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?
© All the pictures in this post are copyrighted. Their reproduction, even in part, is forbidden without the explicit approval of the rightful owners.
by Julie Hrudová, founder of StreetRepeat
12 thoughts on “Why I Ask for Permission More Often When Taking Photos in the Streets”
I understand exactly what you mean. It is certainly a time phenomenon that people get more involved with photographers and object. This has to do with the entire social media spectrum and, moreover, people are much more vocal than before.
You may have to draw a line for yourself with whom, what and how you photograph in public space. Many people have the feeling of being left out for whatever reason, which makes sense that they don’t want to be in a photo. Candid is a beautiful concept, produces beautiful images, but those images that we often want to show because they are different. But asking permission in advance is the end of Candid.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” – a relevant quote from Susan Sontag.
The moral problem of photographing somebody comes before the discussion about the law. In the same time asking permission turns it into something else. For me asking permission is ruining the most important aspect that is the candidness. If somebody expresses to me the discomfort and unwiliness to be in my picture I’ll delete it and move on.
I’ve done street photography in western Canada for over 15 years, right from the beginning I have always adopted a personal approach, often interacting with people I have photographed, even sometimes interacting with people who didn’t want to be photographed but were still friendly… I think part of it for me is that downtown streets are far less crowded here than in much larger cities… I still do some true candids of course…
Hi, Interesting comments, thank you. I have been taking portraits of people in my own town here in Scotland during the lockdown, printing them in batches of 9 and hanging them in some of the shop windows in the town. Most people know me as the local vet but not necessarily now with the camera in my hand but I still get people unwilling to have their photograph taken and I have to respect that. Most have been taken in the street. Its interesting seeing peoples reaction when I walk around with my camera. Some noticeably change their direction of gaze or walk. For this project I always ask them first as these are portraits but in the past I have taken candid shots at events without any confrontation. How do you ask 20+ folk if its ok to take their photograph? Also in Morocco for example people can even spot you shooting from the hip and make it known that they do not want you to take the photo. It is too late in many instances cause you have already got the shot and and you just wave and gesture that’s OK. I agree that we are using them as object and respect their wishes if I can. Even in my own town I still feel uncomfortable even asking. For this reason I rarely do Street Photography these days. Silhouettes maybe??
You: “In The Netherlands, it’s legal to photograph in public space and to publish images for a journalistic or artistic purpose.”
The first half of the sentence is correct, but there are some restrictions in publishing, even for a journalistic purpose. The photo, the setting or the caption must not be demeaning, except when publishing serves an important journalistic purpose. For instance a photo of a fat lady with a caption: “She should do something about her weight” is demeaning, but doesn’t serve a public purpose. However a photo of a national politician not observing social distance rules can serve a journalistic purpose and is hence legal.
It is all in the copyright law.
Sure, that’s true as well. Depends on the context, and it always comes down to the ‘redelijk belang’ where they weight the interest of the photographed person. If the person is published in a harming context, he / she has the right to receive for financial compensation / rectification. Like the man photographed at Schiphol, with the title: “Is Schiphol still safe?”, published in De Volkskrant.
When I was at SFAI one of my teachers was Henry Wessel and his opinion on asking permission was that it was a perfectly valid way to work, as long as you understand that the photo you initially saw wouldn’t be the same picture if you asked permission. I only ask if I don’t think that the picture I am going to take will not be affected by asking (usually street portraits). The person who wrote this article showed quite a few examples where it didn’t look like asking permission would be necessary even if it was just to be nice (for example the people climbing walls and the picture of the person carrying the yellow crates), no ones face was visible and I doubt anyone would have a problem with the photos being published and or misunderstand why the photo was being taken.
Hi, yes true, in these two examples it happened quite naturally. I ran along with the people carrying the yellow crates and told them I was taking photos. As for the guys climbing, I checked with them if it was ok and they continued to climb, they were just conscious about the social distance which is an important measure in Holland. In my opinion it would be ok to publish these as well without permission, it just felt better to quickly check with them – without influencing their behaviour too much.
Hi Julie, This is a question that’s bothered me for a long time. [sigh] It first hit me years ago when I read something Joel Coelberg wrote on the ethics of SP – http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/the_ethics_of_street_photography/ . In our community of photographers we for sure think it’s absolutely fine to go out and take pictures of the public without consent. Yet if we peer outside our SP bubble you don’t have to go far before you begin to find a rather different picture. The wider photographic community almost looks down it’s nose at SP as if it’s some naughty child in a supermarket. When I’ve asked friends and colleagues why that is, the reply always ends up at respect/consent. Maybe it’s because the picture becomes more ‘Honest’ once a conversation has taken place, more real somehow. Can you name me some compassionate Street photographers ? I know not one
Hi Paul, thanks, I will take a look. I’m not sure if street photographers are being looked down at because of that as there is a lot of admiration for the classic street photographers like Cartier Bresson. But indeed, we are a rather strange genre in between art and documentary photography. Maybe the current work needs some time / context to be valued more. As for compassion, I can’t tell how other photographers work and deal with discussions on the street. For me compassion is not a goal, I just sense the need to get in touch with the subject(s) a little more than I used to. But sometimes it’s valuable to capture something that isn’t necessarily pleasing to the subject as a documentation of a certain time / society. Probably lot of images will be viewed differently over time, in another perspective.