Generation Gap
Generation Gap
Today, I experimented with taking pictures of strangers. I'm always impressed by Jim and iMorpheus' photos of strangers and I figured that the best way to get better at it was just to start doing it.

I had been practicing portraits on people I knew and thought that portraits of strangers should be fun. It was definitely harder than I had expected. I had asked a number of people their "secret". Some people asked before shooting, some people people fooled people into thinking that they were shooting something else, others were stealthy. I felt a bit "dirty" taking pictures of people sneakily. On the other hand, I didn't have the guts to go up to people and ask if I could take their picture. Some of the photos turned out OK, but it was a lot of work.

I am still not sure what my ethical position on photographing strangers is. Personally, I don't mind if people take my picture without asking. On the other hand I'm a weirdo. I've read a number of articles an essays about this topic and I still don't have a very good sense of whether it is cool or not to do it. I definitely think it's OK if you ask. My question is whether it is cool to shoot photos of people and post them to Flickr or our blog if they didn't give you permission. As far as I know, in most countries it's legal to do this.

23 Comments

I saw a TV show on Araki Nobuyoshi once in Japan and he would just walk down the street taking photos of strangers everywhere. It struck me as something I'd have a hard time doing; I was a terminally shy kid and I think the photography I've done sort of shows some of that personality trait, which I've otherwise banished as an adult; a lot of the shots I get of people are sort of "fleeting glance" type stuff.

It's really a grey area...
Where you may have the right to shoot, you usually have a responsibility to be up-front about what you're doing. For some, that means asking permission, but for the way I shoot, I prefer to just be very obvious with what I'm doing, working with a huge press camera and flash. If that's not your thing, just have the camera up like you're going to shoot, while you find and compose your shot and keep it in sight afterwards. If you don't try to hide it, people will often react better. You should also watch how James Nachtwey shoots in the movie "War Photographer," shooting bereaved and distraught strangers in stressful, war-torn areas. From time to time, you see him, camera up, raising an open palm and making eye contact, two universal symbols of trust.

If you make a personal choice not to "sneak" shots, your photography will be better for it. Of course, some people will disagree—after all, Walker Evans did a book of classic subway portraits like yours above titled "Many Are Called." To do it, he snuck all of his shots using a camera hidden in the folds of his jacket or something.

Sometimes I take pictures of people in compromising positions, such as passed out drunk on the street, in the arms of a hostess at two in the morning, or just being somewhere they probably wouldn't want to be photographed, like the doorway of a Kabukicho peep show. Then, for me, it presents an ethical dilemma—do I sacrifice what might be a good shot out of good sportsmanship or publish the thing, knowing that I was photographing people legally in public, so I have the right? I will chose the former in most cases, unless I can somehow preserve the person's anonymity compositionally. (Here is a good example of what I mean.)

I also try to be sensitive to the fact that some of the people I may shoot are working illegally and may react badly, such as the West Africans who work the clubs in Kabukicho. Often they'll see me and confront me about shooting their photos, when I haven't at all. Other times, they'll ask me for a picture to send home to their families. (It's amazing how well a print or two works as an icebreaker...)

Still, Tokyo is a really great place for street shooting, which, by its nature, is of strangers. People here are used to the sight of a camera and don't assume that anyone taking their photo is a terrorist or pedophile. One night I was shooting a brawl between some Yakuza and the police and at one point, a cop put his hand firmly on my shoulder. "Uh, oh, I'm busted..." I thought, but then he asked "Is that a Voigtländer camera? What film are you using?" Japan's like that—you can't swing a cat without hitting a camera nut...

I've been doing this for years, and have developed a special approach/technique. I like to use a big obvious camera (Nikon D-80 now) that has an audable sound. BUT the camera just hangs at arm's length, and I swivel the camera around. Some amazing shots from behind me too while walking.

http://tinyurl.com/2g3ydh
http://tinyurl.com/26nxqr
http://tinyurl.com/2b3u6w

The ethics are interesting. The laws, when I looked them up in the US and Britian were clear that pictures are ok in public places except public places where one would have a right to privacy (hospitals, change rooms, toilets, etc.) and shooting people on private property while you're on public property is OK as well. As for the personal/social ethics, the only thing I could come up with was the use of the images in a respectful and compassionate manner. The images captured are to me beautiful, meaningful and often inspiring, and they're taken with a clear technique and aesthetic. I don't, accordingly, see it as any different from other forms of creative interpretation. I don't ever ask for permission, because that actually destroys the nature of the photo, as far as I'm concerned.

A nice tip is to order a batch of moocards with your best pictures from Flickr and a link to your photostream on it. This saves a lot of explanation and gives your subjects a physical hyperlink where they can retrieve your pictures.

This works both when asking ('here have this card!') and when you're just doing it and somebody asks you what it's for.

I don't know about the ethical ramifications, but what a great picture! It makes me wonder if the kid's future is sitting next to him. To be honest, I wouldn't like it if someone took my picture and made it public, but then again if there is no identifying information it wouldn't matter too much. It's not like it would come up in a Google search for my name or anything.

By the way, I remember reading somewhere that the law in the UK was that a smile seen in a picture indicated consent. It was in reference to the (smiling) fat kid on the cover of Fatboy Slim's album.

I've felt the same way when taking pictures sneakily on the train. It is hard to do with a cellphone because (in Japan) you can not silence the shutter, and with a camera it becomes too obvious. I found PDAs good for this purpose (no shutter sound).

It depends. If i was with my family (wife and kids) i'd likely relieve you of your phone :)

A couple of guys did this to my brothers wife here in Scotland a few months back - asked to take a photo of the baby as she was getting on the bus. She said no and they took a quick photo anyway.

A report to the police brought up the factoid that guys "fitting their description" had been taking such photos all over the place in the area. Maybe their motive wasn't sinister - but who really knows?!

To be honest i don't particularly like these kind of photos and in Scotland you may need a good pair of running shoes. I do love cultural photo's like this though and with permission they are very cool indeed!

from an ethical standpoint is this not like "permissions marketing" ?? How can we take for granted that a person would like his/her pic on the internet ?? No everyone is Inet friendly..but everyone (stranger) is photpgraphic !!

I think its simple to ask permission to take and ask again to post on the web !!

Is it true that one cannot silence the shutter in Japan? As, in, legally impossible? I've been reading about the reasons, yes, and still I always have the shutter sound off, because I don't need it. Is that plain illegal in Japan?

I want to say more later about the technique of taking these pictures, but for now I want to comment on this question:

My question is whether it is cool to shoot photos of people and post them to Flickr or our blog if they didn't give you permission. As far as I know, in most countries it's legal to do this.

The answer is, in most countries it is legal to take photos of people when they are in a public place, in a situation in which they do not have the expectation of privacy. However, it is not usually ok to sell such photos without a model release, if the subject(s) can be identified. So, from a Flickr/CC perspective, should be OK as long as you license them as no commercial use and share alike.

You're actually on shaky legal ground even if you don't use the photos for commercial purposes. See here:

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/肖像権

the "shutter sound" is legally required in japan due to the fact that men here cant seem to resist using their camphones to shoot upskirt shots of women who didnt agree to that before hand.

Joi, if you publish a picture of a minor in Japan without express concent, arent you required to blur out the eyes or face?

As far as pictures of strangers, I try not to publish shots which contain faces in clear focus. Also I dont like having my picture taken without consent and have chased people down for doing so asking them to delete the picture.

(Pardon the possible dupe - posted this yesterday, but it didn't go through somehow...)

It's really a grey area...
Where you may have the right to shoot, you usually have a responsibility to be up-front about what you're doing. For some, that means asking permission, but for the way I shoot, I prefer to just be very obvious with what I'm doing, working with a huge press camera and flash. If that's not your thing, just have the camera up like you're going to shoot, while you find and compose your shot and keep it in sight afterwards. If you don't try to hide it, people will often react better. You should also watch how James Nachtwey shoots in the movie "War Photographer," shooting bereaved and distraught strangers in stressful, war-torn areas. From time to time, you see him, camera up, raising an open palm and making eye contact, two universal symbols of trust.

If you make a personal choice not to "sneak" shots, your photography will be better for it. Of course, some people will disagree—after all, Walker Evans did a book of classic subway portraits like yours above titled "Many Are Called." To do it, he snuck all of his shots using a camera hidden in the folds of his jacket or something.

Sometimes I take pictures of people in compromising positions, such as passed out drunk on the street, in the arms of a hostess at two in the morning, or just being somewhere they probably wouldn't want to be photographed, like the doorway of a Kabukicho peep show. Then, for me, it presents an ethical dilemma—do I sacrifice what might be a good shot out of good sportsmanship or publish the thing, knowing that I was photographing people legally in public, so I have the right? I will chose the former in most cases, unless I can somehow preserve the person's anonymity compositionally. (Here is a good example of what I mean.)

I also try to be sensitive to the fact that some of the people I may shoot are working illegally and may react badly, such as the West Africans who work the clubs in Kabukicho. Often they'll see me and confront me about shooting their photos, when I haven't at all. Other times, they'll ask me for a picture to send home to their families. (It's amazing how well a print or two works as an icebreaker...)

Still, Tokyo is a really great place for street shooting, which, by its nature, is of strangers. People here are used to the sight of a camera and don't assume that anyone taking their photo is a terrorist or pedophile. One night I was shooting a brawl between some Yakuza and the police and at one point, a cop put his hand firmly on my shoulder. "Uh, oh, I'm busted..." I thought, but then he asked "Is that a Voigtländer camera? What film are you using?" Japan's like that—you can't swing a cat without hitting a camera nut...

This was also a concern for me as I was filming in and around Tokyo. Basically, we just tried to avoid lingering shots on people (hard to film Tokyo without showing any people). We haven't released the film (yet) though, so we'll address any legal questions later ;)

As for not being able to silence the shutter sounds on mobile phones here in Japan, the handsets themselves do not allow you to turn the shutter sound off. This was introduced to stop people taking pictures up girls' skirts - sad, but true.

It's called street photography and has a long tradition. Done right, it can be a very interesting game to play and the possibilities are endless. You know you're on the right track when your lenses are getting shorter and don't try hiding what you are doing. Enjoy.

http://www.unicircuits.com/gallery/japan_on_film

That is a GREAT picture, Joi. I say, if the product is good enough and in good taste, there's no need to question the ethics of it. :)

One thing that maybe the lawyers here can help with... isn't it true that the maximum someone can sue you for is the damages caused? While I can see a remote possibility that a photograph like this could traumatize the subject, if it is for non-commercial use, in good taste and isn't compromising or defamatory, isn't the risk rather low? I'm just trying to understand the nature of the legal risk.

I suppose I'll probably end up in the camp of asking permission either before or after I shoot, but such a decision would make me less likely to shoot something like this picture. I'd probably rather not shoot it than have to explain what I was doing to, for example, these two in a train.

In my experience, the people who worry about this most are the ones getting into most trouble (must be self-fulfilling prophecy).

Secondly, what if the subject denies later having given you permission? Only a signed release will then help. And AFAIK releases are only required for commercial use, not artistic expression. A great tradition of Japanese photographers working in public would not be able to work if the legal situation would be as restrictive as you suggest. So unless your pictures put the subject in a bad light or state incorrect facts, for example by using caption "Two yakuza on train" there should be nothing to worry.

Asking permission is of course a valid way of operation, for whatever reason, but the pics will be different. Some people shoot, then ask, and shoot again...

Add a black bar onto their faces :)
BTW a nice pic!

Dear Joi:

At one time (1963-74) I made part of my living as a professional photographer. Taking photos without permission is always an ethical question. In some circumstances I got model releases first, if my intention was commercial explotation. In, others, like news coverage, I shot and published because it was relevant to events I was covering. I happened to be in the middle of a book exhibit at the Frankfurt International Book Fair in 1970 when some radicals began breaking it up. I shot the entire thing, had to fight them to keep my camera, and took the whole roll to my friends at DPA. It was a criminal rather than a politcal act, so I felt justified in taking those exposures as they happened. The raw stuff of history and all of that.
The funny thing is that, had I been told in advance that they were going to do this, I would have gone out of my way to avoid it. I was in the U.S. Army at the time and not supposed to get mixed up in local politics. Public photography has a long and honorable history and there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. There are those who will always take the opposite view. In the USA, since 9/11, a photographer can run afoul of local authorities by simply taking too many photos of the infrastructure. I was in a minimart recently when a clerk took it upon herself to tell some tourists that they could not take photos inside the store. This was news to me, since I've shopped there for five years and no one ever said anything to me when I did so. At the very least there has to a posted written notice of such a policy. I think she made the whole thing up. In the end, every situation is a judgement call. Nice shot, by the way. It says a lot, as good photography should.

Your photograph reminds me of David Crawford's Stop Motion Studies http://stopmotionstudies.net. They capture an intimacy that is sometimes right on the edge; some might say over.

After looking through Kevin Kelly's fantastic Asia Grace photography book, I asked him if he asked people for permission to photograph them. He said he never did. The trick, he explained, was just to be very friendly and not hide what you were doing. The results were gorgeous and stunning.

Photographing strangers is no doubt interesting. But it is harder to do in western nations, where most people object to it.

In USA, one will get easily sued. Wonder if you can actually try taking pictures of biker gangs in US :-)

In some parts of Asia, most people don't mind and some even want to be photographed by foreigners. It may be much easier to do it in Asia/Africa ...

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