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

  1. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”


  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

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