Why I Ask for Permission More Often When Taking Photos in the Streets

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.

 

I saw this lady walking in the Bijlmer neighbourhood in Amsterdam. At first I figured she wouldn’t be happy with me taking a photo, but then she smiled at me while she was balancing the bag on her head. That made it easier for me to make contact and she was completely fine with being photographed. You can see more stories behind images on my Instagram.

 

This was in the beginning of the ‘lockdown’ in The Netherlands. And empty Rembrandt Square, normally packed. Bars and restaurants were shut down, and from one of them three people emerged carrying these yellow boxes. I just ran along with them and told them that I was taking pictures for the newspaper. They were in a good mood and were fine with it. More stories on Instagram.

 

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.

 

As the gyms were closed, people took several sports outside. At one tram stop in Amsterdam, they would climb the walls every day and even create new bouldering routes. As I stuck around for a while I announced myself and these guys were making sure they were keeping the right distance from each other. More stories on Instagram.

 

During Easter families could not really get together, so lot of things were happening in front of houses. Especially when it concerned elderly people. This family came from another city to surprise grandmother. I saw this from the car and got out. By making contact, it was also nice to hear their story. More stories on Instagram.

 

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.

 

I made this photo from my bike. This guy was cycling the other way around, on a cycling path that is normally packed with ringing bikes. He knew I was taking pictures but just continued doing what he was doing, and offered me a strawberry. More stories on Instagram.

 

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
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6 thoughts on “Why I Ask for Permission More Often When Taking Photos in the Streets

  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. 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…

  4. 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??

  5. 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.
    Hans Hermans

    1. 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.

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