5.08.2011

Approval. Tacit Approval. Implied Approval and "Street Photography."


I read a comment this morning, in connection with my recent blog about Eeyore's Birthday Party, asking me to explain the process of getting the approval of people we photograph on the streets.  It's actually a fascinating subject for me and one that seems "highly flexible" depending on the operator and their intention.

First, let's talk basic law in the U.S.  (different in different parts of Europe and Asia!!!).  As a photographer you are free to take photographs of anyone in a public place.  No one has a reasonable expectation of privacy if they are in public.  This includes grisled old men, very beautiful women and even children.  So, on  the face of it,  you can go about shooting people as they walk down the sidewalks and cross streets and play Frisbee in the park and as they sit under the umbrellas of the sidewalk tables of cafes which have put tables on the public right of way, which means the public sidewalks.

Here's what you can't do:  You can't photograph people on private property who can't be seen from public property.  You can stand in the street and photograph the man standing in his front yard, if you can see the image from the street.  But if he is behind a fence you cannot breach the fence to take the photo.  Nor can you photograph, without permission, in restaurants, bars, aforementioned cafe interiors, book stores, coffee shops, etc.

The government can claim that certain areas cannot be photographed because of national security concerns and that makes a certain amount of sense......as long as you can't just print off the same locations from Google Earth or Google Street View.  Lately, when the government over reaches they've been pushed back by the courts.

Now, all of this is predicated on the idea that your photograph will only be used as "art" or as editorial content.  Things that happen in public can be newsworthy or have artistic merit.  As soon as you get ready to sell the photo of a recognizable person for any commercial use you are in a whole new ballpark, and one that might get your fingers burned.  The image above was made during a rambling walk in Rome.  I've used it as art piece for articles meant to illuminate or instruct but have never licensed the rights to use the image for any commercial venture.  I could not do so without a signed model release and valuable compensation paid to the person pictured.

So, here're the rules:  Okay to photograph person in public.  Okay to show photograph.  Okay to use photo for art and editorial (magazine/newpaper) use.  Not okay to shoot on private property and where a subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Not okay to shoot in the ladies locker room at the Four Seasons Hotel or to sell any of the images for any commercial use with "express" permission (hopefully backed up by a model release.)

So, how do I shoot in the streets?  In the case of Eeyore's Birthday Party I walk thru the crowd of people in costumes.  If I see one I like I walk up to them and say, directly, "I love your costume.  Can I take a photograph?"  Usually they say "yes."  If they say no I walk away.  I'm not there covering news and I don't think I have a right to violate the whole social contract against harassment just to please my artistic inclinations of the moment.

Sometimes I'll see something I like and I will try to make eye contact with the person if I am too far away to speak to them.  Doesn't happen often because I'm most likely to be using lenses shorter than 85mm and that puts me close enough to be sociable.  The deal I make with myself and the rest of society is this: If I'm part of society I need to understand that there are some unspoken rules that we all (to some extent) share.  One of those is to respect a person's sense of security and safety.  Another is to respect a person's circle of comfort and finally a respect for a person's ability to control their own public image.  I may have the right to do something or take a photograph of someone but that doesn't give me the ethical or moral strength to create unpleasant situations for the subjects.

An example is photographing children in a park.  Legal?  Yes.  Scary for parents who don't know who the hell you are or why you have a monster long lens pointed at their nine year old daughter? Absolutely.  You can argue with a protective parent all you want about your first, third or whatever rights but if they feel for a moment that you are a threat to their offspring they'll have their fingers on the touch screen of their iPhone so fast you're head will spin.  And justifiably.

Want to shoot a shot of someone's kid?  Walk up, present yourself, introduce yourself, tell them what you want to do and why,  showcase that winning personality, offer to show them the images, offer to send along a file or print.  But, if they demur I think it's more important to honor the social contract than to shoot as an affirmation of "your rights."  While you won't be arrested  for shooting someone's child in public a mistrusting parent call to the park police will certainly make your day less pleasant.

And really,  do you need that kid's picture in your portfolio?

So, here's what happened to create the image above.  I was walking around the Spanish Steps in Rome with a Mamiya Six camera and a 150mm lens.  (About the equivalent of a 75mm lens on a Canon 5D).  There were three models working with a group of photographers and they were taking photos for a class project.  I saw the young lady above and walked up to her and asked, in broken TexTalian, if she would mind me taking a photograph.  She did not mind.  I asked her to pose a certain way and took three frames.  She smiled at me.  I smiled back and said, "Mille Gracie."  I hope that meant "many thanks."  And then I turned around and looked for my next interesting photograph.

Would a hidden camera and heaps of subterfuge have worked as well?  Probably not.  As you can no doubt see from most of my street shots I enlist the willing, overt (not just implicit) cooperation of my subjects.  It takes longer but I think the images are more direct and more powerful.  Sneaked images seem like a cheat to me.  In a war zone?  I get it.  In the streets and parks of ________, _______ USA?
I don't think so.

There are times when I'm walking and I see something and I shoot it quickly.  Maybe it's something humorous that's breaking right now.  I shoot it.  If I'm noticed (and I'm not trying conceal myself or my intent) I smile and wait for a return smile.

Now,  when I say I pose or arrange a found subject that doesn't mean I try to control or impose my will on the subject.  There's a difference between gently suggesting a turn into the more interesting light and an attempt to make a street side, impromptu fashion shoot, out of a chance encounter.  I also try not to suggest or bend my subject into making poses that are at odds with their own esteem.  I've watched photographers ask strangers to assume strange poses or submit to their spatial intrusion as they stick a 21mm lens a foot from someone's face.  It's easy to intimidate people.  It's inappropriate, in my mind, to use intimidation because you're trying to fill in a preconceived notion about your style or your subject.

A certain amount of honesty always seems to polish an image better than exciting technique, laid on by a heavy dose of iron willed direction......

So here are the guidelines I use in the street.  Not laws, guidelines.  Based on what I think is our general moral contract with each other.  To wit:  Don't use photographs to make fun of people who are visibly different than yourself.  No photos ridiculing the fat, the ugly, the emotionally overwrought or psychically damaged.   Shots of beautiful girls?  Yes.  Shots of beautiful girls that are obvious nods to their sexuality?  Not so much.  I use a 35mm or a 50mm or an 85mm lens.  Too short and you are prone to cross into their circle and violate their culturally scripted perimeter of comfort.  That becomes intimidation.  Too long a lens and you don't have any skin in the game.  When you are within eight or ten feet and ask permission you've put yourself into the play.  You've engaged in a human way.  When you shoot from afar you are implicitly trying to "shortcut" the process with all the safety preserved for yourself and all the power robbed from the subject.  And they feel the uneven-ness of the the exchange.  They know instinctively that they are being taken advantage of.  Close means they can ask for clarification of your intention.  Far means you have no intention of sharing your intention.  That you are hiding behind the space between you.

You see a beautiful girl on the street.  You walk up and point to your camera and you say/ask, "You must hear this all the time but you are so cute.  Would you mind if I took your photograph?"  And, for one reason or another the person says (usually politely), "No thanks."  Here's the cutting point.  Do you push for more?  Do you cajole and beg?  Do you think up some phony story to gain "yes?"  Or do you honor the person's response and smile and say, "Okay.  Thanks anyway."  And turn around an leave them alone?  If you want everyone to have a fun day you might think about that choice as being a good one.

I had a walk thru downtown with one guy who couldn't leave his 70-200mm zoom at home.  Always stepped back and shot from the shadows.  Occasionally he would follow my lead and ask permission.  If turned down he intimidated and cajoled, presuming that "artists have to have tough skins."  "Being true to my vision." etc.  It always came off as  subtle bulllying.  And people have good radar for that.

Now, none of this is to say that photojournalists on stories need to follow my guidelines.  They are doing "the news."  The people they are photographing are of the public interest. Different rules apply.   There are still social constraints to be minded when dealing with innocents but they do have a right to pursue images on public property in a manner that is pretty well proscribed by the journalism courses that most took in colleges (a good reason for the process of education).  And of course the above doesn't apply to people in advertising who are paying their models and have contractual agreements and aligned interests.  Even there we have many safeties built in.

Bottom line:  If it feels sneaky and dirty while you are doing it it probably is.  If you feel like you are a tourist in your own town and people are happy to pose.......they probably are.  Just don't justify making people uncomfortable because you are too lazy to engage them or too entitled to empathize.  It doesn't really make good art.






61 comments:

Parker said...

Very thoughtfully-written post. I'll be trying my hand at street photography and will definitely keep your words of advice in my mind. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Another in a continuing series of brilliant posts. Well done Mr. Tuck.

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic! I wish all photographers had this much courtesy and respect for their subjects. Maybe then photographers would have such a bad reputation.
Lynn

Hugh said...

Well written.

All you need is a 35mm lens and a smile...

Paul Glover said...

Thanks for the words of wisdom. This is one of those areas where I do struggle, I tend to be shy in person so the idea of just asking someone I've never met before is daunting. On the other hand, I just don't shoot from a distance because it feels creepy to even think about it.

What I need to remember is how *I* would respond, because I would have no problem at all being photographed (whether anyone would want to is another thing ;-) ) and I'm sure that's how most people are if asked politely.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I've seen that photo of yours in a higher resolution before on your blog, and it's a really beautiful street portrait. Because that is what you get when you ask people before you shoot: portraits. They are aware of being photographed, and here it still turned out pretty well.

As you know, I live in Germany, and here everyone has "the right on his/her own photograph", so things aren't as easy as in the US. If someone says "No!", it definitely *is* a no! - up to the point that they can sue you and drag you before court should you still display their picture to the public.

That said, my approach nowadays is mostly like yours. I mostly have my 50mm macro on the camera (100mm on your 5D Mk2), so it's not much more tele than your 85mm Zeiss. Sometimes I take a candid first, but then ask, and take a portrait as well. Beautiful girls/women? Absolutely! But I also like to show people with some wrinkles, more in my age than those who could easily be my daughters. One smoking Chinese Flight Captain said "Hi!" lately - and closed his eyes just at the moment I snapped my shot. I still nodded and said "Thanks!" - but the moment was gone. That's life, and life is what I'm trying to catch and show.

Your shots of Rome are wonderful. I was in Genoa lately, and I would love to walk the streets with you. Should you ever come back to Germany, be my guest - I'll show you Frankfurt. Or Cologne.

Anonymous said...

Great blog post. What you wrote here is so true and while laws may vary (as Wolfgang noted), the gist of what you wrote applies to photographing people everywhere. We just returned a couple of days ago from two weeks in Turkey, most of it in Istanbul, but we also visited some incredible, very rural areas. I shot some great photos of people with my DX Nikon with a 16-85 lens by simply seeking their permission - even if only by pointing to a camera and smiling.

Ken

Anonymous said...

Most people are emotional idiots. They buy a camera and think it gives them a license to butt in everywhere and stick a camera in everyone's face. Thanks for taking time to debunk.

Anonymous said...

Did some of the great street photographers always ask for permission for their street photos? I don't think so. While it greatly helps to be cordial polite, I think that if you are truly looking for that "decisive moment" that Henri Cartier Bresson talked about, you always shoot first. I prefer those kind of candid, everyday shots to posed portraits. But I digress, I personally find it easier to shoot first and have a conversation/ask later.

Lewis Lee said...

I haven been an invisible street shooter for a while, and this post really inspired me a lot.

I'm living in Hong Kong, as a local (non foreign look) people here, if I go to ask them for taking a photo, the result is almost 100% "No", so this is my experience here.

Greg Zauswoz said...

Hi Kirk,

great post. However, I am a bit confused now as to what exactly commercial use of a photo means.

What about all the photographers that publish their street shots in book form? And make money off the book sales. I strongly doubt they have model releases from each and every person in the book. That's practically impossible. You'd hardly get anything candid that way.

So how does this work? It's legal because the book is a piece of artwork?

Thanks

Greg

mshafik said...

Brilliant post as usual, I never seem to be able to do that here in Egypt, our culture has the personal privacy buried in deep, on the contrary when I went to Malaysia everyone was moving with cameras and taking photos of everything and everyone, so it was easy to go along and do the same, but never did I approach a person and ask to take a photo of them.

As for the children part, this struck a chord, in one of the parks I found one of the tourists approaching my little daughter and posed his wife beside her to take a picture, it really pissed me off he never asked, and when he saw me coming and tried to take permission, my answer was a firm "NO".

"Rick, Sunshine State" said...

Thanks for this blog, I will remember this while shooting !! First ask, youre right!!

Jeffrey Friedl said...

Thanks so much for such an excellent, thoughtful writeup.

Just to clarify a bit about some phrasing about US law that might not be clear as written, you can *sell* any photo you own the copyright to, so one doesn't legally need a model release to include a person's photo within a coffee-table book, for example.

It's the commercial *use* that requires a model release. If a business uses one of your photos in an advertisement, they're on the hook for the unacceptable use (though you may be on the hook for fraud if you proffered it as having such a release).

Use of a photo on a cover or dust jacket (or even in a portfolio) is apparently a gray area, with some contending that these uses are commercial advertisement.

This comment is tangential to your main point, though, that ethics should limit one more than law. Again, a great post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post!

Mark Kalan said...

The times they area changing' -> Proposed NJ Law: Prohibit the unauthorized photographing of a child. http://bit.ly/iRK7M1

John H. Maw said...

Reading this I feel that I am in agreement with the sentiments expressed, but then realise how much I am drawn to the work of people like Diane Arbus and Bruce Gilden, who seemed to have very different approach.

MarcW said...

Mr. Friedl (and others:)

While your position is very common and, historically speaking, fairly reasonable, many states have within the recent past passed laws which give people more right of control over their likeness than you might realize that they have. For instance, my own state of Illinois (where I have a license to practice law, although this information is presented for information only and should not be construed as legal advice) passed a law in the early nineties regarding this matter. While it does contain exceptions for usage in the fine arts as well as editorially, its definition of what comprises artistic use is far narrower than the traditional understanding. (If you'd like to read it, the statute can be found as 765 ILCS 1065, the Illinois Right of Publicity Act.)

xtoph said...

this strikes me as a decent, practical set of guidelines, and an interesting and well-written piece. i completely agree about deferring to people's desire not to be photographed; there are always other photos you can take.

however, i think that more room exists for taking photos before, or without, asking. i happen to be more interested in scenes than in portraits, and more likely to be using a 35 or 28mm lens than a 50 (on ff). i don't want anyone to feel bad because of anything i do, and i try to avoid that; but at the same time, i am not doing them any harm by taking a photo. as you suggest, common sense and an ethic of fair play go a long way. sometimes you can also feel out a scene, and if you hang out a bit, people won't object to taking photos they would have exploded over if you'd just walked up and fired. and actually, several times a week someone approaches me to ask if i will take their photo--let's not overlook that many, many people really like the attention.

one guideline i have found to be helpful is that most people are more comfortable being photographed because of something they are /doing/ than because of how they /look/. i rarely take a photo of someone just because of how they are dressed, or wear their hair, or how pretty they are. (sometimes i do, but it's relatively rare.) i am more interested in photos of life on the street, of things happening, of people doing things, even if what they are doing is leaning against a building in good light. (of course, it's even better if they are wrestling a phone booth, or some such, but it doesn't have to be so dramatic.) the great thing about this is that (at least in most of the usa) tacit approval is almost guaranteed in these situations. and people on balance seem less suspicious and defensive about it than when it is based on their appearance alone. and, of course, one of the great things about shooting digital is that if people do object, it's easy to delete.

anyway, cool post, thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

As with anything be polite...don't be obnoxiously following someone clicking away. Offer up a big smile and "thank you" if they say no and an even bigger one and a thanks if they say yes.

Michael Matlach said...

A good portion of my photographic career is based on making spontaneous portraits of people around the world. If we as image makers spent half as much time developing our humanity as our photo skills the world would be a much better place. A common refrain I often hear from photographers is that just taking photos does no harm. To have ones' most precious physical object, their likeness, posted, printed, presented to the world can have a whole host of intended as well as unintended consequences.

This topic is worthy of much more thought and discussion.

michael matlach AKA Photosadhu

Mike said...

This is a thought provoking post. I think I agree with your message in regards to "street portraits". However many other types of street photography do not involve portraits and therefore I would argue that it is not breaking any social contract if the person is not directly recognizable.

I also thought your examples were interesting: (1) aspiring model on break approached by someone with a pro portrait camera, and (2) exhibitionist festival participants clearly out to make a spectacle. It reinforces my past experience that people who are expecting/wanting to be photographed will be likely to say yes.

Lately I am giving a lot of thought as to how to improve my luck, with random people I meet on the street who aren't expecting someone to ask them for a portrait. A smile is certainly important, but I am also starting to give thought as to what camera will intrigue my potential subjects enough to tip the odds in my favor. I think DSLR's are too invasive; like looking through a rifle scope. Point & shoots look too amateur. For a while, I was thinking of medium format, but don't have the energy to deal with film any more. Lately I'm thinking of the retro styled Fujifilm X100. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Dearth said...

Awesome article. The stuff about the law was really great and cleared up some issues I was wondering, but would be informative to just about anyone.

I totally agree with you on the stuff about not invading privacy, and that people's wishes should be respected, but don't be so quick to say that candid shots of people without their knowledge are intrusions, or that they are less powerful, or deserve less credit as 'art.' If done well, those images can move mountains, and if you are worried about the intrusion factor you could always approach your subject just like you talked about, but after the fact.

As for your camera question, have you considered one of the micro 4/3 cameras like olympus EP-2? I've heard great reviews with some excellent quality photos.

kirk tuck said...

Dearth, Search the visualsciencelab.blogspot archives. We've written extensively about the micro 4:3rds cameras and have many samples. My favorite series is last year's trip thru west Texas.....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tuck...absolutely awesome article and one which I think every street photographer should heed. Respect for others rights should be a universal mantra for everyone, not just photographers.
A lady I found to be an amazing street photographer is Louise Fryer, from London, England. Do a Google on her. This lady rocks!

Alan_A said...

While the sensibility expressed here is admirable, haven't we just ruled out most of the great street photography ever done? I'm hard pressed to understand how Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Winogrand, Meyerowitz and dozens of others would have produced their work if they'd been (or felt) compelled to ask permission and negotiate the photograph ahead of time. True, Winogrand had his way of engaging people and Bruce Davidson has talked about trying to obtain permission where possible (as in his subway series). But the vast majority of this work depends on on approach that this article seems to dismiss as "snuck" images. What's suggested here is fine but pushes toward a particular technique and a particular set of results. I'm not quite willing to write off a whole genre as being somehow abusive.

Paulo Rodrigues said...

The world would be a poorer place without the occasional Bruce Gilden, but how much worse would it be if we were all Bruce Gildens

Clay said...

The most important thing, as always, is how and why a thing is done, rather than what is done. Watch Garry Winogrand at work on YouTube (Garry Winogrand - Part 1). His subjects rarely noticed him, and if they did, they seemed more puzzled than annoyed. If you can carry that off, go for it. The rest of us have to figure out some other way of demonstrating our view of the world.

kirk tuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent said...

One of your best articles, Kirk. One of the best parts of street shooting is exchanging a smile and a nod with a stranger. Really makes my day, and I enjoy the interaction more than the resulting image.

After reading I was inspired to buy a Fujifilm disposable camera (poor man's X100?) and shoot some portraits in my hood.

kirk tuck said...

Alan you are being far too literal and assume dogma instead of guideline. Your understanding of street photography seems based on the idea that everything is chance and reaction. As Winogrand was one of my early teachers at UT I would say that much of the "info" regarding his vast working life is PR. If you spent time with him you would know that he often went for tacit approval and enjoyed direct encounters.

No one has written off any technique, but in an age with no nuance and an age in which people have to be told not to make cellphone calls during movies or text while driving it seems that a few gentle guidelines for humanistic behavior would definitely be welcome.

Guidelines. Not dogma. Be nice. Not furtive. That's all those thousands of words mean. If you want to shoot like Bruce Glidden that's certainly your right.....until you step over the line to harassment. Be careful how much instruction you take from the mentors of the golden age, they were adept at PR.

Mike Nelson Pedde said...

Here in Canada (BC) the laws are slightly more convoluted, but the 'social contract' is essentially the same. Very well written.

Mike.

Anonymous said...

But surely Candid Photography is just that! Candid? Otherwise it's Posed Photography, isn't it?

John.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a lot of paranoia here, especially on the part of the subjects (sometimes for good reason, often not). Remember that the photographer is not always the villian.

kirk tuck said...

Remember that sometimes there is NO villan. Just people with differing agendas.

Shawn Hoke said...

Well said, Kirk. I like to think of myself as a photographic ambassador out there. I take candid street shots sometimes and if someone notices, I do like you and always acknowledge with a slight lift of the camera and a smile. A smile goes a long way.

And your article correctly differentiates between "street photography" and portraiture. You ask when it's portraiture - when you see someone interesting. You'll get a better shot by approaching them and being up front. Sneaky is bad.

Anonymous said...

For me, a street photograph represents the counterpoint of a static environment & the dynamics of people w/ in that space.

I have less interest in straight up street portraiture. If I did, [Yes!] asking permission to photograph a person is a no brainer. But when I shoot portraits, what I look for is a totally different kind of experience. I like to talk to the model, get to know them, show them our pictures so that we may together find a better photo. The reward of Portraiture is that collaborative process. Unlike Portraiture, when I shoot street, I don't try to isolate any one element. For me, the subject is both the street & it's people.

On the Street, it's more about the unknowns. I never use a DSLR! I like a smaller camera that I can hold in the palm of my hand.... down by my hip or on the edge of a hard surface. I may even use a timer. I typically hold the camera upside down, so my trigger finger rests naturally under the shutter button. Never do I bring the camera up to my eye. I'll fix the exposure w/ the back of my hand from the edge of the scene. Set the focus depending on how crowded a scene is. Plot a path, and walk through the stage. As I walk I think less about about the people, instead I focus on where the sun or light sources may be. I look for voids where my focus point relates to my body position. If I'm shooting a 35mm, I may want to stay 6 paces to the left... or if I'm shooting 24mm, I may stay 4 paces to the right. I tend to look @ where I'm going next & not what I'm shooting. Only after my path is complete do I look @ photos. I get to spend time w/ people I may never have met. And it is in that moment when the unknowns reveal themselves. Not all the shots are hits, but the few that are... sing w/ objective randomness.

Do I ask for permission? No. And I don't feel this is amoral in anyway, shape or form. Telling a narrative from a third-person dramatic point of view is only one style of telling a story. From a moral perspective, we get caught up too often w/ our desire of self expression. What street photography can do is allow a story to be told to us, the photographers. It is a gift that can humble our more omniscient desires.

At the end of the day, not all photos I take need to be geo-tagged on flickr, or posted on facebook. Learning what stories are better left private & personal is becoming our greater responsibility in the age of social media. The real foul, is when we allow exterior social fears to determine public narratives.

eyer said...

The law does not exclude children from being photographed on public property. Why does the author thinks it's "justifiable" should parents call police is beyond me. It's paranoya and he is defending it with this concept of "social conract". The cops are to upheld the law, not to create their own, or to give in to your paranoya. The paranoid attidudes in America reflect the sicknees of its society. I am in Japan where you can take pictures of anybody and many people say "thank you" when you photogragh them.

kirk tuck said...

I'll assume you skimmed the article. I never said that the law excludes children from being photographed on public property. I said that parents can become uncomfortable with this and it may be better to check in with them and let them know what you are doing. I am happy the Japanese are so open to being photographed. I also feel that American's by and large are more paranoid but don't twist my words. They aren't difficult to parse correctly.

Also be aware that making parent more comfortable may keep them from lobbying for changes in the prevailing laws that may end up messing things up for photographers. Again, we go back to doing what
is right instead of screeching about our rights.

Read again and then comment.

Anonymous said...

An approach which may be useful when you want to shoot children in a public area is to approach parents and tell them that you are doing an assignment on "park Activities" or something similar and ask if they mind if their children appear in some of those photos. This, is instead of asking them directly if you can photograph their children.

It is slight shift of perspective that may take the edge off of potential parental paranoia.

John Langmore said...

Kirk,

I wish I had come to your blog earlier. Very thoughtful and very though-provoking (and I say this as someone that is generally blog-averse).

Given I was pictured as one potentially "violating the social contract" at Eeyore's, I thought I would add one or two things to an already exceptional chain of comments. (And by the way, I take no offense at all being used to make that point.)

It is always a struggle and as you note, a very personal decision to find that balance between getting the shot and adhering to the sensibilities of your subjects at a public event. Will you do anything for a great shot such as Bruce Gilden (and he produces some great work) or will you let the subject completely determine what you are allowed to photograph? This is particularly relevant for "street photographers" and finding your place on that spectrum is crucial.

Here's my take on it (only because my being in the middle of the dance circle in part inspired this dialogue). It is critical that you be able to read a scene. Are the folks generally open to being photographed, such as Eeyore's, where you can feel more liberated to shoot freely and get in close, or is it a more private mood where much greater discretion is required and at least implicit, if not explicit, consent to photograph is required - - e.g. a religious ceremony, a moment of grief, etc? If you are paying attention, people will let you know how they feel about your taking photos.

In cases where there is not an implicit consent to easy picture taking (such as an exhibitionists party like Eeyore's), you have to be willing to spend time establishing a sincere rapport with the people you are going to photograph. I have on numerous occasions - even when I had very little time - spent several hours getting to know people and letting them get to know me before I ever took a single shot. Again, being able to adequately read a situation lets you know when that's required.

At the core of all photography, however, is a respect for your subject at some level. Having that respect will not only give you access but it also comes through in your photographs (think Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Smith, Koudelka). Nobody would have let me spend as long as I wanted in the middle of the dance circle had it not been clear that I loved what they were doing. I often let people know that I think the light is beautiful, the scene is poignant, I love what they are doing. Generally, people don't mind you taking their picture (even if you don't explicitly ask) if you somehow convey a sincerely held respect.

In the end, as you so correctly note, there are only guidelines and each photographer must find his or her own way to the place where they feel comfortable but where they also know they will produce powerful photographs.

But, don't forget how your Eeyore's blog started off, there is a power in imagery taken up close. That is undeniable. Every great photographer will tell you that. But deciding for yourself how you get close and who you get close to remains a matter of trial and error but something every photographer should explore.

Great work on this blog, Kirk. Thanks for the time you invest and the dialogue you inspire.

Respectfully,
John

kirk tuck said...

John, Thanks for an eloquent rejoinder to my original piece. I think we say the same thing from different angles. My article was meant to provoke thought in a whole generation that didn't grow up absorbing photo culture but rather, came to photography almost as if it were another video game or applications divorced from the real world. Implicit morality was part of an undercurrent of learning when you and I went to school. Now the emphasis seems to be totally on the mastery of only technical skills. And that's very damaging to art and society in general.

Thanks again for taking time to illuminate and enrich the conversation.

Brian Carey said...

I'm with you on this. I've been taking some time to photograph people downtown and there's one man down there who's been selling newspapers for what must be 40 years. I've asked him to many times (unfortunately) to take his photograph and he said no. I am interested in recording his memory as well as showing his human side and how we are all alike. I think I will have to just move on and leave him alone!

Anonymous said...

More often than not, I am in full agreement with Kirk however, here is an instance when we will have to agree to disagree for the following reasons:

1) I feel that with street photography, the spontaneity and serendipity of the moment is lost 9 times out of 10, if the subject knows they're being photographed.

2) By no means am I proclaiming to be anywhere in the same sphere as HCB, Bruce Davidson, Bruce Glidden, Diane Arbus, etc. however, I think the world is a richer place because of their work.

3) Personally, I do not want to engage random people in the street. I work with people during the day, and I do not want to interact with strangers on that level in my personal time. I have had very little 'luck' with, "asking for permission". I subscribe to the belief that it is, "better to ask for forgiveness than permission."

4) I have every reason to believe that there are regional as well as national differences to peoples reactions to being photographed. I suspect that Kirk's living in the south (where I will assume that people are 'friendlier') has something to do with his beliefs. With the exception of Washington DC, I have not generally found people in the northeastern U.S. (NYC, Philly, metro NJ) to be very receptive to having their pictures taken.

I will not take photos of children, and I will not "follow" anyone for a photograph, but put me solidly in the "shoot first, ask later" camp.

Hendra said...

Hey Kirk, wonderful post.
I love shooting portraits on the street. Most of the time I would ask for permission or to signal that I am asking for permission, especially when language is a barrier. I did that when I was in India n 2006.

I live in Singapore and travel occasionally to nearby countries.
I have noticed that usually, the Chinese people are more reluctant to have their photos taken in public by strangers. Indian, Filipino, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Indonesian seem to be more receptive.

Again, wonderful and well thought post. Thanks for sharing.

Hendra said...

And oh by the way .. let me know when you are in Singapore. I bring you around to shoot street photography.

WP said...

Thanks for these guidelines, I find them really sound advice! Not that I take street photos often...but for times that I DO see something interesting... (like people in costumes, I'd say)

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I have read this blog - came across it while reading up on photography and respect of privacy.

I must say that this is also the first time I have read a well written and clearly explained presentation by a professional photographer, of what I believe to be the Golden Rules on the subject.

I am aware that the matter is controversial among photographers, especially "street" photographers. Nevertheless, I think that this article articulates very nicely how a bit of consideration goes a long way in keeping the art of photographing humane, and keeping proper priorities in sight.

This will be THE article I refer to my trigger-happy camera-carrying friends.
Thank you Mr. Tuck!

Frank said...

Great posting and good treatment of the issue in line with my standpoint and experience.

Still, the practise of giving your name card with the link to your online portfolio where the picture could end up is never mentioned.
A do or don't do?

kirk tuck said...

Frank, if someone is generally interested I will certainly give them a card. I
try very hard to make sure I have nothing to hide.

Anonymous said...

This is an engaging and humanistic approach to art. Given how wonderfully Mr. Tuck writes I find it amazing that he can also take great photographs. Usually it's one of the other.

Gill said...

A very well written article covering this tricky subject.

safeashouses said...

"And really, do you need that kid's picture in your portfolio? " Isn't that like asking "Do you really need a picture of an old house or pretty girl or rusty car or red flowers in your portfolio?" I've got lots of portfolio worthy photos of kids, who doesn't like kids?

Anonymous said...

I live in South Africa. I am not a photagrapher I am getting Photographed sometimes and always take my dentures out.
I love this article and it is the best approach
Tony

John Wright said...

You have a well thought out and sensible approach to photographing folk outdoors. But Kirk, what you are describing is street portraiture, not street photography as I know it. Surely there is a place for pure candid photography, images of what is happening in the street, done in a way that does not demean the subject matter?

Eric Elsewhere said...

I don't think that your example photograph illustrates what I consider to be street photography. to me that is a model shoot with a street as the background, even if the shoot was only three clicks long.

street photography for me is to capture the moment, and to document how I saw that moment.

that said, I usually smile after taking a photo, occasionally walk up to the person, show the photo and offer to send it to them.

after I once took a photo of a little girl fishing and had her angry mother jump in front of the lens (it was alright after I explained myself), I now carry business cards with my website and email on it, and a big blank space where I can write a comment or the photo nr, so they can mail me with a request for the photo.

shooting from the hip, or from the shadows I find unacceptable. it feels creepy to me, as does the way this guy goes about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loACryVu8do

Anonymous said...

"if it feels sneaky and dirty it probably is..." and might come back at you some time.
i was shooting at a "festival of suds" (translated from spanish) I got a lot of great shots. My wife and daughter were both there. But, i did feel weird about it and i found out much later lot of people were offended.
just goes to show...

jtsmall said...

Many interesting , captivating and thoughtful images are to be found in these blog posts and this is one. Probably my favorite among the many.

Paul Sell said...

Hi, thanks for a very interesting post. Do you have any experience with a place like Colonial Williamsburg. I think it crosses the boundary between being a private place and a public place. They have costumed employees performing colonial tasks for the public (or at least the public who has paid), and I believe there certainly is an expectation that they will be photographed whether asked or not. Recently, I received an inquiry from an author about using one of my CW images on a book jacket and/or trailer. May I give her that right? May I charge her remuneration for that right? In either case, would I first need permission from the CW "actress" or CW itself? I would appreciate any light you can shed on this matter.

jebwebb said...

I'm late to the game here as this article has been up for a couple years now, but the topic is timeless. I just finished a craftsy.com class you did on portraiture (bgarts) and found this site in a search. I love candid street photography. The moments are few and far between for me, but my best shots have been with the subject unaware I've been nearby. I never follow anyone, I take one shot and I'm on my way. If that shot if bad, I don't try another. With film, that realization was always up to a month to wait for. With digital, it's too easy to "try for another". In some cases, in close proximity, I'll make contact with the person. I'll give them my card and get their address so I can send them a print. For the street performer, I'll throw some extra $ into their box. I'm always happy to see the opinions of others on the topic. Makes me feel less intrusive. Thanks for this article.

Anonymous said...

Here's the Swiss perspective: You're not allowed to take photos of anybody without their prior permission. There's an exception when individuals are part of a sufficiently large group of people, and none of them is noticeable. So no street photography at all.

Sure you can ask people to take their photograph. I tried about 30 times, and got a "no" each time. Very unsatisfactory.