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Photography in Public Places

Travel provides us with a veritable treasure trove of photographic opportunities. Markets, festivals and parades all offer unique possibilities and challenges for the travel photographer. Many of these possibilities involve people. But when is it appropriate to photograph someone you don’t know? And is permission required?

Leica M6 camera with Leica 35mm Summicron f2 Aspherical lens

Leica M6 camera with Leica 35mm Summicron f2 Aspherical lens

Whenever I’m considering an overseas trip I always consult a guidebook to determine any local sensitivities towards photography. Such sensitivities could be religious, age, gender, political or security based. Did you know that, for example, candid street photography is illegal in Saudi Arabia? Not knowing this fact could place the photographer, whether professional or tourist, into serious trouble.

Once I have a general understanding of any local expectations and taboos relating to photography I can then decide whether photography based trip is worthwhile.

When it comes to people-based photography my own preference is to make interactive portraits that display a collaborative approach between subject and viewer. I’ve hardly ever photographed a truly candid image. Although, in practice, I’ve organised many images that have the look of a candid moment. It’s silly to think that, unless you’re hidden from view with a very long lens, that you’re able to photograph someone in a way that is truly candid. The fact is that your camera, and in particular the size of your lens, announces your presence and advertises your intentions. Some folks probably think that by sneaking around you’ll be able to catch or snatch a photo. Chances are the locals have formed much the same impressions of your intentions and, by implications, of you.

There is one lesson, in particular, that I learned as a child, which has stayed with me throughout my life and largely determines how I interact with people. I remember my dear mother saying “How would you feel if someone had done that to you”. Perhaps that’s a question the long lens brigades should ask themselves. The compassionate photographer has to balance the needs of the subject with their own and those of a potentially larger audience.

Of course there may be times when you see something that’s about to happen. If you wait for permission you’ll miss the moment. The best option might be to make the picture and then approach the subject, or their guardian, and explain why you felt it best to make the picture without first asking permission. In such circumstances it’s important that your explanation be part apology. Your courage and tact will open up a dialogue and may provide you with an opportunity to ask permission to make even more photographs. 

I’m not trying to diminish the appropriateness of the telephoto lens for wildlife, sports and certain types of surveillance photography. Nor am I ignoring the way a telephoto lens can further emphasize a subject by separating them from their surroundings and increase the visual power of a sharp subject against an out of focus background. I’m simply pointing out the beauty of an interactive portrait and the merit and positive aspects associated with speaking to people outside of our own life’s experience. I’II write much more about this and related topics over time.

The above image was made at a local market in Yangon, Myanmar. For those not familiar with Southeast Asia, Myanmar is the country formerly known as Burma and Yangon, the capital city, was referred to as Rangoon under British rule.

This shot was made outdoors under hard, bright light just prior to a trip up country. I noticed the spice seller from some distance away. It was a fairly chaotic scene with lots of color, texture and shape. The lady in question was sitting a little too far away from the spices for my liking but, as the light on her face was not particularly flattering, I decided to concentrate my composition more on the spices in the foreground.

Business didn’t seem to be too good. That, together with the bright overhead sun, may have explained her downcast expression. I decided to approach her in a way that would not be embarrassing for either of us. While moving towards her I set my camera for the exposure and Depth of Field I required. Without a common language I asked for permission by lifting the camera upwards while, at the same time, slightly bobbing my head downwards, in a submissive manner, as a measure of respect. She looked up and smiled. I made the picture, thanked her with a smile and moved on. The whole interaction occurred over a few short seconds. Yet, I still have a clear memory of the event and, of course, a photographic record to share with others. It’s important to me that our brief interaction may also have brought some extra happiness into her life.

The image was made with a Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm Summicron-M Aspherical lens with Kodak Professional Ektachrome 100VS film

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

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2 Responses

  1. This is such an important point. I hope lots of folks read it — and understand it. Unless I’m shooting a crowd scene, I always ask for (or motion for, when I don’t speak the language) permission — and if it’s not granted, I don’t take the picture. I hate seeing people just shove their cameras in people’s faces — or worse, take the photo even as people are trying to hide their faces and are saying no and holding a hand out to clearly show that they don’t want to be photographed. I actually went so far as to put my hand in front of the lens of one photographer who was trying to shoot a group of unveiled Muslim women who were clearly distressed, obviously trying to hide their faces and wave away the photographer. How completely uncaring of people do you have to be to do that? Anyway, I’m so glad to read that someone who wanders the world and is in fact a truly gifted professional (because being “serious” about photography is sometimes used as an excuse for rudeness) has such an excellent attitude about respecting — and protecting — the humans encountered around the world. Bravo.

  2. Thank you so much for your comments. They were both complimentary and insightful. I can see we’re of like mine in this regard and I very much appreciated reading your comments on Jan 27, which was my birthday. It makes the effort of writing and formating all these articles and pics all the more worthwhile. Please feel free to suggest a topic you’d like me to cover. If I’m able I’d be happy to.

    Kindest Regards,

    Glenn

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