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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57 Comments

Previous comments

In some countries, you will be deleted instead of your photos.

In some countries photos ask you to delete strangers.

Kirk Darling's picture

I have a problem with that attitude. It's not so much about the basic issue of photography as it is about the concept of, "If you are uncomfortable with the exercise of my legal rights, I will abandon them for your personal comfort."

I'm not going along with that concept.

I did sit-ins and marches in the 60s so that I could exercise my rights even if some people were personally uncomfortable with it.

michael andrew's picture

Im in the USA, so I believe the laws are a touch different.

I would deleted the photo and calmly state that I am doing out if kindness and respect. Also politely explain to them the law.

I would gather the reason this got so heated was because the brother probably came over with a head of steam vs a calm demeanor.

Nick Viton's picture

This is where dual card slots come in handy. Delete on one card but still have the image on the other. I have actually done this on several occasions.

Robert Nurse's picture

And what if you're told, "Hey, both cards buddy!"? LOL

Stephen Nolly's picture

In the US, unless there is an expectation of privacy (dressing room, restroom, etc), you have the right to take photos in a public space. If someone wants to limit that right, they can ask and make a compelling argument or offer consideration. (Deleting photos on the camera is always a bad idea anyway.) I once was shooting for a project at a party that had notices AND signed releases to enter. I took some lifestyle shots of some big-wig with his girlfriend. He had his bodyguard come over and TELL me that I HAD to delete those photos. As you can imagine, this didn't sit well with me. I informed him of my rights, and that he was in a public space, and the photo was my property. In order to defuse the situation, I DID offer to sell him the copyright to the photo. (I like giving people options. He then has the OPPORTUNITY to get what he wants, or he can decide it's not worth it.) On the other hand, I was shooting event coverage and one of the volunteers asked that I not include her in ANY shots. I was very annoyed at first. This can be very difficult when you are shooting an event with many people. Then she explained that she has had trouble with an online stalker, and doesn't want him to be able to track her. Needless to say, I went out of my way to accommodate her. Shooting in public is your right. If someone wants to limit your rights, they need to make a convincing argument.

michaeljin's picture

Depends entirely on the context for me. If I took a photo and a person happened to randomly be in it (eg. some minor figure in the background) and felt uncomfortable, I'd probably delete it if they were polite about it and I probably wouldn't if they went right off the bat being aggressive about it. If the person involved is the subject of the photo because they're acting in some objectionable way (eg. two people at a protest going at each other physically), I wouldn't delete it regardless of what they wanted. If the person involved was the subject of the photo, but it wasn't due to some sort of event (eg. They are sitting on a bench and it happened to be an interesting composition) then I'd definitely delete it if they wanted me to.

Of course, if I happen to be shooting with my film camera, they're just SOL and I'm not going to pull a roll out and destroy a bunch of other images in any event just because someone is unhappy with something.

I would always offer and do it in front of them except for extraordinary editorial opportunities. But so far I've always been able to talk them into letting me keep any challenged photo, sometimes sending them the file or a few times taking a shot of them on their phone. I think engaging them, acknowledging their concern, and then explaining why I like it seems to disarm them.

What is interesting is that deleting it on my camera in front of the requester only deletes it from the card showing on the screen, and the shot still remains on my second card. I don't have any huge need to keep it in reserve so I would delete the second copy anyway, but it is an interesting reality.

Jonathan Brady's picture

The real reason dual card slots are SO important... 🙄

Ryan Kane's picture

if you're shooting with duel cards you delete the photo and still have it on the backup card.

Blake Aghili's picture

"DEPENDS" :D If they are nice and politely ask about it yes ok I will be polite and delete it in front of them... if they are rude and order me to delete it ... I won't delete it, they can go "Duck" themselves...

Blake Aghili's picture

Honestly there is a simple rule that some people tend to forget ( thus People of Walmart site ! ) lol .. here is the rule: "When you are out of your house, we can SEE you" ... and believe me nobody wants to see your ass crack ..

i would, show them the picture, offer them a copy via email, i would explain that i could photoshop them out. if that all fails, its not worth loosing your front teeth over. photographers get shot/stabbed over things like this. not worth being right and being in hospital over.

In Europe it's now forbidden due to the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Taking a photo is collecting data (gender, metadata like time, area, race and so on). You need the written OK before taking the shot. No joke!

It is not forbidden, it is forbidden to use these pictures in certaine ways. So posting a picture of it on the internet is illegal but using them in the privacy of your home for yourself to enjoy is perfectly fine. Besides that you'll alway's have portrait rights to refuse any picture taken from you, and this was long before the GDPR.

That's wrong! Your now have to ask BEFORE you take the shot. Just read the GDPR.

I don't know anything about the laws, but a few years ago I was in a small town near Sancerre and took a picture of a cheese monger. He was a bit annoyed and told me in no uncertain terms "no internet." I was a food blogger at the time and thought that was kind of silly, since I wanted to shine a light on the small town and their farmers market and products, but I respected his wishes.

Federico Righi's picture

Sometimes it happened to me, while I was taking pictures of street, that someone asked me, even in an energetic way, to delete a photo just taken.

I remember to have deleted a photo only on a specific occasion, after I had been asked, I realized that the person I had photographed had some physical problem, which is why I did not think twice and I deleted the photo. But on all other occasions when I was asked to cancel a photograph, I managed to convince the subject, photographed in the opposite way, in a joking way. This must be the skill of a streetphotographer, knowing how to interact with the subject photographed in order to mitigate the clash and convince him that there is nothing wrong. However, I can almost always be invisible, even if I shoot with a 28 mm and therefore I approach very much to the scene and to the subject to be photographed.

Even in Italy the law, in general, establishes that if someone is in a public place, without perticular expectations of privacy, one can photograph it. The important thing is that the use of photographs is not cheap to advertise or other. The photos must always be taken for study reasons or for non-profit-making photographic projects.

Photographing in public is a legal act, but it is right, to have much common sense and anyway, as Imogen says, unless the shot is worthy of a Pulitzer, it is not worth arguing to hold a street photograph.

It’s sort of strange that this is still an issue, given that pretty much everyone has a camera in their pocket and is snapping away on city streets. This includes people as their subjects.

Dave Bradley's picture

I'd show them the shot, say how much I like it, no bad intentions meant. If they still wanted it deleted, I'd do so. There's plenty more on the street to shoot.

Matt Burt's picture

For me it depends. I was in the Addis Ababa airport killing time and taking some pics last year. I took a wide shot that included a little bit of the multi-layered security and immediately had a hand on my shoulder and had two guys making it clear that wasn't allowed and they wanted to see my pics. I didn't feel like I had any choice but to show them and they had me delete a couple (all conveyed with gestures). But if someone wanted me to delete a photo of a public place that I wanted to keep, I might resist. Fortunately for me I shoot mostly landscapes and they never seem to mind. :)

how they asked would dictate how I react, I can be extremely antagonistic if I feel like it, but generally i'd delete, even if the photo is killer i'd not publish it if they'd spoke to me on a professional assignment, but I might not want to delete it and give them the satisfaction of feeling like they'd won if they were an asshole about it

I had a man ask me to delete the picture. It was a test shot that I wasn't going to use anyhow, but he scared me. Even if I had wanted to use the shot I would have deleted it. In the area where I live there are a lot of immigrants from Russia, and their experience with surveillance makes them really leery of photographers.

Robert Nurse's picture

I just ask first. Or, if I think asking first would ruin the spontaneity of the image, I would snap it then show it to them. As the guy said, "Life's too short".