Photography sometimes confronts one with an almost Shakespearean dilemma; do I ask to take a picture of someone on the street or simply take the photo and move on? To risk rejection and the petty indignity of small-minded people or opt for the safety and anonymity of “shoot and scoot”?
Unfortunately there is no one right answer for either street or outdoor photography. As a photographer sometimes you just have to learn to read the situation and use your best judgement.
The good news is there is seldom a moral dilemma involved in taking pictures. There is no expectation of privacy in public spaces outside of areas that modesty would typically dictate there be no surveillance, like bathrooms, public baths, and changing rooms.
What makes this discussion surreal is that the modern world is jammed packed with cameras taking pictures and video of people in public constantly. Walk down any big city street in almost any industrial nation and you’ll turn up on dozens of surveillance cameras; some run by private companies, some run by the state. But those cameras are discreetly hidden from view behind watertight housings, one-way mirrors and dome enclosures. After a while people tend to forget they’re even there.
But they can see a photographer and that big camera and that sometimes triggers an overreaction in some of the world’s self-appointed picky-poo hall monitors and bored security guards. Almost every street photographer has at least one story about about being confronted by angry subjects, security guards, or the police.
Your best defenses are a quick smile, calm demeanor, and solid understanding of your rights. It’s also wise to keep in mind that history is littered with sad stories of people who were dead right. A balance between all those factors will arm you with a good internal guide as to when to stand your ground and when to let it go and walk away.
When it comes to taking pictures of people in public places, sometimes it’s better to just get your pictures and move on. The less time you’re around, the less time for people to get annoyed or suspicious. If you find one subject particularly intriguing, then just walk up ask them if it’s okay to take their picture. You’ll be surprised at how many times people will agree—or agree with some minor condition. If you asked 10 random people on the street, probably 80 percent will not have a problem being photographed and the other 20 percent will have a good reason for not cooperating.
Getting turned down is definitely not personal. Some people are in a hurry or were startled by the question. The world is full of scam artists and the predatory and suspicion is unfortunately understandable. Still, despite all that, you’ll be amazed at the people who will say yes.
Don’t be afraid to ask, as it gives you a chance to interact with complete strangers. You’ll make new friends, broaden your social network, and get to know people, even if it’s just briefly, that you might not have met any other way. For many those positive interactions are worth more than the few missed shots from people who said no thanks.
About the Author:
Peter Timko writes on behalf of Proud Photography – which offers online photography courses on a variety of subjects.
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