People are not ‘Sites’
One realization that I had a number of years back after a trip was that I was actually thinking in terms of ‘capturing’ photos of people. In a sense I was photographing them in a similar way to the other tourist ‘sites’ that I was photographing along the way – almost as trophies.
I realized that my approach was totally arrogant, disrespectful and very rude. People are not ‘tourist sites’ – they’re people and they deserve to be treated as such.
A much better approach is to take photos in a relational way. This doesn’t mean you need to have talked to them for hours, swapped numbers and told you deepest secrets before photographing them – but it does mean that taking their photograph can actually become a friendly interaction between people from different cultures.
Learn a few words in their language, smile lots, tell them something about yourself (or show them a picture of your family at home), take an interest in their work, home and family, show them the pictures you’ve taken of them on your LCD, tell them that they look great, shake their hands and generally be polite and warm and you’ll find that photographing them is a much richer experience for all.
Also knowing a bit about the culture and what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of your dress, interactions between genders and more can be very useful to know.
The results of this approach are that not only do both subject and photographer potentially come away having experienced something of value – but the photographs you take are generally better as the subject is more relaxed, you might have been able to get a little closer and there is some kind of connection between the two of you.
Should You Ask for Permission Before Photographing Strangers?
One of the most debated issues around the topic of photographing people when traveling is whether you need to ask their permission first.
I’ve heard strong arguments both for and against asking permission ranging ‘anything goes’ type approaches right through to people asking that you need to get written releases for every person you photograph.
My personal approach has been to attempt to find some middle ground. Here’s how I break it down:
- If the person is the main subject of a photo that I’m taking I generally seek permission to take their photograph.
- If people end up in my photographs incidentally (for example if I’m taking a street scene which includes numerous people) I do not seek permission.
- Similarly – if I’m at a show or watching someone perform I generally don’t ask permission unless there has been direct instruction not to photograph during the show.
- In reality ‘seeking permission’ usually means catching a person’s eye, smiling, pointing to my camera and raising an eyebrow in a questioning way. Gestures like this usually cross all language barriers and their response is generally just as obvious.
- If I’m selling the picture I would always attempt to get written permission. My lawyer readers would be able to advise us a little more on this one.
- If I’m photographing children I always attempt to seek the permission of parents (this can be difficult as kids can be very persistent when there are people with cameras around).
- I generally do not ‘pay’ people for letting me take their photo. This is something that different photographers have different standards on but for me it doesn’t quite feel right. I do tend to travel with little gifts from home in Australia which I do sometimes give to people that I meet along the way – but I don’t really use these as ‘payments’.
- If someone says no or seems quite uncomfortable with me photographing them (remember in some cultures it’s bad manners to refuse anything and some people will say yes when they really don’t want you to photograph them – so use your discernment) I always respect their wishes.
- Keep in mind what you’d feel like if a stranger walked up to you in your neighborhood and asked for a photograph and act in a way that you’d want to be treated in that kind of situation.
It is worth saying that from what I know – laws vary from country to country on what is acceptable to photograph without permission. For example I’m told by my US friends that in the US anything visible or in plain view from a public area can be legally photographed (including people).
My approach above comes out of my own experiences, cultural perspective, personality and perhaps even ethics. I don’t force it on anyone – it’s just what i do. For a legal opinion you might want to consult a legal expert in the region to which you’re traveling.
Update: Discover All You need to Know about Travel Photography in our New Guide
Since publishing this post we’ve put together an eBook specifically on Travel photography called Transcending Travel: a Guide to Captivating Travel Photography.