Let me set the scene: imagine you’re in your home town and you’re on your way to meet a friend for a spot of brunch. You’re walking past a famous landmark on your way to the restaurant when a coach pulls up and out jump a gaggle of foreign tourists (a common scene in London). You imagine they’ll all immediately turn their attention to the famous landmark right behind you but instead out come the cameras and with no word or warning you’re suddenly the focal point for twenty zoom lens’ all jockeying for the best angle of you in your ‘Sunday best’. Sounds weird, disconcerting and frankly pretty rude, right? Then why is it that street photography, particularly photographing local residents, seems so acceptable to travelers when we’re overseas? Sure, we all want to capture the essence of wherever we’re traveling, but where lies the boundary of acceptable social decorum and when do we unwittingly (or not) cross it?
My raising this question, and seeking a set of guidelines for photographing people, in part stems from personal experience. My wife and I were on our honeymoon and we happened to spend some time in Shanghai. Wandering down the Bund (essentially a promenade along the riverfront) we found ourselves with a tail. Following closely behind us were two young women armed with cameras and fairly significant zoom lens’. They were, at least to their mind, ‘inconspicuously’ following us taking photos (well, it was really my wife they were photographing, but in my head I like to be the center of attention and with ginger hair I imagine I had an ‘exotic’ demeanor worthy of their attention). What made this particular incident stand out was that each time we turned around to face them they would pull their cameras away and pretend like nothing had happened. Rather than come and talk to us (having been ‘caught’) they thought it more appropriate to pretend like they worked for a seemingly incompetent private investigatory service that only hires giggling teenagers.
So, what could they have done better and what could we do better as travelers that want to photograph people going about their everyday business? And, beyond the sensitivities involved, what could they have done to get the best possible photos of their ‘subjects’ i.e. us? Let’s be honest, photos of my backside or me turning around with an angry look on my face, whilst entertaining, are highly unlikely to be winning a Pulitzer anytime soon.
Before I get started, I feel the need to point out that as authoritative as I may sound and (as I may have already mentioned) as devastatingly ginger as I am, I’m not a legal brain and so you shouldn’t in any way count on what I’m about to say as legal advice on the lawfulness of photographing members of the public in whatever country you happen to be in.
Know what’s legally acceptable
I’m going to start with the worst case scenario (as a typically pessimistic Londoner) and consider the consequences of the law. In general I subscribe to the rule that people can be photographed in public without consent unless they can reasonably expect a degree of privacy (and of course aggressive photography of an individual could be deemed as harassment). Now of course, if you’re planning to use the photography for commercial purposes then a whole different set of rules might apply and at that point you’ll probably want to seek out some reliable legal advice. The other thing to consider is the location in which you’re photographing a person and what kind of person they are: certain locations have restrictions such as government facilities, courts and museums as do people such as law enforcement officials.
Know what’s culturally acceptable
Not everything is as simple as right or wrong, and if you’re traveling to far-flung places then you’ll also want to consider the cultural acceptability of photographing people (after all, you don’t want to offend your hosts; or end up in hot water yourself). In some cultures photographing people can be seen as taboo, in some taking a photo of someone is thought to steal their soul (I guess that’s not a problem if they’re ginger like me; I’m told we have no souls). In some parts of Asia, taking a photo of three people is thought to mean that one of them will soon die. In some religions, it is unacceptable to take photos of worshipers. In some cultures, photographing feet is frowned upon, and in others photographing unaccompanied women is objectionable. The list could go on and on, so if in doubt, then I suggest you ask what is acceptable.
Ask First, Photo Second
This mainly comes down to personal preference. It’s probably worth noting that doing things this way may result in losing that candid street photo you’re really looking for. Instead, you’re likely to end up with ‘street portraiture’ – not necessarily a bad thing, but very different results. I guess the best advice I can give is to use some common sense. I’m also particularly careful when photographing young children. Quite often you’ll arrive in a remote village where children are playing; they’ll see your camera and eagerly run over to you asking for their photos to be taken. Whilst the children might be eager their parents might not be so keen. Even worse is if you’re just trying to take some inconspicuous and candid street photography of children (yeah, we don’t live in a society where that would be acceptable any more). How would you feel if a stranger started taking pictures of your child at the playground? If in doubt, and wherever possible, seek permission of responsible adults before you start clicking!
Consider your choice of equipment from a social perspective
Pretty much any lens can produce a good portrait or street photography shot under the right circumstances, so perhaps it’s actually more important to consider the comfort of the subject. Using a short focal length lens is going to mean that you have to be up close and personal (which, admittedly, can produce some great photos). Now I don’t know about you, but if I have a camera right up in my face then I don’t typically feel all that comfortable. Seemingly, if your subject is not comfortable then the photo is going to look forced. You might try backing it up and using a longer focal length when needed. The result will likely be a more natural shot and might also help you get more candid, relaxed photos. Alternatively, spend some time getting to know the person first before photographing them.
Don’t be that person that snaps away for thirty minutes and then just walks away! If the person has been generous enough to give you even the smallest amount of their time then treat them as a person rather than an inanimate object. It goes without saying that you should thank them for their time and willingness to allow you to cram a lens in their face, but you could also offer to send them some prints (or even just an email with the JPEGS – assuming they have an email address and access to a computer). In some cases people might ask you for remuneration up front, so I like to carry small change (typically in US dollars as they’re basically universally accepted). If you’re focusing your photography on children then you might also want to consider taking small gifts such as pens, pencils and notepads.
With the legal, cultural and social considerations out of the way, it’s time to start taking photos. So in part 2 of the post next week, we’ll look at some of the nitty gritty key photographic tips for taking the perfect people pictures.