Q&A: Asking permission when photographing people

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Question:  My question is this… I took a course in university on Anthropology of Images. One thing that was stressed was taking photos of people, strangers, and kids. I don’t take photos of stranger’s kids for obvious reasons. When you do your walkabouts, how do you feel when taking photos of strangers? Asking them takes away from the moment–and taking it without their knowledge feels, to me, intrusive…so what do you do?

Answer:

What an awesome question.  The answer is… it depends. 🙂

I do prefer the candid, in the moment shot.  I find they are more natural and they have a more storytelling feel to them, which is the type of photography I love to do.  But there are times when you feel a certain connection with a stranger, and getting that honest smile from them, without having approached them, makes for a fun image, gives you variety and a challenge.

If I am taking a candid shot, I don’t hide.  I hold my camera up and they see me.  If we make eye contact, I simply give them a nice smile (well, I think it’s a nice smile, they may think I’m demented).  Most of the time, people just ignore me and move on.  Sometimes, I get a smile back.  Sometimes, people start talking to me and we end up taking more photos.  Some people frown, some people ask me what I’m doing.  I just tell them honestly that I’m a photographer and I love to document the goings on in the city as a hobby, and that the people are what make the city live and breath, hence them being my main subjects.  Yes, I have some rehearsed lines 😉 .  I’ve had one situation over the last years where the person got angry and asked me to delete the photo.  Which I happily did.  The ironic part is that I wasn’t shooting the person, I was taking an image of a building and the person was in the frame, tiny, in the back, barely recognizable.  But, even though they are on public space and it’s my legal right to take the image, I simply delete it.

*Note: there are recovery softwares that can get back deleted images and formatted cards.  Just saying 😉 *

When I ask permission, I need to feel a certain comfort with the person.  I’ve got up to people and asked if I can take their photo, most ask why, and I explain.  I’ve asked some people to pose for me.  I’ve been turned down more often than I’ve had a yes, but it’s all part of the game.

It’s very much about being honest in what you are doing.  What’s the worse that can happen if you ask?  They say no.

Kids

When it comes to taking photos of kids, I do on occasion.  I’ve had some great images taken during the Osheaga festival last year of children.  However, I always go up to the parents before and ask their permission to take their child’s photo.  I give them my business card and tell them to email me if they want the digital file for themselves.  Which I obviously send freely.  Kids are a tricky subject, specially in this day and age of stalkers, pedophiles and the like.

You can see three of my kid photos at Osheaga towards the bottom of this blog entry

Homeless

Someone once commented that they never see me show photos of homeless people.  Actually, a few people have asked me the question.  I’ve always felt uneasy about taking photos of the homeless.  It’s exploitation for the purpose of easy drama.  They are easy targets.  I don’t like that.   As with all my photography, I want a challenge.  Whether it’s shooting a boring show in low light, making 15 headshots in 30 minutes… street shooting is about finding that gem of an image.

Street photographer Eric Kim said it best.  Just as you don’t want someone walking into your home and taking your photo, he feels the same way about the homeless… they live on the street, it’s their home, so why invade their private space.  He also says the same about people eating.  Do you want your photo taken while you have a mouth full of food?  Then don’t shoot others in the same situation.

 

It’s about respect for people.  So while the candid image can seem intrusive, being open and honest about what you are doing is key.  I’m not saying that I take a candid photo and then chase down the person if they didn’t see me to ask for their permission.  If they didn’t see me, fine.  I keep walking.

In all the photos in the header image, some form of contact happened with the subject.  Whether asking for permission before, snapping and smiling, and a a few of them I ended up taking multiple shots and poses.  Two of them have become friends (one on facebook, and one via text/cell). 4 of them received images via email.  You probably can’t really guess who 😉

If you have a question, drop me an email or send me a message via Facebook 🙂

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2 Comments

  1. Warren Thwing on May 9, 2014 at 16:58

    If I remember The Gazette was taken to court over this subject and the court ruled that taking people on the street or elsewhere UNLESS it is in a public building was against the law. So The Gazette lost the case.



    • Pierre on May 12, 2014 at 13:28

      You can freely take photos as you wish in a public area. Whether they be people, buildings… I was taking photos downtown, outside, but on the steps of a building, a guard told me it was private property (I wasn’t taking photos of the building, just using the steps to get higher up). That’s the law.

      When it comes to people, what you DO with the image you take is what is governed by law, and probably the issue with The Gazette. If it’s accompanying a story, it’s journalism, and it’s usually fine. If it’s not in a story and just part of a random piece, then there might be issues.

      But hey, I’m no lawyer 🙂