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.