Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Permission to Photograph

This lady in Dublin said, "Take our picture!" so I did.

One of my Facebook friends writes: "Hey Glenn, I was wondering if anybody got upset about you taking pictures of them without their consent... Have you ever been in a situation like that before? If so, what happened?"

This is a complex and interesting question: Do I have a right to photograph people without their permission, and how far am I willing to go?"

(My photo albums are found at

I have basically two kinds of human subjects: (1) people deliberately making a spectacle of themselves—say, by dressing in costumes and participating in a public celebration; and (2) people going about their daily business in the place where I happen to be photographing.

A good example of the first case is a renaissance fair, where people dress up in outlandish medieval customs intending to be noticed. That, to me, implies a permission to photograph them. I am careful not to make people uncomfortable, but I have no discomfort about shooting.

The second case is more complicated. If I photograph, say, a street vendor without his permission, am I violating his privacy? In the U.S., at least, there aren't any specific laws against it. It is well-established, for example, that celebrities can be photographed whenever they appear in public, and they don't have to be paid royalties for it, which is the legal principle supporting the paparazzi. The same general idea applies to anyone appearing in public. Legally, I never fear that I will be arrested for what I do.

The more important issue, however, is making people uncomfortable, and I do my best to avoid it. The fact is, the vast majority of the people in my photos don't even know there are being photographed. It happens so quickly (in a fraction of a second), that they are only dimly aware of it at most, so there's no opportunity for them to become uncomfortable. Usually, I appear to be photographing something else, like the Grand Canyon, and the people in the foreground aren't aware that they are my main subject.

A lot of the apparent intimacy of my photos happens in post-production. My original photo shows a much wider scene, but I crop it down to the small part of the scene that is most interesting. When it appears in the photo that I am close to a person and interacting with them, I am usually very far away and just happened to catch them when they are looking in my direction. They may see a guy with a camera, but they probably don't know he is looking at them.

I don't feel uncomfortable about "stealing" photos like this, because the chance of the subject or anyone he knows ever seeing the photo is very slim. And I never portray people in an unflattering light, anyway, so it shouldn't be something that would upset them if they saw it. If anyone did see themselves on one of my websites and asked me to remove them, I probably would, but so far no one has asked.

Occasionally, though, I may actually engage with my subject. This may happen, for example, when a bunch of kids (or drunk adults) see that I have a camera and they start hamming for it. If you start performing for my camera, this implies a permission to photograph, and I will take advantage of it.

Generally, I only photograph people under circumstances where photography is normal, like at tourist attractions or public events. This gives me the "cover" I need to focus on what really interests me: the people. I don't photograph in circumstances where I would be drawing attention to myself by doing so. The essence of candid photography is that the subject be at ease, so I don't want them distracted by my presence.

In practice, it is virtually impossible to get "permission" to photograph. Once I ask, "May I photograph you?" people become self-conscious, and it destroys the spontaneity of the moment. It also starts raising questions, like "What are you going to do with these photos?" which requires a long, complicated negotiation. I couldn't take a lot of pictures in an amusement park if I tried to ask permission from each person who appears in my viewfinder. Instead, I just shoot and move on. Usually, it happens in a split second, and I have completely left the area five seconds later.

I do obey some general rules:

(1) I don't photograph people in undignified positions. I try to draw a line between "capturing" people and "exploiting" them.

(2) I don't photograph people where there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

The last concept is a vague one, but I generally don't photograph people in busses or subways or engaged in activities that are generally closed to the public. I wouldn't photograph people at a funeral or at private events I haven't been invited to. A general rule of thumb is that if a regular tourist wouldn't be photographing the scene, I won't either, but if a lot of other cameras are present I will feel free to snap away. This is why the majority of my venues end up being tourist attractions.

Occasionally, people will ask me not to photograph them, but usually these are very paranoid characters who are hyper-vigilant for any perceived threat in their environment. Usually, I don't give them the chance complain. If I dwell too long in one area or point my camera in one direction for an extended time, I might get a complaint, in which case I promptly leave the area or put the camera away.

In my photography career, only handful of people have asked me not to photograph them. These incidents stick out in my mind, and I have adjusted my methods so I don't trigger this kind of response. I may walk down the street going snap-snap-snap, but by the time a paranoid has a chance to react, I'm already long gone.

I feel that the benefits outweigh the concerns. I usually believe that something important is being captured that would slip away otherwise.