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Travel Photography – Do You Ask Permission Before, After Or Not At All?

Travel Photography - Do You Ask Permission Before, After Or Not At All?Traveling and photography go hand in hand for many of us. New sights are a feast for the eyes and those of use with strong photographic intentions love capturing the color and life we find on (digital) film for sharing back home. Or sometimes just for our own enjoyment.

One subject that comes up time and again for me as a photo tour operator is, “Do you ask permission when taking someone’s photo?” It’s one of the touchiest subjects in photography in general. Ask any seasoned street photographer and you will likely receive a resounding, “No”. Same goes for photojournalists. But most of us don’t fall into those two categories. Most of us are just out enjoying the world and aren’t looking to make a name as a world renowned journalist.

So there the question still lingers. For the average photographer, out on vacation (not on assignment), do you ask permission when taking someone’s photo?

My advice when asked? Yes, always. Most of the time. Except….  You see, it’s not black and white for me (my CCD only records in color). I try my best to ask for permission before shooting out of respect. For me it relates to the Golden Rule and I’d appreciate others asking my permission first if the lens were reversed. Whenever practical, yes, ask. I know, I know….it ruins the shot most of the time. But for me, being respectful of people I share the planet with goes further than bringing home that really cool shot (and unless I’m shooting for a Pulitzer, all the shots are just cool shots). I have found that asking for permission, while ruining one shot, will often lead to other shots that never existed before I said hello. Asking also leads to connection with people in the area I’m shooting, rather than treating them all as decorations that sparkle and amaze me. I also don’t mind taking people’s portraits (which often happens after asking for permission as people tend to pose) so it works both ways.

On the flip side, I do take a number of shots without asking, especially in crowded market situations. I take it on a case by cases basis and often ask after the fact, showing the subject the picture. This can also strike up a conversation leading to more knowledge than if I had never engaged. The cobbler pictured here in Bhutan, mending my boot, became far more animated and talkative after I asked for his image. Especially when his friend in across the street saw me taking the photo. It opened up conversation, eased the comfort level between us and lead to other shots.

Other times it is simply not practical. A stone mason at work high on a wall. Traffic police in the middle of an intersection. There are times when the subject is in plain public view and asking would either not be practical nor advisable. In those cases I try to make eye contact and wave a ‘thank you’ or simply walk on.

What about you? How often do you ask permission when traveling? Do you typically ask before or after and has it ever led to more than you anticipated? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments section below.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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