How do you take photos of others without invading their sense of privacy? It's a decades long issue

I'm Doug, and if you haven't run into my comments on these Tauck forums, I'm a camera bug -- an enthusiast, and far from being a professional photographer. But I post for like-minded folks who like to travel with Tauck and share a kindred level of enthusiasm. I enjoy discussions where we learn from each other.

I returned from India in November, and I learned a lot about taking pictures of people. My photographic style has been developing as I've traveled with Tauck over the years and I find myself gravitating toward street photography and environmental portraits -- people in their environment. I imagine that's natural for me -- I'm a retired clinical child and adolescent psychologist, and attempting to capture, with a camera, images of people that might be interesting to viewers of my images, is what I enjoy.

But that poses a very long-standing issue for photographers, and there are all kinds of advice in books and by word of mouth about respect for human subjects and the possible violation of their privacy.

So, for the sake of discussion and mutual learning, I'll proffer my thoughts.

I think most agree that we should respect each other and each other's privacy, and not be invasive with photographic equipment -- whether it be with a camera, an iPad, or a smart-phone.

Some textbooks in photography aver that you should get the express permission of the subject. Legally, I'm told, you do not have to do that in public places, i.e. non-private property, as long as you do not feature the photo in commercial ads, etc., in which case you need a model release. And, the issue changes by country and culture.

The issue gets quickly more complex than that -- just view documentary photography -- e.g. the famous photo of the execution of Viet Cong Nguyễn Văn Lém. No model release.

Street photographers, famous ones, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, clearly take candid photos without their subject's permission, and that is oftentimes a hallmark of their art -- depicting the ordinary in a manner that is extraordinary.

But the real question is -- what do YOU want to do? On this forum, as either a casual photographer with a smartphone, or a photo-nerd with heavy stuff hanging off your neck, what do you want to do?

I'll give my current thinking, which probably changes daily, LOL. I think, basically, you need to use common-sense.

I think your basic attitude is that you do not wish to offend, take advantage of, or invade the privacy of another person. But, making images is often about portraying others in unposed situations. So, I think it's pretty idiosyncratic where you wish to draw the line. I try to sense, if I am a distance from the subject, that if, if they saw the image, that they might be offended. I will often take the picture, then share it with them -- and if they do not like it, delete it; if they do like it, I offer them my email address and will send it to them, or get their email address and send it to them.

If we are obviously on tour and the understanding is that we are expected to take photos of subjects Tauck has arranged, e.g. photographing a tribe or school that Tauck has arranged, then relax.

For the most part, do not take pictures of children without asking their parents or a supervising adult.

If a person indicates they do not wish to have their picture taken, then I smile at them, nod ok, and put my camera down.

Distance or proximity has a lot to do with it. If one is taking a shot from the tour bus, it wouldn't seem like many would object, perhaps depending on the culture and location. In India, people waved and mugged for the bus full of crazy amateurs with cameras hanging off their necks.

Clearly, we Tauck travelers can also sense or be told what the norms are for the country and culture that we are in.

And, as British has pointed out, some subjects expect, demand, or require a fee. I've been told that's increasingly common. In India, since I was on a photographic expedition, our local guide paid subjects. He was extremely knowledgeable about the subjects, seemed to know many of them personally, and often, the subjects refused the fee. On the other hand, I refrained from those that were collecting fees as a living because the photos would rarely be interesting. So, for me, the fee was more like a tip -- an appreciation.

So, the above is my take of what many photographers think about or how they might approach the issue.

But, here's my own more personal take. And it in part comes from my training as a shrink. LOL.

I've come to believe that a lot of picture-taking is about the relationship that you establish with the subject, even if it's a brief or fleeting relationship.

And it's about the quality of that relationship; and it's more apparent when you are in close, taking a close-up.

The relationship can be verbal or nonverbal.

You can engage the subject, start a conversation -- as is often recommended -- and give the reason for the image, and gain assent. That can be awkward. But you have to do it with sincerity. And it depends on how extroverted you are. And that attempt can be invasive in its own way. But clearly, if you are doing a long picture story, you'll want to have a good talk with the subject.

But often, you can't, especially in a foreign country where you cannot speak the language, engage in a verbal relationship.
So, it's helpful to really focus your attention on nonverbal cues and nonverbal relationships. Many folks in India, for example, were happy to cooperate.

I would look at them, gain eye-contact, smile, and look like I wanted to take their picture. I'm aware of my appearance -- elderly, mature, dressed appropriately, non-aggressive, non-threatening and non-invasive. That's in contrast to some young street photographers one see in YouTube videos that are simply in people's faces. It makes people feel they are being manipulated, I suspect.

People will give some indication of their willingness and comfort. I'll smile and indicate thanks after the shot.

A lot can be done non-verbally. And, in fact, it is often more effective and less awkward than talking. When I was seeing young children for a first visit, I would get down to their eye level, engage them in play or what they were interested in, in the waiting room, and then simply take their hand and lead them into my office.

So I think it's a good thing to think about your approach to potential photographic subjects, and how you can develop self-awareness, confidence, and respect for both in this short relationship. The short of it is, develop friendliness and good will when you can. But, sometimes one will not meet one's own expectations -- sometimes it's a challenge.

Comments

  • I would invite your thoughts. I'd add that I feel that a person who allows me to point a camera at them, and allows me to take their picture is giving me their trust, trust that I will not use the image in a harmful way. They're giving me a gift, doing something for me, while in return I am not in a position to do something for them.

    And yet, one can be on the other side of the continuum -- some photographers seem to use their instruments in an aggresive and nearly hostile way -- note the lasting trauma that Harry and Meghan have sufferred.

  • I’ve already mentioned on your other post that I think it’s jmportanr to ask permission of the subject and engage with them as you have mentioned above.
    Let me tell you what it was like to be the person being photographed for one day in my life.
    Last October we went to China. About two years ago I decided to color my hair a reddish color— our three grandchildren have red hair and Mr B used to have red hair, so I thought I’d join them, not crazy red, a nice red.
    When we were going to the Great Wall, our tour director warned us all that Westerners remain a novelty in China, especially at a Chinese holiday time and especially at the Great Wall where many people would be visiting from the countryside and never likely seen a real live Westerner. I was almost mobbed, people were literally grabbing me by the arm and standing next to me and having their photo taken. At first, it was amusing. At one point, eight older women grabbed me and each stood by me in turn and had their photo taken with me, I obliged with fun and indicated I wanted to take their photo. But after a while, it became a nuisance as we could not walk as fast as we wanted to cover the distance we had in the time we were there. All the time, I could see people taking pictures of me and the other Westerners around, but particularly Mr B who now has blond, gray hair and very fair skin, and myself. No one really asked my permission. While I didn’t feel uncomfortable, it really made me think about how celebrities constantly cope with all this.
    When you are on a Tauck tour, you can ask that no photos they take of you go into their publicity.
    Last year, on the newish Tauck Panama Canal tour, Tauck had two lovely photographers documenting the tour for publicity purposes. I swam in the ship’s pool quite a lot and one of them had been waiting for the opportunity to video someone in there. When I saw him videoing me, I just said, if you are going to use that you better make me look nice and skinny. Well it was used, and the shot was from a distance and I look skinny. I’m also in another part of the video, close up, so much so that someone in my garden club meeting came up to me and said she recognized me when she was looking to book the tour. So I’ve been famous twice. There must be Chinese people seeing me all over the place. I would hate to have my privacy taken on a daily basis, but for a couple of days it was certainly a novelty.

  • I also think it is important to ask permission if the people are the focus of the picture vs. being incidental to the picture. Even with a language barrier, it is pretty easy to ask non-verbally. Culture is so much a part of many of Tauck's tours and having pictures of people's daily lives is something I value. I have had good luck asking and receiving consent in most cases. And if someone doesn't want their picture taken, that is fine too - as has been said, it is a matter of respecting others. One of my favorite pictures of my son and his family was taken when they were walking together on a beach. A woman took several pictures of them and then showed them the pictures and offered to give them to my son via e-mail. She sought permission after they were taken - and the fact they were not posed is what made them so special. They are beautiful pictures and I am really happy they were taken.

  • Great story British! You were really a good sport about it, and I guess a Chinese celebrity. In my experience, the Chinese are very earthy and warm, especially to family members. But their sense of personal space is often lacking -- no lines, but just crowding at the airports, often pushing and shoving, and butting in line, loudly.

    They are very often very forward -- I had a friend's wife (he was Caucasian and she was Chinese) who I had just met, almost demand to know my income! Later, having come from China, she told me that she owned a condo in China, but the extended family just considered it theirs -- and not just to use, but they expected her to give it to them. So, boundaries seem different to me in that culture.

    I found my female relatives to be very forward, rather dominating, often demanding. It's sort of like those older Chinese women that ran the household in Flower Drum Song. LOL. At any rate, I opted to marry a Japanese and it's lasted a long, long time.

    I think this issue of asking permission, communicating with your subject, establishing a relationship in photography is really an interesting one, because it more broadly can make you think about how one regards and approaches others generally. Like paperazzi, some folks can be rather bruising and entitled in their approach. Others, treat their subjects as Mensch, and relate to them. I think its enjoyable to talk a bit with folks, before or after taking their picture.

    The income disparity between us Tauckies and those in India is, as you know, huge. I think I read the average ANNUAL income there is about $1,600. So it was wonderful to relate to some of these folks and not detect signs of resentment. It's wonderful when they are so nice to you and pose their infants, or, as in Lady In Magenta, go thumbs up just for your shot. And I did the same thing -- I smiled at her, looked her in the eye, waggled my camera a bit, and she took her hand, pulled up whatever cloth that was, thumbs up, and I took the shot and smiled back again and bobbed my head in gratitude.

    I'm always aware of being mindful not to project the image of an Ugly American. On the other hand, I just saw a video of an American who married a woman in Spain, who said his culture shock was how loudly one had to project his voice to be heard in the local tapas bars at night, how much close contact and kissing each other on the cheeks in greeting there was.

  • edited January 31

    Too many years ago when I was in the Navy my ship visited Egypt. Though we had been cautioned not to take photos because the locals were sensitive and embarrassed about their poverty, I decided to venture out alone into the suq in Alexandria with my camera. To take photos, whether people were in frame or not, I would always hold up my camera and point to it and to whatever or whomever I wanted as my subject. Then I would put on a pleading expression, shrug my shoulders, and ask, "OK?" which is pretty much universally understood. I was always greeted with smiles and given permission. Often a shopkeeper or whomever would gather members of his family or sometimes merchandise for me to include in my photos. In one case I was in the "furniture section" of the suq. I am a woodworking so wanted to capture a few photos of the items sold by one shop. They primarily sold handmade chairs. Most were elaborately hand carved and highly decorated with gold and colored paints. They really looked nice from a distance, however I could see they were a bit crudely made and a bit gaudy when viewed up close- but the makers/sellers were very proud of their merchandise.

    I did my routine and what followed was amazing. The shop keeper quickly gathered his workers/extended family, wives, children, etc. must have been a dozen or more, out in front of his shop. They all, even the kids, brought a chair or some other furniture piece and set it up in front of them as they lined up in an arc. I took a few photos, then another shop keeper from across the alleyway saw what was going on and quickly grabbed one of his own chairs and dashed on over. I couldn't tell if he was a friend, relative (in-law) or competitor but the main group was less than thrilled to have him horn in on their photo. Afterwards I did a slight bow, said "Shukkran" (thank you) and shook everyone's had. It was a wonderful cultural experience! And I got some wonderful photos!!

  • One thing I would add to this discussion - If you ask to take someone's picture, when you are done, show the picture to them (isn't digital wonderful!). This really helps to make a positive connection with them.

  • I'd add that it's often an opener for a brief conversation if you speak the language, it recognizes a co-equal relationship, and gives you the opportunity to ask them if they would like a copy of the image. I try to remember to bring a pen and cards to get their email address or do it on my iPhone, and record the frame number. And, it promotes good feelings about American tourists. Parents are particularly enthused to get a "professional" image of their kids.

    Eventhough smartphones are so ubiquitous, even in third world countries, people are often curious or impressed about the semi-pro equipment, and can be positive about having one take their picture. Prosumer cameras are getting so rare, that oftentimes the members of the group you're traveling with will ask to have their pictures taken at some Kodak spot. :)

  • BTW, just as an interesting aside, Canon reported a 17% contraction in imaging (camera) equipment sales for 2019, following the industry decline, thought to be due to smartphones. The decline, FYI, photobugs, has made Canon redouble their efforts to turn out better quality mirrorless cameras. Previously, it is thought that they did not want to compete and cannibalize their own DSLRs and get their DSLR customers, with their heavy investment of lenses, angry. Times are a changing. Nikon was about in the same boat, and Sony became the 800 pound gorrilla in the mirrorless market.

  • I think the industry shot itself in the foot when it stopped putting viewfinders on point and shoot cameras (except a few expensive models). To me that's a big reason to choose a camera over a cell phone.

  • Yes, my wife quit trying to take pictures about then too -- those screens on the back of Point and Shoot cameras were just too difficult to use in broad daylight. Photography as a profession, I heard, is probably winnowing out too. Wonder if cameras are sort of going the way of the pipe organ -- those were pretty classy, complex instruments. I've heard there are professional wedding photographers that will do a wedding with a small Leica. Don't know if anyone has tried it with a smartphone. :blush:

  • 130 years ago a father told his son “Become a blacksmith. We will always need blacksmiths.” 50 years ago a father told his son “Become a mail carrier. We will always need mail carriers”. Can’t even buy stick shift Corvettes now. Everything has an expiration date. 🙂

  • I used to do the camera back and multiple lens thing. First digital camera was a Nikon Coolpix (with a view finder). Now just use my cell phone. The image quality is so much better than 5-10 years ago.

    I have a crate full of slide carousels full of Kodachromes. Every now and then I think about converting to digital images, but haven't gotten around to it.

  • If my (pre-Millenial) kids and their spouses are any indication, this and coming generations are more into ease, convenience, and instant sharing on social media than quality hi-res photos or albums. My daughter-in-law takes decent phone stills and videos and has them uploaded to the web in a flash. For framed family shots, they get dressed go to the mall, etc. for professional photos. I couldn't give my nice but older 12 MP Canon DSLR to my son! She has Shutterfly books made for special occasions and gifts- family trips, etc. but uses phone photos. It drives me crazy when I see some of the lo-res, especially digitally zoomed or poorly framed shots.

  • Years ago I converted some faded kodachrome slides, but rarely looked at them, BKMD. And I was such a poor picture taker, they were worthless, other than to jog a memory of some past vacation. But, my Lightroom system does have a few keepers back to when I married, to mark Time. I also have VHS VIDEOTAPES and have not converted those -- and some are coveted recordings of workshops I gave. Sigh. But, do you share the idea that, in the not too distant future, one's heirs will sort through this stuff and may likely toss it into a big dumpster?

    I had that thought, so I started printing my images on museum quality paper, hoping to sell and distribute them, at least to friends and relatives, that they may find places to be, for a bit after I leave the scene. So diabolical! :wink:

    Maybe cameras will soon change altogether? Maybe there will be a paradigm shift? Maybe one's kids will instead turn to something like holograms. Why two dimensions when you can have three? And all done with a smartphone. LOL.

  • Quirky - I have lots of stuff I expect to wind up in a dumpster :-)

    I moved from a house to a condo about 10 years ago and in the old house, had a nice sized workshop in my basement. Before moving, I sold or gave away any big stuff, like table saw, drill press, etc. Most of the hand tools I have in boxes in storage. Not sure why. I'll probably never use them.

    One time, I was working on something and needed something, so went downstairs and started looking through the boxes.labelled tools. gave up in frustration after a bit, drove 5 minutes to Home Depot and bought another. I'm sure I now have 2 of whatever it was :-)

    Getting back to Kodachromes, I also have a number of talks and cases with slides, used for teaching medical students and residents, that I haven't touched since retiring 10 years ago. My favorite is from an ER case I had as a resident on call. It involved a psych inpatient who quoted a line from the bible - "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out." Apparently it did, so she did. Those are some very cool pics and I should probably digitize them :-)

  • Sounds like we've had some kindred experiences. Enjoyed teaching altered states of consciousness in children and adults, and did some psychosomatic work with kids -- they have a great capacity for visualization which is lost as they become more verbally oriented in our society.

    Stil in a house though, have big toys I can't let go of -- big RC airplanes, for example. The photo printer is pretty big too. And my wife is a former farmer, and likes to toil in a pretty big flower garden.

  • We once had a cabin on a Silversea ship that shared a balcony area with five or six other cabins. I took some pictures of my wife while we were whale watching, and when I looked at them later I had several shots that showed a couple literally running to their cabin in the background. I wonder what that was about? (;-)

  • Sealord - perhaps they ate some bad sushi 😁

  • I had such a wonderful mother-in-law. Every time I came to LA she'd go out to the Japanese market and prep tuna sashimi for me. Ever seen the Japanese butchers prep a multi thousand dollar tuna?

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