Musings on Photography

A Little Trick

Posted in ethics by Paul Butzi on March 30, 2007

Mike Johnston writes (on The Online Photographer):

In all the talk about photographing street people, no one has mentioned this yet, so perhaps it’s not as well-known a trick as I thought: you take the picture first and then ask permission. If permission is granted, you take a few more (especially with digital, what can it hurt? And you might get a good one). If permission is refused, you can politely refrain…from taking any more. You still have your candid in the camera, you might say.

I think this is justified because 1) it’s true that you won’t get the same shot after you approach someone (they can become self-conscious or just change position), 2) many people don’t realize for sure if you’ve taken any pictures or not anyway, and 3) people mainly just like being asked.

Now, we could have an interesting discussion about whether a photographer has the right to make photographs in a public place (varies from culture to culture and from one legal jurisdiction to another) and whether an individual in a public place has the right to not be photographed.  That’s a separate issue from this particular tactic.

I’d just note that, with this tactic, the implicit assumption is that people may object to being photographed.  But the tactic used strikes me as duplicitous.  It’s all about taking a picture, asking permission, and no matter what, walking away with the picture.  If you believe you’re right in taking that first picture, why ask for permission afterward?  If you don’t believe you’re right in taking that first picture, why take it?  Or, at the very least, take the photo, and if the subject doesn’t retroactively grant permission, delete it right before their eyes.

Try applying this tactic to some behavior other than photographing: I’ve got a little trick that lets me spray paint on people in public places.  I spray paint on their backside first, then I ask them “Can I spray paint on you?”  And if they say yes, then I go wild, and paint all over them; spray paint is cheap – what can it hurt?  But if they object, I politely refrain from… spraying more paint on them.  I already got that first candid spray.

This works great, because:

  1. It’s true that spraying paint on someone after asking permission just isn’t as fun or artistic as that first butt-spray, because often people get self conscious or change position.
  2. Many people don’t realize for sure that I’ve spray painted their backside or not anyway.
  3. People mainly just like to be asked.

The obvious objection to this analogy is that spray painting harms someone, but photographing them doesn’t.  Sorry – that doesn’t hold water.  If photographing someone doesn’t harm them, then why would you need to ask permission?

All this is is a deceitful trick to try to evade the consequences of your behavior.

7 Responses

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  1. Colin Jago said, on March 30, 2007 at 11:20 am

    As I nipped in before you on the aesthetic ladder story, I am happy to be able to add a comment here that goes: “I too would have said all of this if I had been faster”.

    One either thinks that it is OK to stand in a public place and take pictures of strangers, or one doesn’t.

  2. Bryan Willman said, on March 30, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Oddly, the taking of the picture is not the issue, rather, it is the use.
    Ever one of us in metro areas in the US gets “photographed” (without any chance to object) by traffic cameras, security cameras in ATMs and buildings, and on and on.
    Having somebody take a still picture doesn’t add anything to that.
    But publishing the picture on a public web page might well be a different story….

    So asking permission to *publish*, and certainly asking permission for *commercial use*, make fine sense, and would not be duplicitous…

  3. sjconnor said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    Taking someone’s picture doesn’t, in fact, harm them. They might think it does, but some people once also thought it might steal their soul. Irrationalality is irrationality, small or big.

  4. Ed Richards said, on March 31, 2007 at 5:06 am

    > One either thinks that it is OK to stand in a public place and take pictures of strangers, or one doesn’t.

    Even if you think it is wrong, and that you are a sneak and worm for doing it, taking a picture and then asking only makes ethical sense if you then erase the first picture if they say no.

  5. Colin Jago said, on March 31, 2007 at 10:41 am


    Yeah. Hypocrite was the phrase somebody used in a comment on TOP.

  6. Paul Butzi said, on March 31, 2007 at 10:52 am

    Setting aside the issue of whether the person photographed has been harmed (and the postmodernist/moral relativist difficulties there) what I find most annoying is the gleeful endorsement of a practice which is socially corrosive.

    Every time some photographer pulls this stunt, there’s a non-zero probability that the ‘mark’ will eventually figure out that he’s been had. And, when he/she figures this out, not only will they never fall for the trick again, they will never treat a person who politely asks permission first the same again. Instead, they’ll react with suspicion and hostility, even though this particular photographer is not being duplicitous.

    If it were just a case of rude photographers spoiling the deal for themselves, I’d find it a lot less irritating. But instead, these selfish folks feel free to spoil things for everyone else, because they already got their turn and they just don’t care about anyone else.

    I can’t stop people who do things like this, but my respect for the people who do this certainly drops when I find out about it.

  7. AAS said, on October 18, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Last winter I bought a muffin and hot coffee for a homeless man, and we struck up a conversation about DC, the local shelters, etc. 5 minutes before we started talking, I had snapped a photo of him. After our 20 minute chat, I asked him if I could take his photo. I wanted a close up shot. He said no, and I said okay. I’ve often thought about printing the picture, which I was initially quite excited about, but have always felt wrong about it. If it were digital, I would have deleted the file. I suppose I should cut up the negative.

    I see him every few weeks, and he recognizes me, asks how I’m doing, and we chat for a few minutes. If I’m out getting food, I’ll pick up a muffin for him as well. Each time I see him, I’m reminded that I did the right thing. I think a lot of it has to do with intent. Why did I want to take the photo in the first place? It was part of a project on raising awareness of homeless and low-income challenges in DC. I definitely feel that printing the photo would have gone against the goal of the project.

    I’m not sure I see the harm in taking a photo or two first, and then asking for another. But like you said, if your request is turned down, it is most definitely unethical to use the first photos.

    On the other hand, sometimes when photographing kids, you’ll get the best shots if you ask them if you can take their photo first. If they agree, shoot a few frames while the pose and joke around with the camera, and then when their attention span fades away from the camera, keep shooting.

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