Photography In Public Places

A classic street scene featuring a street performer and an elderly passerby in La Boca, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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?

Travel Photographers | Do Your Research

Whenever I’m considering an overseas trip I always consult a guidebook, or do some research online, 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 simply a tourist, into serious trouble.

Once I have a general understanding of any local expectations and taboos relating to photography I can then decide whether a photography based trip is worthwhile. This research also enables me to determine, before I embark on the trip, whether my photography is likely to concentrate on people or landscape.

A formal portrait of a woman in front of a coloful background in Kolkata, India

Portraiture Is A Collaborative Process

When it comes to people-based photography my own preference is to make interactive portraits that come out of a collaborative approach between myself and the subject. I’ve hardly ever photographed a truly candid image. Although, in practice, I’ve made many images that have the look of a candid moment.

Three local inuit men on the edge of the wild near Ilulissat, Greenland.

Sneaky Sneaky

It’s silly to think that, unless you’re hidden from view with a very long lens, that you’re unable to photograph someone in a way that appears 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 they’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.

I Make Photographs

This is why I don’t like using the words shoot or take when it comes to photography.

I make photographs which, to my mind, implies a totally different approach and outcome. I make photographs and I bring to the event an open, honest and affable disposition. Rather than taking anything away I’m working to bring my own unique character, personality, experiences and expertise to that interaction.

Photography Etiquette

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 brigade should ask themselves. The compassionate photographer has to balance the needs of the subject with their own needs and those of their audience.

Two girls step gingerly into the waters of the Hooghly River in Kolkata, India.

There’s Always An Exception

Of course there may be times when you see something that’s about to happen. If you wait until after you’ve been granted permission to make the photograph you’ll miss the moment. None of us should be so dogmatic in our opinions or approach that we prevent ourselves making truly great images that, one photo at a time, can bring positive change to our world.

In this case 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. Usually that’s because you felt the moment you saw unfolding before you was unrepeatable. In such circumstances it’s important that your explanation be part apology. Your courage, tact and preparedness to show the image you’ve made will open up a dialogue and may provide you with an opportunity to ask permission to make even more photographs.

Photography In A Politically Correct World

Each of us is responsible for the decisions we make and, to a degree, the consequences of those decisions. However, it’s my view that if your motivations are pure and your intentions are to produce beautiful, life affirming images then, more often than not, you should be able to do so. But, again, be aware of local politics, regulations and taboos; and the mood of the individual you'd like to photograph. 

Three young girls at play in the grounds of a Hindu Temple complex in Bali, Indonesia.

It’s Not A Crime To Use A Big Lens

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 increasing 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 engaging with people outside of our own life’s experience.

This article should be read very much as an opinion piece. At the end of the day we are all responsible for the decisions we make and the actions that follow. My most important piece of advice when photographing people in public places is, when ever possible, to do what I do: Ask Permission First.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru