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?

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

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