Do You Ask for Permission When You Photograph People?

Let me start off by saying this is a no judgement zone (NJZ). This is actually not a subject I have thought a lot about before this, but since it came up recently, I thought I would open it up for discussion.

But first, let me set the scene: picture a hotel ballroom packed with bloggers (in this case, food bloggers at IFBC, which I wrote about recently). The speaker is Todd Coleman, the creative director of Tasting Table, and the subject is Modern Editorial Photography.

An interesting subject for sure, but I am distracted: I really need a Diet Coke. I know, story of my life. I run sneak out to pick one up and run a few errands. By the time I return, the talk is still flowing, but the mood has changed perceptibly. People, at my table at least, look annoyed, even angry.

What kind of controversy could a discussion on photography possibly stir up? I pieced together the info via twitter and from the others at my table. Apparently during the course of his talk Coleman shared that he often takes pictures of other diners without their knowledge. Not only that, but he then publishes these images on the internet and in magazines.

I have to admit, my first reaction was “So what?” It’s not illegal to take pictures of people in public places in the United States. In some cases you can only get a good picture when the subject doesn’t know they are being observed. I have definitely taken pictures of people without their knowledge on my travels and never thought twice.

However, the more I thought about it, the more muddled my thoughts became. The photo in question (which unfortunately I don’t have a copy of) involved people at a diner, simply enjoying their meal, never suspecting they were about to become subjects in an actual magazine. They aren’t participants at a festival or performers or any other sort of public participant, they are just people eating their lunch. In that context, publishing photos of people without their consent seems pretty ethically iffy to me. (In her most recent article Erica from OverYonderlust shares a similar view of why she won’t publish photos she took at Burning Man– she doesn’t believe moments from this private space should be shared publicly).

Then, I thought about all the ways pictures can actually be used to harass people. Like the sneaky upskirt photography that was just confirmed to be A-OK legal in Texas. I certainly don’t think it is right or fair to take pictures that make people uncomfortable, but where is that line, and how do you know, if you’re not even bothering to ask?

Lastly, how do you even manage to take a good picture of someone without them noticing? Going through my Flickr archives, I was hard pressed to find many examples of decent photos taking on the down low. I did find lots of great informed photos though, like this one:

Hummus vendors in Sayulita

If anything, this seems like an even bigger issue for travel photography then for food. When we travel we often take on the role of observer, and we use our cameras to document all the big and little extraordinary things we discover about new lands. Oftentimes though, the things we are documenting are other people’s ordinary lives. I would never take a covert picture of a woman walking down the street here in Seattle, so what makes it OK to do that in Italy or China? It’s voyeuristic for sure, but where is the line? IS there a line?

Coleman, and quite a few bloggers at IFBC definitely didn’t think so. A few bloggers on twitter tried to shut down the conversation, insisting that realistic photo-journalism trumped the need for consent (I’ll let you decide whether most bloggers are actually in the business of realistic photo-journalism yourself). Some were actually quite aggressive in their conviction that asking permission was completely unnecessary.

I, however, think this is definitely a conversation worth having. At the risk of opening a can of worms, I thought I would ask you guys: do you take photos of people without the subject’s consent? Would you publish them?

37 thoughts on “Do You Ask for Permission When You Photograph People?”

  1. I think it’s important to ask people and it just seems more polite. I think alot of places have a bag opinion of Americans/British and asking if you can take a photo, rather than shoving a camera in their direction, makes you seem more personable and puts you on the same level. I wouldn’t like someone shoving a camera my way on the street or if I was sat on a bench, so I would hate to think I’d made someone uncomfortable by doing the same!

    And as you say, it’s pretty hard to get a good photo without someone realising, so asking if you can will probably get you a better photo anyway!

  2. This is something I think about a lot and I still don’t know on which side of the fence I fall. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a tourist taking my photo as I crossed the road to get my morning coffee before work, especially if that person was then going to post it online. I kept this in mind when I was travelling in the Balkans. I would have loved a bunch of photos of the old men sitting outside drinking coffee, but I didn’t feel comfortable taking the pictures. Instead, I’ll describe what I saw and not rely on photos. But in saying that, I’ve taken a lot of photos of unsuspecting people just going about their business and had no problem hitting “publish” on those pics.

    On a related topic, I really don’t like it when people ignore “no photography signs”, especially bloggers. If anything, the fact that they take a photo knowing they will publish it online makes it worse than an everyday traveller sneaking a pic that will only end up in a photo album.
    Ah who knew this would be such an inflammatory topic? 🙂

  3. It is actually illegal to take a photograph of someone without their consent here in Quebec – news or artistic. Many years ago, a photographer took a stunning photo of a young woman who didn’t know she was being photographed, the photo I believe was then published in a magazine, or shown in an exhibition – the woman found out about it, and felt that she was being prejudiced by the way the photo portrayed her. She sued, and won. Now you can only take photos of people where they are the subject of the photo in public events (ie. demonstration, hockey game, etc.). However, it is OK to have someone in the photo if you are taking a photo of something else (ie. you’re taking a photo of a house & someone walks into your shot). I was annoyed the whole time I was in j-school because to pass our classes we had to bring in releases for, but looking back, I do get why it’s done. I will admit that now I do not get actual releases signed if I take photos, but I do try to keep it in consideration.

  4. They way I look at is is this, it’s okay to take the photo but it’s not okay to publish without concent. There are a lot of great things about technology but we still have to respect people’s right to privacy. Just saying your a photo journalist doesn’t give you the right to take that away from people for personal gain. I go to a lot of events in Nashville and have had my photo taken at several, each time the photographer introduced themselves. It would also be a great opportunity to meat a local if you’re a travel blogger, so go for it and meet a new friend!


  5. I’ve been living in Asia for the past four years and notice people trying to take sly photos of me ALL the time – I think being a blonde giant might have something to do with it – and as I’m a foreigner here, I don’t mind it so much. A friend in Japan actually once found a picture of me on a lifestyle blog and I was super flattered (even though it was weird I hadn’t known about it). I guess that’s an important factor: would the person photographed be happy or horrified to find themselves on your website? I guess we can’t always know the answer to that, unless it’s a case like Beatrice mentioned where the photo is used to show someone in a potentially prejudiced or unflattering way.

  6. It depends on the situation. I think consent should be required in all cases, if the subject is easily identifiable and the photo isn’t just for your own private album. Especially when your subjects are doing something like eating. People have all kinds of hang ups and neuroses about things, you shouldn’t assume that they’ll be cool with a photo just because you would be. And even if you think they look fine in the photo, doesn’t mean they’ll agree! How many times have you taken what you thought were nice photos of your friends and had them freak out about flaws you never noticed (or don’t even exist- but they think they do)?

    I don’t mean that you need permission to put it in your article/blog, but you definitely should have permission to have taken it in the first place. And if you’re including the photo in the type of publication/site that has a very high readership (I’m thinking national newspapers and their online counterparts here, rather than high-traffic travel blogs), you should really ask permission to publish.

  7. I came across a photo of me that was used without my permission for advertising purposes. I had never even heard of the product and didn’t think that it was right for them to use my image as if I was endorsing it. I didn’t even get a free sample or any compensation! I find it strange to take photos of other diners at a restaurant. It does seem like it’s intruding on a private moment. Plus, any one of me would probably be an unflattering talking-with-food-in-my-mouth photo.

  8. I thought abut this recently as I was taking a photo of a crowded bar balcony, and I heard someone say “hey is she taking a picture of us?” I thought about it, and I was like I guess that is kinda creepy, and if someone were taking a picture of me, maybe I would want to know what it is for. But, on the other hand, at least in the west, I almost expect my picture to be taken by various media outlets or professional photographers if I am attending a public event. So I think that there is no right answer here, and when taking photos of others we should keep culture, and setting in mind and decide from there.

  9. I actually think about this a lot and I’ve always been very careful with the photos I publish online. Of course, travel photos are more vivid when there are people sitting in the cafés and kids playing in the parks…
    But personally, I ask all my travel partners if it’s okay for me to publish their photo on the blog or on Facebook and I’m always careful to only post photos of strangers where they can hardly be recognized. And I would never ever(!!!) publish photos of children on my blog — especially from summery destinations! Who knows what perv could find some sick pleasure in this kind of photos?!
    I think some people/bloggers/Facebook users tend to forget that the internet never forgets — but I really try to respect the privacy rights of others, just like I want mine to be respected as well.

  10. Good question Steph!

    I think that if it is in a crowd then so be it. I mean, it happens to everyone that you end up in peoples’ crowd shots.

    But if it is a close up, easily identifiable or something where the person is the subject of the photo then I always ask.

    It’s hard because we didn’t see the actual photo that caused the stir, but if it was a close up where they were identifiable, I wouldn’t have liked to be in that photo. But if they are just in the background, I don’t think it really matters.

    I guess it becomes more of a grey line when the role reserves and you find you are quite often the subject other locals’ photos when you are travelling – travelling in India was one big photoshoot for me! But I guess two wrongs don’t make a right, and we are the ones travelling in their countries after all.

  11. I never used to take photos of people at all when I traveled but that changed when I went to Nepal on a photo trek last fall. We did a whole session on photographing people from a distance to capture action in a scene – basically hanging out at a market for a while and blending into the background and then using zoom lenses to capture shots without being in people’s faces. These are some of my favorite photos ever and captured the overall feel of the market in a way that going up to people and asking permission first never could. I feel like once someone is aware that the camera is there, you lose the naturalness of what they’re doing. Most of the posed pictures I have of people from my travels are just kind of dull and don’t tell a story the way spontaneous photos do. But it sounds like I’m in the minority here.

    1. Wow! I hope I never run into you. These people have a right to protect their own image but sneaks, nosy, entitled, and pushy photographers won’t respect a person’s privacy…whether he is a tourist, or just doing his job. And you’re doing this on the sneak. Why is it so important to you? Maybe he wouldn’t want his photo taken but you took that option from him.

  12. In china I have people take pictures of me while I’m riding the bus to work and I think its so annoying. I don’t care if I’m different then normal, I don’t like being treated like an animal. I feel like taking a picute of groups is one thing but if you’re taking a specific photo of a person and posting it online…. its really disrespectful to that person to not ask. Especially if they’re just going about their day and not asking for attention

  13. I don’t really like to take photos of people without at least them seeing what I’m doing first, if not asking them upfront. It seems invasive and makes me kind of uncomfortable. Although when I think whether or not I would mind it being done to me, I don’t think that I would (although it would be cool to know if I was in a magazine). It’s a muddy area for sure, but I know that I always like to get at least some sort of permission before snapping away.

  14. I’ve often wondered this myself. I try to avoid having strangers in the picture. The truth is, at times it’s impossible to do. This is certainly something to think about though.

  15. I feel weird about taking photos of people without asking in certain countries, but in China I don’t feel bad about it. People take photos of me without asking all the time here. Sometimes it’s somewhat stealthy, other times people walk right over and snap a photo of my face with their iPhones. It’s just part of the culture here, so I really don’t feel bad about it at all. When I travel outside of the country I try to be a bit more respectful.

  16. I’m not a professional photographer, but I do have a travel & adventure blog. If I were to post any photos of another person on there, I would want their permission. I feel weird taking photos of people without them knowing, and I’d definitely feel weird posting those photos online. I think a good photographer can get consent and put the subject at ease so that the photos come out great — but this takes time and practice! Overall, though, I just feel like it’s invasive if I’m focusing on one person or group of people.

  17. Thanks for bringing up this discussion! I try so hard NOT to include people in my travel photos because I wouldn’t want to end up in someone else’s blog/newspaper article, etc. without my knowledge. If I’m directly taking a photo of a person’s face I ask, but if someone walks into my photo of some landscape or building there is nothing I can do. It is a really tricky and touchy subject!

  18. Great topic. I’m surprised that almost everyone who has replied is on the side of asking permission to take a picture of someone, or just completely avoiding the picture altogether if it’s too personal.

    Pictures are very powerful in that they can tell a story. They show a lifestyle, emotions, and can give the viewer a good feel for what life is like for someone else (at an artificial level, at least). I think 75% of my best pictures are of people taken candidly. I do my best to do it candidly, as I do not want to make the other person uncomfortable in any way. If it’s not possible to do it without them knowing, I won’t take the picture.

    This brings up another question: why are we so insecure in photos? We came out in public like this, so why do most of us feel so uncomfortable in photos? I must say that i feel the same way. If I know someone is taking a picture of me, I get a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it feels like someone is analyzing us when the camera is pointed in our direction? However, it doesn’t bother me to think that I could very well be in tens or hundreds of photos in different countries.

  19. I go back and forth on this one. At parades/festivals/events I go wild as I think you give implied consent to be photographed by being there — I dress up for the Halloween and Mermaid parades in NYC and have cameras in my face all day but that comes with the package.

    But in more private moments, I am often torn between the desire to capture a moment and the desire to be polite and behave ethically.

  20. This reminds of an exhibition I read about in New York (I think) a year or so ago. The photographer lived in an apartment where the building across the street was made entirely of glass, letting anyone see inside. The entire exhibition was photos from his building into the one across the street – people in their kitchens and living rooms, just going about daily life. It caused a bit of a stir, obviously, but because everything he photographed was clearly visible without big zooms or anything, it was completely legal.

    Another factor for us as travellers is that photographing people in public is NOT legal everywhere. In Australia if you’re out in public you’re fair game and have no expectation of privacy in the eye of the law. Other countries require permission, sometimes not just for publishing the photo but for TAKING it.

    I do take photos of people, because I like to come home with a well-rounded album. About 50% of the time I ask first by sort of waving with my camera and a head tilt. Other times I just snap without thinking about it, waving afterwards if they notice.

    1. you just snap and wave? Are you listening to yourself? Why should someone be part of your well-rounded album, it’s as if you feel they owe you something.

  21. Good but difficult to answer question! I think it depends on the customs of each country. You can definitely take photos of people in some Asian countries and get them posted on social networks. But some Western countries don’t think so. It also depends on people themselves. Some like being taken photos, some don’t. From my own experience, asking people before taking photos of them is a need. when you ask their permission, should add the question of whether or not you can get them posted on your blog. And if they say OK, here you go!

  22. This is a really interesting topic and it’s sparked a great debate! I always find I’m too embarrassed to take pictures of random strangers, but a few people in the comments have pointed out that they do enhance the photography. One of the reasons I don’t have many hostel photos on my site is because the ones I took are full of travellers – none of whom knew I had a blog at the time and now it’s too late to ask their permission to publish :/

    I think it would be okay to take the photos – but if you’re considering publishing them then that would be the moment to introduce yourself to your subject and ask their permission.

  23. That is definitely a tricky one! I don’t take many photos of people, other than at a distance, because I prefer to take landscape/cityscape photos. I was just in Fiji and did a village visit. I took a few photos of the villagers during their song and dance performance for us but didn’t take any photos of the children who also performed for us at their school later, it just didn’t sit right with me. There were a few people taking close up photos of the kids and I just felt that was too voyeuristic. Taking photos of adults with their consent is one thing, but kids? I think that is a different story. That’s my personal opinion anyway

  24. I rarely take people photos and am mostly on the side that you need their permission. Spontaneous news stories and public events kind of blur the line as there may be that journalism aspect, but I don’t know any photographers or bloggers who fall into that category (although some of them may think they do…)

    The biggest part for me is if you’re taking those photos with ANY intention of making money from them. Yes, including taking photos of someone in a market, writing a blog post on that market and getting any revenue from that post.

    If you’re making money off of someone, they deserve to know. This is part of the reason so many “popular” places around the world have people hounding you for money if you want to take a photo of them. They know that some people are taking their picture any making hundreds or thousands of dollars from it…so they ask for compensation (sometimes aggressively) from everyone with a camera.

    The Maasai people in Kenya/Tanzania; the Stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka; Sadhus in India; traditionally dressed women with cute baby alpacas in Peru; cigar smoking ladies in Cuba…the list goes on and on of people who demand money for their photos taken.

  25. I always try and ask for permission, especially when it comes to fashion photography and when I do, I ask for their twitter/instagram handles too. I always think that it’s nice to see the photos that someone is using of you on their blog.

    I can’t agree more with this line though “In some cases you can only get a good picture when the subject doesn’t know they are being observed.”


  26. Taking someones photograph without them knowing is one thing, but publishing it on the internet (and let alone a magazine!?) is a whole other thing.

    I came across your post via bloglovin, and I just felt the urge to chime in on this topic…

    To me it seems as if Mr. Coleman only sees people he photographs as objects. And that’s exactly the point that makes me cross.

    People are still people. Not objects for ones own visual satisfaction, in whatever form. Which is why people should be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. It is rude, creepy, and utterly disrespectful to simply capture ones face on film, and then spread it wherever you please, without them knowing.

    I’ve been a photographer for 10 years now, and I NEVER published someones shot without their permission. It just wouldn’t feel right if I would do so anyway; it’s a profound sense of respect I have for those I photograph.

    For example, the last person I photographed was a girl in Greece. She stood in a stall to raise awereness for the endangered sea turtles there. We chatted a bit, and I eventually asked her if I could take her shot, along with her stall, to publish on my blog. She gave me permission with the biggest smile ever, simply because I showed interest in what she was doing.

    Another example I have is the time a group of Japanese folks asked me if I wanted to be in a group picture with them (because as a teenager, I was taller than them, which meant I was a giant apparently haha). I said yes, because they were so polite to ask. It would have been a complete different situation if they would have simply taken photographs, while standing right in front of me.

    As said above; if you plan on publishing ones shot, then at least have the decency to introduce yourself. It’s a small action of kindness, but kindness works wonders.

  27. I dont feel you need to ask permission if a person is in public. The issue is portrait vs candid. Once you’ve asked permission you are now taking a portrait. If I want a portrait of someone I want to go all out to make them look good that means finding the right light location etc. In the film only days, candid photography was seen as a little more noble. If I am photographing a candid, I am only interested in photos that make the other person look good. I have rarely had a candid subject complain. What you do get is bystanders who are jealous of your gear or of your leisure time who come up and acost you. Most candid subjects accept it if you do it quickly and smile and move on. I have had photoshoots later of people I met like this.

    Since my goal is only to make people look good and not exploit them, I think it’s ok for me to post their images online without the permission if the look really good or unique or creative having fun etc.

    1. Your subjects should be thrilled to the nines that you exploited their image and they had no say-so? What if they do not want to be photographed…hurray for you, Andre.

  28. I am glad most people err on the side of privacy, I struggle with this too, partly because I would never want someone to capture me in private thought at the market or sipping coffee without me knowing it. it seems like such a violation, and thats why I cant seem to do it to others.
    Question: How does everyone feel about taking an awesome picture of someone or a group and then asking them right after? I had this temptation at the airport but chickened out because I thought “what if they said no, delete it’? I would feel terrible..
    Its a tough one…

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