Should You Always Talk to Strangers Before You Take Their Photograph?

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

gilden 1

untitled(NY) childern with broken mirror, 1940

levitt 2

levitt 2a

levitt 3

levitt 3a

levitt 4

levitt 4a

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10 Comments

Even though I'm not legally required to, I always try to ask for permission. True, there have been times when I've had to sacrifice this preference for "the decisive moment" but for the most part, it's my modus operandi. Sometimes letting your subjects get comfortable with your presence is a crucial element to getting the shot. In his book, "Photographing Shadow and Light" Joey L. talks about how he makes it a point to be a part of his subjects lives and not a spectator and the results are phenomenal. The people he photographs trust him completely and open up to him in a way that thousands of other photographers before him who approached photography with a "smash and grab" approach could never has accomplished.

While people in public should legally have no reasonable expectation of privacy, whether it is morally or ethically good practice to obtain people's portraits without their permission, or even explicitly against their will, is debatable. And although you can argue how some of the best street photography work would not have existed if they photographers had asked for permission first, we should realize that times have changed and we expect our privacy to be protected now more than ever.
Personally speaking though, I have never been any good at approaching strangers for permission to take pictures of them, or even just sneaking in a quick shot while they are not noticing.

I disagree with that. I have far less expectation of privacy in public now. In fact, I am pretty sure that I am being photographed or recorded more than once throughout the day. Between "big brother" cameras, and everyone with a cell in their pockets, it would be naive to think otherwise.

Michael Flaherty's picture

I agree for the most part. But one should never forget that if you introduce yourself, take a few shots, show them, then sort of hang out. Maybe even circle back to them, you might get even better photos than if you had just snapped first and asked for permission (or forgiveness) later. Of course if you're in too big of a hurry, you don't have time for this. But that's your problem. It depends on the situation. There is no absolute. Photogs who insist they always ask permission first are probably dishonest, or at the least being unrealistic.

All that said, I saw several photos of children in your post. I am extremely cautious when it comes to kids. Their parents are often not far away, and it could go badly for you. And when they're not, it's just not cool to take advantage. I've seen a half dozen or more photogs./tourists surrounding one or two kids in remote villages (Nepal, Laos, Africa, etc.). When the kids aren't running up and getting excited about it, and are just busy trying to play or comb each other's hair or something, it is so darn clueless and creepy for people to just treat them as exhibits in a zoo, without even interacting with them. I was ashamed of my fellow trekkers and even one a few occasions have gone up and informed them how idiotic their behavior was.

Mark Kauzlarich's picture

In my job, I completely ruin every photo if I ask them first in every circumstance. Thats not how journalism works.

You are obligated, though, to ask their names after, otherwise you have a photo with no context.

Adam Cross's picture

it all depends what kind of image you want. If you want "traditional" street photography then you're not going to want to ask them first otherwise you're not going to get the pictures that you want, it won't be "real", you're essentially getting someone to sit for a portrait for you and everyone knows people change when they know they're going to be photographed - and that's not street photography in the traditional sense. Obviously talking/asking first is fine, I've done this a lot - though not as much as I take photographs of whoever, whenever without asking - and it's rewarding in different ways because you have more of a connection to your subject - if that's what you're going for, if that's the kind of image you want then talk to them first. It all depends what you want your photographs to say.

If you take the picture first and talk with your subject afterwards, like 'I like your dress can I take another picure?' you keep both parties happy.

I think it depends on what you are photographing. Theres no doubt that some moments will be lost if you don't immediately click the shutter button. As simple as that. But, theres some other cases where you HAVE to ask the subject to take their photograph.

Im currently working on my project called Street Faces. Its based on taking portraits of people on the streets and asking them one single question - WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO IF MONEY WHERE NO OBJECT?. I simply walk up to people on the street and ask them if I can take their picture. Right after I snap a few shots I move on to the question. This could not be done in the same way if I didn't ask them first.

You'll find my project Street Faces vis my website www.zayaphotography.com
Or directly here http://streetfaces.tumblr.com

While street photography is essentially how I got started with my first camera - and I've been doing so for almost 8 years now, I only recently asked for permission for the first time. In Switzerland the legal issue would be debatable and easy to get past. If someone finds their photo in my collection and wishes it to be removed I'll comply. So far that has never been an issue though :)

Ralph Hightower's picture

What if they tell you to delete the picture and you're shooting film?