You will often find yourself in a situation where you photograph people you don’t know. Whether you are working on a news story, traveling, or shooting at home, keep in mind certain rules and choose the right moment in order to show respect towards others while composing the best image possible.
When on vacation or traveling abroad, for example, our first instinct is to photograph everything around us. Discovering new surroundings, a new culture, and new customs makes us eager to photograph the foreign country, as well as the local residents who are part of the landscape. However, we should not follow our curiosity and photographic desire at the expense of the residents. It is much easier to shoot than to ask questions. However, we should always make the effort to make contact with people. If you are entering someone’s personal space to take a full-face portrait, at least signal your subject or smile at them.
Make eye contact with the person to let them know in the simplest way possible that you would like to take their picture. This gesture makes dialog possible and is a sign of respect. A nod on the part of your subject will be enough to indicate their consent. You will thus avoid taking pictures on the sly, which often implies quick and dirty shots taken without any consideration and often producing dubious results. You can do better by communicating with your subject. Explain directly that you would like them to be in your picture. You might just get the holy grail of a beautifully posed image, with the added satisfaction of having made human contact with another person.
Share the photo
If you have managed to make contact, don’t hesitate to show the image to your subject. In most cases, they will be thrilled or else ask you to retake the photo. Think also of offering to share the photo, either electronically or by sending them a print.
Do not insist
If someone appears unwilling to participate, for example by shielding their face with their hand or shaking their head, do not insist and be on your way. Not everyone wants to be photographed, especially not in a persistent, obnoxious way. You will no doubt find another passerby who will be happy to feature in your shot later on. If you have already taken a photo without the person’s consent, consider erasing it to respect their wishes, even if you are under no obligation to do so.
There are instances when you are not aiming your camera directly at a subject but rather taking in the whole scene, without focusing on anyone in particular. If that’s the case, make sure at least to silence your camera, if possible, to eliminate obtrusive noises, such as the sound of the autofocus or the shutter. You will be less in the way and will appear more discreet.
To photograph, or not to photograph
All the above tips are a matter of course. Even if you are shooting with the subject’s consent, it is important to understand that taking an image and sharing it on the web are two different things. There are privacy laws which will vary from country to country.
If a person refuses to be photographed, it is always advisable to respect their choice, even if, legally, when it comes to the dissemination of images, the freedom to artistic expression takes precedence unless the photo contravenes human dignity or if publishing it may adversely impact the subject, or if the photo was taken in a private area.
In France, the right to one’s image is a personal right which, according to the Civil Code, falls under the right to privacy. It allows one to refuse the dissemination of one’s image specifically under those conditions. The French law, however, does not forbid photographing strangers in a public place.
Bottom line: be discreet and respectful, and, above all, for best results, always try to make contact with your subject.
By Céline Nebor