived under a bridge in Cleveland. He did not pose for this picture. I had invaded his space and for five minutes he just ignored me as I sit in front of him with my camera pointing at him. He was an avid reader.

al bagden's picture

Personally I prefer asphalt photography.

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