Would You Delete a Photo of Someone if They Asked You To?

It's a situation every street photographer (and some others) will encounter at some point: you'll take a picture of someone, they'll see you do it, and they'll ask (or demand) that you delete it. Would you delete the picture?

Coming to you from Weekly Imogen, this interesting video tells the story of a street photographer who was pushed into deleting a photo despite there being no legal standing to force him to do so. In the U.S., the general law is that if someone is in a public place with no reasonable expectation of privacy, taking pictures of them is fair game. Of course, what's legal, what's right, and what's smart don't always intersect all at the same place. Personally, unless I just snapped something that's Pulitzer-worthy, I don't think a photo is worth a confrontation, and besides, I try to empathize with the simple fact that a lot of people are not as comfortable with cameras as we are, and I don't think having the law on my side automatically entitles me to make someone feel uncomfortable, at least not from a moral perspective. What're your thoughts? I'm interested to hear them in the comments.

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I agree entirely. If someone was particularly uncomfortable with having their image taken, I would show them that I have deleted it. It is probably not that likely to happen anyway, so an occasional lost photo would be bearable.

Photographed a border patrol officer at the US/Canada crossing station. He told me if I did not delete it I would be "detained" and arrested after my vehicle was searched and towed off. I would be in Minnesota in a Federal holdinc facility for at least a week due to "lost paperwork" while my vehicle would be in another State being taken apart for possible hidden compartments holding illegal drugs. Photo gear would be "God knows where" and taken apart.
So, I deleted the images and showed him.
Then left, took out the CF card and went home and recovered the photos. Made postcards of it and mailed them to a half dozen border crossing station with "this guy is a jackass" on the back.

You can always delete and then recover the image.

Unless actually threatened I would not delete - but know what to do to defuse the situation when needed.

Deleted Account's picture

So if you photographed someone on the street and they asked you to delete it, you wouldn't unless threatened!?

David Penner's picture

Hopefully you don't plan on crossing the border again. Wouldn't be surprised if you are on a watchlist now. Lol

So you don't know that it is against Federal law to photograph border checkpoints? Or you don't care that it is against Federal law?

It is not against the law to photograph Federal Border crossing stations. I caved in the face of reality. Having my truck trashed, my gear broken or lost and my personal loss of time and money. Too many Border Patrol types are this way - and they can stop you for any (or no) reason within 100 miles of the Border.
This type of thing does happen more than you may suspect. Most threatened keep quiet about it.

Robert Nurse's picture

And this happened in America.

Putting myself in the place of the person who has asked that my picture be deleted, I would certainly respect their request, show them the picture, and offer to either send it to them or delete it in front of them.

Rob Davis's picture

I always respect if someone waves me off in the street. Never had anyone confront me, but I have been noticed before and I approach them first and explain why I thought it was worth snapping the photo at that moment, showing them and offering to send them a copy. That’s always worked.

People are usually afraid of being mocked. I don’t take those kinds of photos. If I were taking Bruce Gilden types of photos that approach may not work. I don’t know if he’s mocking people, but they’re generally not flattering photos.

Eric Mazzone's picture

I've found those who are most afraid of being mocked are those how mock others all the time. A small portion of the time it's people who've been mocked their whole lives.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

I once met John Trotter, a photographer for the Sacramento Bee. On a spring day in 1997 he was out on assignment taking pix of kids in a park when a mom asked him to turn over his film (it's 1997). He refused saying he was working on an assignment.

The woman went down the street and told some local gang members there was a pedophile in the park taking pix of kids. 12 of them rolled up and beat the hell out of him. He spent months in the hospital relearning how to speak and eat.

You can see his photo essay and read more about the story here...

Obviously an extreme example of what can happen, but food for thought for if/when you're ever put in this situation.

Eric Mazzone's picture

Then that woman should be identified and charged with incitement and forced to pay ALL his bills for the rest of his life. Personally, she should be hung with her children removed from her.

“Let me check... This one with you? Nothing spectacular, sure I’ll delete it :)”

Jordan McChesney's picture

One of the reasons I tend to avoid street photography here in Tokyo is for this very reason. People here seem to like their privacy and I'm cripplingly awkward so if someone started yelling at me, I'd have no idea how to react. Also, it's "technically illegal*" to photograph someone without their consent here. I like not being deported, so I'm going to continue shooting anything but people, haha.

* It's illegal, but it's almost impossible to find a case where anyone received anything more than a stern talking to by an annoyed police officer.

Deleted Account's picture

Whenever I've been in Japan, most people try to avoid eye contact with a gaijin so they probably wouldn't even notice you photographing them!
About 15 years ago, I was in Shinjuku gyoen and a 20-something man put his hand in front of my lens and quickly removed it while I was photographing something or other. I couldn't tell from the expression on his face if he was kidding or being a punk. In either case, I was surprised by his action.

Jordan McChesney's picture

Without overgeneralizing, I think avoiding eye contact is a general thing here, as I mentioned, privacy is king. As for me, people in Tokyo seem to ignore me when I'm in casual clothes because there are so many other foreigners here, it's normal. But when I'm in a suit I get my fair amount of people staring, to the point where I always wonder "is there something on my face?"
However when I went up to Fukushima the tourist agency staff ran over to play 20 questions with me, and when I was in Akita I got full 180 degree head turns. Either way, don't mind, none of it really bothers me anymore, if anything it makes me feel like a minor celebrity, haha.

Tim Gallo's picture

Well, its actually legal, even in the train. Its not ethical maybe, but you are ok with the law. The problem would appear if a women accuse you of shooting her with "sexual" intent... but even than if nothing proves her statement on your camera - you will be ok.
Ok, it seems I need to write an article about street photography in Tokyo.

Tim Gallo's picture

Now I must add, shooting is ok - you may run into a problem when publishing... I remeber last time I checked there is a law that if you have more than 4-6 people on photography - youre ok. I need to re check...

Jordan McChesney's picture

(Apologies for the incoming wall of text)

Well, I should clarify, I'm by no means an expert in Japanese law. I placed it in quotations because it seems to be a gray area, like many thing here. It's why more often than not most Japanese TV stations and news outlets will blur out faces of passers-by, but some others won't. I haven't seen anything referring to a number of people changing the legality, so I have no idea on that area.

I've based what I said on a number of things including topics I've read discussing what is and is not OK, regarding the 肖像権 (Shouzouken), which essentially seems to refer to publication rights of one's image. Of course, when I talk about "shooting an image" my end goal is always some kind of publication (on a website, in an art show, etc), of course for private use, these won't come into effect. It also seems to consider "damage to one's reputation" based on an interview I read with a Japanese photojournalist. When he is asked about the privacy laws regarding photos, he is quoted as saying

"You need to ask the Shimbun Kyoukai about this. As I understand it, there are no restrictions on taking photos in public places in Japan. But if the picture is published and you have infringed someone’s right to privacy, they can sue you and have a good chance of winning. The example I was given was taking a picture of Shibuya crossing, publishing it in a Japanese magazine, and then being sued because a couple in the photo were having an affair. If you harmed their marriages by infringing their right to privacy you can lose in court. That’s very different to say the UK where pretty much anyone is fair game as long as they are in a public place"

Now keep in mind, this is a hypothetical situation he's created and he is referring to publication, not private use (as was I). Furthermore he said "shooting in public places" and not shooting strangers in public spaces, so one could question if he means there is no restriction on shooting people or just shooting in general. The actual number of lawsuits I could find online was 3 but information was incredibly limited, but it does show just how gray this area is the people who do it for a living don't even seem to fully understand the laws.

The "sexual intent" seems to relate to the " Anti-Nuisance Ordinance", which appears to be, among other things, a measure against stalking and general creepiness... kind of like Women Only train cars. So yeah, I totally agree with those laws.

Aside from these, I've based my decision to not shoot people on the responses I've received from just about every person I've asked about it. Now, this is far from legally binding, so feel free to ignore it if you'd like, but just about every Japanese person I've asked about it has either told me some version of "yes, it's illegal" or "I personally wouldn't do it, because it's rude". So my way of seeing it is, even if it's legal to do it, maybe I shouldn't be a dick in a country I'm not from. I mean, it's not illegal to take my pregnant wife to kushi-katsu restaurant where everyone is smoking, but I don't do it because it's not "right".

So, is it illegal to shoot, seemingly not, is it illegal to publish seemingly maybe, but is it ethically right in the culture, seemingly not. But, like I said, I'm not an expert, I could have easily missed something or the sources could have been outdated or overstated, and some of it is more anecdotal than concrete fact. When it comes to rules and laws here, I'm not one to push my luck. I'm on a VISA, so it's pretty much one strike and I'm out. I've been told by security to remove my tripod when I was on public property in Shinjuku for "reasons", and I did it because I'd rather not cause a scene. This isn't my country, so I have to do my best to respect the culture, in photography or in life, even if I can claim "it's not illegal, bro".

Sorry again for the wall of text, and if I've missed anything or misinterpreted anything, then feel free to point it out.

Tim Gallo's picture

Yes you are on point. I think its more ethical problem than legal.

If you interested in the subject there is a special in Asahi Camera about 肖像権 and street photography in general.


There are some cases in it - f.ex. when photographers had to deal with police when took a picture of a family in a train - and how it end it. (Long story short - there is now law required him to delete the picture).

Personally it answered many questions for me.

As about your example regarding photojournalist. Its really really gray zone. You can be sued, does not mean you will loose. And most of the time - the gray zone is exploited by tabloids here in Japan. Btw, I have experience being written in one, gladly they did not used picture, though it seems they had one. Required by some "rule" I received a call that they will publish an article about me and one celebrity involved, probably with picture (of me on the terrace of cafe with manager of this celebrity), no matter if I am giving them permission or not, they gave me a call just out of courtesy it seems, but they agreed to not use my name after some persuasion from me and celebrity agency, I ended up called photographer "A". :)

I heard Araki has being sued by women, people from street many many times... but all in all , among all the cases he lost only around 20k. Still continued to print most of the work lol.

I understand your feelings about VISA. I had the same thought for man years, but now I mostly dont care (a lot because now I dont have to, and a lot because unless it has something to do with "sexuality" - its not criminal and does not affect your visa situation). Also, a lot depends what country you are from. It seems many rules does not apply to usa citizens.

The "tripod" problem is actually a law. A law requires you to have a permission from police of this area to shoot using tripod (Hachiko police seems dont care though). Usually it takes a week to get. You write why you need it, where you going to place the camera. If it does not affect "car" movement - usually you get permit, even on the busiest of the streets. Though it may take a while.

Now the situation is much more complicated in Shinjuku (and beware Osaka - Shinsekai, where you can run into really serious yakuza problem). In Shinjuku in many cases some areas also requires permit from "yakuza" :). Which requires some connection (usually there is a person in between). But for people of the movie and editorial business its actually so common - its just as normal as taking permit from police :).

Jordan McChesney's picture

The cases I read all ended in rather hefty fines, as well. I’m rather frugal and I don’t really have an eye for street photography, so I’m not going to risk it, haha.

I know you require a permit to shoot, if you’re doing commercial work even without a tripod (wedding/product), but nobody does. I never shoot commercial, so it’s not a huge deal.

As for the tripod permit, I’ve never heard of that for public spaces for non-commercial use. I know they are banned in many places, usually with heavy foot traffic, parks, temples, etc, and you require special permission to use them there. I should clarify I wasn’t in a busy area, I was near a railing next to a wall facing the Docomo Building. I’ve heard of security getting annoyed of you’re obstructing foot traffic, but the only way I would have been in anyone’s way would have been if someone was planning to jump over the railing to their death. There wasn’t another person around for at least 50m. My guess is they thought I was too close to the ledge.

Could you point me in the direction of where to find out about the tripod rules. I’ve searched the web but no one has mentioned anything about a permit, only about annoyed security guards.

Tim Gallo's picture

I dont have an eye for street photography also. Thats why I try to put most effort in it right now :)

here is about doro kyoukasho

or read this:

Basically the idea is this, for any purposes besides walking/driving on the street - you need a special permit via general application (which includes also a permit for shooting). Sometimes a call to a police reveals that they dont care about a permit...

Thats what many commercial shoots do - we pretend we are tourists, or students doing non commercial work. Still, tripod usually prohibited... I dont know what law does it. Its just everybody knows it and many follows it. japan is a strange place regarding laws in public spaces... cause some places are not public. F.ex. there may be fine for smoking on the street... as there is a law against it. but you can smoke infront of the police booth and they will tell you nothing, because there are other guys - who are working on the city that do that :) (the old guys that move in packs : ). so maybe its the same with using camera on the street.

Tokyo and Japan is a little bit complicated in "public space" matter. Some streets maybe actually owned by companies, or be private and city "rents" them as public, some places around station may be owned by metropolitan companies and e.t.c.

Studio 403's picture

I would pull out my nerf gun and pepper him or her. I might even through marshmallows. he he

Matthias Kirk's picture

I would politely delete the images in the person's presence and not tell him that I have dual memory cards.

Nick Viton's picture

+1 this! I have actually done this a number of times.

This is probably hands down the best article I've read on FStoppers in some time.....

Michael Coen's picture

I would absolutely delete photos, or refrain from taking them, for someone who doesn't want to be photographed. Just because I have the legal right to do it, doesn't mean I should.

I was in Panama City and out taking random pictures of the waterfront area with a small compact camera (Canon Elph) when a police officer confronted me and motioned at my camera (I don't speak spanish fluently). We finally got to the point where I was going through all of the pictures and he was picking out the ones to delete. It took about 20 pictures of "Red sailboat...ok, delete that one? Blue sailboat...that one is ok. Single pelican...ok. 4 pelicans together...bad) before I finally figured out what the controversial element was. WAAAY in the distance was the presidential palace, which apparently was not supposed to be photographed even though it was in plain sight of the public waterfront promenade and I clearly wasn't using a camera with high powered optics.

stir photos's picture

yeah, if someone asked me to delete it, i would. haha. i once had a woman ask me to delete her email address (at starbucks while talking) at the last moment (which i did) only to be contacted by her a few weeks later to take pictures. :)

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