Should You Always Talk to Strangers Before You Take Their Photograph?
We can all be a little shy: it’s not the easiest thing to go up to a stranger and start taking pictures or strike up a conversation. Adam Marelli had an interesting post on his blog called, Can I Take Your Picture, How to Talk to Strangers, in which he discusses how most people are okay with being photographed if you just take the time to talk with them. He even argues that you should always talk to a stranger you’re about to photograph first. But are there exceptions?
No doubt, we’ve probably all been well trained to avoid strangers, as Marelli argues. But we have to get over that at some point if we want to catch those moments on the street that you don’t get any other way. And it’s not going to get any easier for the next generation that’s getting more and more used to removed interactions through social media, but that’s another discussion.
Marelli has a point, but it’s from his perspective. If I wanted to get portraits of people on the street, I would absolutely talk to them first (and I have). Getting to know your subjects is an obvious step for any portraiture — why should that change for taking strangers’ portraits?
However, while it might be politically correct to talk to strangers before taking their photograph, I have to disagree and say that sometimes, it’s necessary specifically not to make your presence known. How many images would be lost or not as honest if documentary photographers around the world made their presence aware and asked permission for a photograph?
It’s a fine line. Here I am, saying, “Do it first, ask questions later.” But that’s what I believe. The moment you inform someone that you want to take the picture, you’ve lost the sincerity and honesty in the play of life that was before you — that entertained your imagination to begin with. In a sense, you’ve fostered a dishonest and more subjective relationship with the image you’re capturing.
Of course, you do this carefully and respectfully; and in some situations, it’s completely inappropriate. So please don’t tell someone later, “Adam told me that’s what I should do.” Because that would be wrong.
But when you see some kids playing on the street or a beautiful couple holding hands as they share their ice cream walking down a brick sidewalk, I say go for it. Get embarrassed later. Get yelled at later. You can always do what’s right in your edit — by not including it or by destroying the photograph if the people ask you to. But honestly, I wouldn’t even say that’s the right thing to do. These people are in public. They have no reasonable expectation of privacy under the law. So be respectful, but get those images that you know are so great. Why not?
What do you guys think? Am I too ‘out there?’ For one thing, I can tell you that I shoot for a paper currently. If I asked first every time, I just wouldn’t get the shot — almost ever.
I’ll leave you all with a Bruce Gilden quote, image, and then some Helen Levitt:
“I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.” – Bruce Gilden