Asking permission or not, it’s a dilemma in street photography. I never used to ask people if it was ok to photograph them. Moreover, I almost didn’t make any contact. When people would confront me, I’d say that I’m doing a completely legal thing. My approach has changed a bit in the last few months.
A while ago, I was taking some photos in the rain in Amsterdam for my weekly newspaper image in Het Parool, and nothing worked. I was frustrated and then just tried to photograph everything that felt at least a bit interesting. There was a small lady with a huge yellow umbrella. I photographed her but knew the photo wouldn’t be any good so I didn’t make any effort to get in touch with her. But then she came up to me herself. She said she would feel ‘misused’ if her picture would appear in the newspaper. She continued to say that people like me treat other people in the street like objects, and I actually had to agree with her. I told her that I was trying to make images in which people would not have to feel ‘misused’, but also that I indeed do work in a candid way. Somewhere I can see where she was coming from.
As the technology has changed and photographers are able to publish and contextualise their images, the suspicion among people in public spaces has grown. As a photographer I’ve been noticing this in the streets, where more people come up to me asking (or verbally forcing) not to take their image. And certainly not to publish it. The photographer has more ‘powers’ now, and with that come more responsibilities towards the subject, in my opinion. It’s quite easy to make an unflattering image of someone and put it online for the audience to like and comment on it. Yet it’s important to capture daily life as it is without too many filters. I would just argue that the photographer could think twice before posting a certain image, or to at least listen to people who are hurt or upset when being photographed and published.
It’s still a dilemma as asking one on beforehand can ruin the moment and it often does. But I’ve learned to be open to discussions, and to make contact with the ‘subjects’ more easily. Sometimes I take a possible discussion for granted, by not asking, taking the image, and handle a confrontation afterwards. Making contact can also lead to new photographic opportunities. I’ve often announced myself by: ‘Hi! I hope it’s ok if I stick around for a while to make some photos’. And then I had more possibilities for angles and I could take the images I really wanted without the fear of getting ‘caught’. Especially during the pandemic, people are very hesitant to be photographed as there are many negative comments when certain images appear online. When I announce myself, people take the obligatory distancing in mind a bit more, but still continue to do their thing. And sometimes they really don’t want to be photographed, for example out of fear for backlash or concerns about their business, and I completely understand that.
One of the first times I asked permission was in Amsterdam a few years ago when I saw little girls in their bikinis playing in a weeping willow. I checked with their parents if it was ok to photograph the children and it was. In the end it felt good to send some photos afterwards. I’m certainly not saying that I’m doing everything in the ‘right’ way as I don’t, and I’ve most certainly made and published images that would not make the photographed people very happy. Moreover, sometimes the moment to make contact just doesn’t appear, or I don’t ask out of fear for a negative response. It’s rather that I’m noticing a feeling of doubt about capturing and publishing certain situations.
To conclude, I’m curious how this will all evolve in the future, also concerning legal issues. As for now, in The Netherlands, it’s legal to photograph in public space and to publish images for a journalistic or artistic purpose. I know that some other countries have sharpened these laws already. I hope this kind of street / candid photography will last, and that we will still be free in capturing the daily life as it is. What I want to say is that we are not only photographers any more, but we also have the role of publishing media, so it wouldn’t be too bad to take people’s objections into account as well. Or at least take the time to listen to them and be open to discussions.
And I’m curious, what is your take on this subject? Do you ever ask permission or has your street photography attitude evolved / changed? How do you deal with discussions on the street?
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