Friday, December 6, 2019

Photographing People

There are, roughly, two schools of thought regarding photographing people in public settings. The first is I can do what I want, so who cares what they want and the second is respect their desires unconditionally, and err on the side of not taking the photo.

I want to pick this apart a little, because these are simplistic.

Someone in public, walking down the street, has already agreed to be seen, to be observed and remembered. They might not be happy about it, or they might be perfectly OK with it, it doesn't really matter because for whatever reason, they've already signed up for this. There is not a lot of space between being remembered and being photographed and trying to insert an argument into that gap is going to be dicey, but there are cases and circumstances.

On the other hand, many people simply have an aversion to being photographed. This is not necessarily a rational aversion, usually it's just some vague sense of unease, some notion that photography is intrusive, or some vestigial belief in the magical ability of the camera to steal the soul. While irrational, it's something people feel.

We are, in the end, balancing our own desire to photograph a person against their potential desire not to be photographed.

Human society demands a certain degree of respect for others beliefs, irrespective of whether those beliefs make sense or not. It does not demand absolute obeisance, however.

Therefore if I have only a vague desire to photograph some people, and they have a distinct desire not to be, perhaps I should put the camera down. On the other hand, if I have a firm plan, and definite idea, which produces a strong and coherent desire (I hesitate to say need) to photograph them, perhaps I don't put the camera down.

These people have, after all, already agreed to be seen and remembered. Should their mildly neurotic desire not to be photographed trump my stronger, more coherent, desire to photograph them? These balancing acts are the stuff of human society, and we all have some little skill at navigating them.

We can throw in to the mix here some notion that people own their appearance, an idea I think codified in law in Europe. I am unsure where I land on this, ethically. On the one hand, ok, I guess? On the other hand, you're the one parading your appearance around in public. In a sense, you are giving your appearance away every day. More precisely, I think, people have a right to their representation, which is to say, a right to control the way they are made to appear to others.

It is essentially unfair, socially, and also unphotographic to represent people other than as they are. To take a photograph of a perfectly average bloke in such a way as to make him appear a fool is unkind, as well as unphotographic in that it is not showing us the truth. If the average bloke mugs for the camera, willfully forcing his features into a foolish expression, what then? Well, I don't quite know. It still seems to me unfair, but on the other hand our notional bloke is complicit. See Arbus's photo of the boy with the toy hand grenade.

In general, I think it should be obvious, one should err on the side of generosity. Such is the nature of human society. We should treat one another kindly, while also balancing our own needs and desires against those of others. There will, inevitably, be conflicts. Do your best.

Now, to the exceptions.

There are people who have a perfectly rational, fact-based, desire not to be photographed. I took a picture of a store interior recently, and a pleasant man of apparently Mexican descent was in the frame. He politely asked if I would delete the photo.

His presence in the frame did not matter to the picture, and so I took another without him, and deleted the first one. My need to have his picture was nil, and he asked nicely, so the social calculus was clear. Furthermore, though, it occurs to me that his documents may not be entirely in order, or perhaps they are but he fears that some consequence may fall upon him by way of our thuggish immigration enforcement staff anyways. We did not discuss it, but he may have excellent reasons for wanting to maintain a low profile.

Another point in favor of deletion.

This seems to me one of those narrow cases in which the distinction between being seen and remembered is different enough from being photographed to matter. A photograph, potentially, allows a legally strong positive identification, in ways that a memory does not. When the law in in play, therefore, the gap between memory and photograph is perhaps wide enough after all to admit an argument.

There are probably other, similar, cases, here.

In the end, though, I see no reason to hew to an absolute notion that one ought not to photograph people who do not wish to be photographed. Nor do I have any truck with an absolutist notion that a camera entitles one to photograph anything and everything. Society is a system of needs wishes balanced against other needs and wishes.

Navigate accordingly.


  1. An uncle, a small farmer , had hired some locals to help with the harvest. Local paper sent out a photographer to capture the essence of then season and a picture duly appeared in the local paper. Two of the local helpers were prosecuted for working whilst claiming unemployment benefit.

  2. For yucks, I photograph some local cycling races, I happen to really like bicycle racing of all types. In one local series, the day's line-up consists of 3 adult races (although some younger teenagers are sometimes present) and one kids' race (12 and under). I don't take pics of the kids' race because I post them publicly (and offer them for sale to cover my gas and coffee) and I don't think that kids really understand what it means to participate in a public event. I don't care if that's an incorrect point of view.
    I don't do much street photography but would not feel right taking pics of people in which they are the main subject without their permission regardless of how public the event is. I would ask permission. That might not fit with "street" but I don't care. In general I don't care if someone takes a pic of me, but that's only in general. What if I'm out somewhere and I just want to remain anonymous?
    How do jurisdictions with strict privacy guidelines handle CCTV? If you watch TV crime drama, especially British ones, they don't seem to be able to solve ay crimes without CCTV cameras. Is that a form of "viral" marketing to get us comfortable with the idea? In jurisdictions with widespread CCTV, are the films available to the public, or only the authorities?
    Lots of questions, I guess, sorry.

    1. Robert,
      When I last lived in the UK, when Tony Blair and the Socialists were in power, there were more 'security' cameras than in the former East Germany!
      The British were the most spied-upon nation on the planet.
      Go figure!
      BTW, WEST Germany had practically none; now, there are some in Germany, but far, far fewer than most people would think.

  3. Out of curiosity, let's change your hypothetical from photographing people in public to photographing their publicly visible property ... how might this distinction affect your analysis?

    (For the benefit of others, this is an issue that's near and dear to me, as my primary photographic interest is urban and suburban street and alley scenes photographed late at night and my photos often include buildings and houses and other types of structures, all of which I photograph solely from public property. Although I try to photograph without being observed, because it's just easier to sidestep any potential drama, I do sometimes encounter property owners or managers, almost all of whom are decidedly unhappy about me photographing their property. So much so, in fact, that most of those I encounter call the police to report me and my photography as being suspicious generally or to report what they believe is a crime being committed, which, of course, it's not.)