Photographic étiquette, part two

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Following the lighter post on the topic, I felt it’s probably a good idea to discuss some of the more serious grey areas as a photographer; especially when it comes to photographing people, locations or property that might well be private. In general, in most countries, if you can see it from a public location, photographing something is fair game. However, there are exceptions and degrees: anything with security or government links is probably a bad idea. Getting too close to anything without permission is probably also a bad idea. Crossing lines – even if they’re arbitrary – is potentially a bad idea, and might land you in more trouble than the shot is worth. Bearing these things in mind, I’ve generally managed to stay off toes and still get the images I want…

Backing up a little, we must remember that our function as photographers is really in the role of observer: not technician or button pusher. By being an observer, we are then in the position to curate out a scene from the greater context and present it to our audience – in a two dimensional, subjectively-interpretative way. That of course is the photograph. In the course of doing so, we are preserving a slice of space-time for much longer than might otherwise be the case. In that slice might exist events or situations that invested parties might not want preserved; alternately, it’s quite possible that nobody will have noticed or cared. There are two slippery hills to fall down here: firstly, the preservation of evidence of something which perhaps should not have been preserved; secondly, whether we have changed something by the act of taking a photograph – either during the act because we were noticed by the participants, or afterwards, because we produced evidence. (And people say the universe at a gross scale does not obey the laws of quantum mechanics…)

My personal take on this is that whilst I can never always guarantee that I will not be an inadvertent participant, I can be careful enough that most of the time I am not noticed and do not interfere with the flow of things. From a creative standpoint, if your involvement changes what it is you were trying to photograph, then you are unlikely to be able to make the photograph you want anyway – to say nothing of making some people very annoyed. Of course, there are exceptions to this – if you (or the participants themselves) want the scene or participants to interact with you, for instance. Be sensitive to the other people around you, too – even if they are not participating or photographing. Use your judgement, but in general: don’t be one of those irritating people who stands up and blocks the show for the rest of the audience.

Would it be better then to ask forgiveness rather than permission? I think this too is a sticky question. If something rather significant is happening or the shot absolutely means that much to you for any reason – then it’s probably reasonable to shoot first and ask questions later. But not in any case make a nuisance of ourselves, nor trespass or violate the (equally valid) rights of other people involved. I don’t think it’s right for me to give prescriptive advice here – if you reasonably don’t think anybody else is going to be harmed, go ahead and shoot. But be prepared to back down later if you do not have access or permission.

Here we must also consider respect for the individual: both the person and property. I think property is actually much clearer – trespassing is obviously illegal and a bad idea; it becomes uncertain only when there is public visibility. Can you take a photograph of a car on a public street? Or a building visible from the street? Both can be argued either way, and may well fall down to the precise letter of the law. But in general, it’s not worth fighting with rentacops over (or other individuals). And even when dealing with proper law enforcement, it pays to be very familiar with your rights for a given country.

People are tougher. One could easily argue that any form of non-consensual image capture is wrong, because the person might be caught off guard and not be presenting themselves in the way that they want – or you could also argue (and this is usually the case) that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, and it is therefore the individual’s responsibility to comport themselves appropriately. This doesn’t change the fact that catching somebody mid-sneeze or mid-chew is unflattering – perhaps it is more reasonable to ask if you would mind your own image in that position being distributed, and act accordingly. Respecting individual personal space is definitely important – but even then, the definition varies from country to country and culture to culture. It seems it is not uncommon for photography in public to turn into a spectator sport in places like India, but at the same time, people also don’t seem to be unduly concerned with close range portraiture, either.

For whatever reason, photographing beggars and the homeless seems to be in vogue for the last few years; I suppose it is the illusion that street photography literally must be life on the streets – or perhaps because they are easy targets. It is a very, very thin line between documenting the human condition – hopefully with the intention of improving it – and exploiting these people because you want a photograph ‘with grit’. The latter is exploitative, unethical, and frankly puts all of us photographers in a very unfavourable light. Personally, I don’t do it because a) I don’t think anything I do can reasonably make a difference; b) there are others who can make a difference who are doing a much better job than I; c) I feel uncomfortable, and yes, it feels exploitative; d) I don’t appreciate the aesthetic nor does it fit with my own body of work. Just as you and I are people, strangers are not targets.

This is true for photojournalists, too: the press pass might give us more rights than the normal observer, but we must be sensitive not to abuse those. It’s a fine balance between being involved enough to accurately portray the scene for the general public and getting in the way – perhaps best expressed as the dilemma of ‘shoot or rescue?’ The only conclusion I can come to here is do whatever you can do best to help: you’re not going to be able to put out a skyscraper fire or scale the building to effect a rescue, but you can at least call 911 before you pull out the camera.

I think that actually boils things down nicely: firstly, have some common sense. Secondly, be considerate to the others around you – whether they’re participants or observers. They almost always have equal rights to access that you do; if you want more, then it’s probably a good idea to get permission first – that way, you know for sure everything is fair game. Anything else and it’s just unfair to expect the world to grant you priority; with few exceptions (usually hired security who do not understand or care about the actual law) I’ve not had problems, and even when I have – it’s almost never been worthwhile to argue, simply because by that point you’ve either got the shot already and might as well move on, or even if you win, the scene will have changed and you will no longer be in the mood. After all, we’re really only taking pictures for two reasons (that might not be mutually exclusive): we enjoy it, or it’s our job (and we presumably have the right and permission to be there). MT


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  1. Hi Ming. I had a strange situation in Thailand with ANOTHER photographer… It was sunset and a fisherman was paddling his boat to shore, silhouetted against the sun. I flashed a thumbs up at him, he smiled at me and nodded and I took some shots, maybe for 30 Seconds, calf deep in water. As I turned around, a Slovak! started yelling at me that I had deliberately ruined his shot, gotten in the way, etc. Truth is that I hadn’t even seen him, and on the few occasions where I’m photographing with a lot of other people, I pay attention to sight lines. Nevertheless, I felt that he was a bit cheeky.. Deserted beach, he could have moved himself faster, further… Anyway, I don’t speak Slovak, but “F- you” is just about the same in Polish, so guess how I responded? Of course, turned out that he was staying at my hotel, and I see him and his wife at breakfast next morning. Fortunately my ironic “Good morning, fine lady and gentleman” translated well to Slovak as well and he just laughed at me 😉

    • Hmm…I generally try to stay out of others’ way, unless I’m the official hired gun – in which case, I’ll be doing the yelling. (Actually, the client usually does the yelling if they’re paying…)

      Not much you could have done in this situation though – just how far back do you look, for instance?

  2. Oscar Wong says:

    Is the lady in picture Japanese? Assuming she’s not a hired model for the picture (no offence intended), would you mind sharing what did you actually say to her for the permission and, even better, to “open up” and pose it in a photographer-friendly way? Frankly I tried to ask for permission to shoot in the hope for some candid portraits, but my observation is that most (esp. those in Asian culture) tend not to entertain any such request, or (on some other rather unfortunate occasions) will actually ask you for a dime. Grateful if you could let us all have some heads-up! Cheers.


    • Yes, Japanese, and no, not hired. I smiled at her and raised the camera. She smiled back, I shot. I bowed and moved on. Being in Ginza, that lady probably had far more dimes than I did…

  3. Martin Fritter says:

    There are some interesting youtube videos of Winogrand at work: not at all shy, very extroverted, fun and non-threatening. He’d walk right up to people (28mm lens) and engage them and take one or two frames and move on. Shot very fast and could change film while walking. Very fluid. There’s lots of footage of Joel Meyerowitz – who believed that he was invisible – working in midtown Manhattan, dressed all in black with a black watch cap, snapping away unnoticed. Both with Leicas (Winogrand’s apparently an M4) and both shooting with both eyes open. Some years ago I met a Polish (photographer whose name completely escapes me) who took pictures of crows scenes in conflict zones – e.g., Bosnia. I noticed that the only people who seemed aware of being photographed were children, many of whom were looking right at the camera. I asked her how she eluded detection by the adults and she said she just stood in their blind spots!

    • Children seem to have an innate sense of when they’re being photographed; they don’t seem to mind, though. We adults are often too preoccupied with the various inanities of life…though having said that, I’m pretty conscious of cameras too…

  4. Beth White says:

    Ming, thanks for this article, thoughtfully well written. I am developing (yes, pun intended) my own style of street photography. I call it street flowers. Love to take photos of flowers growing in cracks in the sidewalk and in vacant lots, etc. In other words, I respect the privacy of people. And homeless people are people and deserve their privacy and our respect. As much as I would like to capture the moment in people’s lives, I really think we already have enough ‘capture the moments’ for future generations to get the idea of what this period of history is all about. But will my photography be something future generations will appreciate? That is what I hope to capture. The ART of Photography.

  5. Richard P. says:

    Good article … Sad to see some folks willing to sell their personal values for a couple of bucks. My personal motto … Use common sense, show compassion and don’t be a nuisance and if you can’t remember those then a simple catch-all: do unto others …

    Richard P.

  6. Isn`t is strange that some 30 years ago, I would say pre internet and digital imagining, people were much more relaxed about being photographed? I think, this progressing globalisation of instant access to posted pictures and predatory law suit lawyers, play a big part of paranoid feeling of possible misuse of ones identity and of being able to sue for millions. Nonwithstanding the fact, that with billions of smartphones, the accessible bridge cameras with binocular reach and abundant surveillance there`s no total privacy in public spaces. Of course there are limits to encroachment, stalkers for one, people sticking repeatedly a camera in one face obstructing ones free view and space, papparazzis and so on. As to photographing poor, homeless, beggars and the likes in exploitative way, it depends on the way and purpose you do it. Strictly speaking, exploitative would mean exploiting them, that is impoverishing them, making their situation worse or gaining without giving in return.
    Personally I try to contribute with small amount of cash if it`s o.k. to take a pict but I must admit that there were the cases, where asking first shooting after would ruin the spontanity of scene and I would reverse the order, it is shot first donate later. It all boils down to sensibility of approach. Many of underprivileged want to be recorded showing dignity all human being deserve, treating them as just an exotic subject like an animal in zoo is another and despicable way. To me, an engaged photography where humans are part of, is an attempt to show the general human condition be it lough or tears without delving unnecessarily in secondary details.

    • Very strange: especially considering people are now obsessed with photographing themselves and sharing it widely over social media – far more widely than any print photograph would have made it in the pre-digital days!

  7. Nice looking lady. Excellent break from the buildings’ pictures.

  8. I live in the UK, in N Ireland. When I go to Belfast, the main city, I usually see someone homeless asleep in a doorway. So far this year 4 people have been found dead in such circumstances.

    I’ve not photographed this, but I wonder, should I and publicise it? It’s a very political message, the effects of austerity and ne0-liberalism. If I don’t, will anyone notice; if I do, am I intruding? Should photography be political? And if yes, what are the limits?

    • Tough question – and far be it for me to pass any sort of absolute opinion on the topic. I think if there is a real and socially beneficial goal to the image, then yes, I’d take it – but if it’s for one’s flickr page, no. (The road to hell being paved with good intentions and all that…)

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      Yes, a touch question. If you do it in a respectfull way, then it should be all right to publish it. I think the last thing most of people want is that their misery goes unnoticed.

  9. Steven Lawrence says:

    This article should be read by every aspiring street photographer. It brings balance to so much of what is written about street photography and the emphasis on getting the shot over any concerns that might arise. Thank you.

  10. Interesting. I’m just back from a trip to Uzbekistan and I had an ‘interesting’ experience. Whilst being there with my hosts, who are Uzbek, I had an hour to kill while they were attending a meeting with a lawyer. I found myself on a big avenue with old, decadent soviet era buildings which looked very interesting. No tripod, just a camera, so I decided to take a few pictures of them. 15 minutes later, a police car stopped by and asked for my papers. Not only that, but I was almost detained. They went through all of my photos and there was no way for us to understand each other as I didn’t speak any Uzbek or Russian and they did not speak any English. Very uncomfortable situation.

    Now, Uzbekistan is a police state, mostly, and I know that there are lots of things that cannot be photographed: Official buildings, police themselves, metro station, bus stations, you name it. I was simply photographing blocks of apartments that looked old and soviet. I was finally able, don’t know how, to convince them to just cross the street to where my hosts were and where they could speak to them and resolve the issue. The issue was that that road is the road that the president of Uzbekistan takes to go home in the evenings and that any kind of photography there is forbidden (there are no sings though). It seems they realised I was just fine because when they looked at all my photos they realised that they were tourist photos after all and that I didn’t take photos of the road itself, but just the apartments. And that the rest of the photos were from people in the bazaar, the mosques, the madrassas, food, etc.

    They took all my details though 🙂 but they were friendly anyway, despite the awkward situation.

    I guess that what I have to say here is that it’s actually worth having a wide variety of photos that show that you are just a tourist 🙂 and not a ‘professional’ photographer from a foreign country when you are in a country like this. That’s going to be, at least for me, a good thing to know next time I go somewhere like this.

    • Ouch! Glad it worked out okay in the end, but that’s a scenario which I think nobody could have reasonably expected…

      Though in every country it seems that people assume you’re going to do terrorist reconnaissance in the most conspicuous, expensive and cumbersome way possible. Hmmm…

  11. Pierluigi says:

    Ming writes: “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public”. I agree – though I am bothered when somebody takes a picture on the street with me in 🙂 -, however in some countries like Germany there are laws protecting the subject’s rights. Try googling for “street photography laws germany” for more info.

    • And one reason there’s never been a Masterclass in Germany. That said: if you don’t want to be photographed but want to photograph others, that’s a little unfair, no?

  12. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Very well put, thanks, Ming – I’d rather miss the shot than intrude in someone’s privacy, but that’s a personal thing – one issue we should all take into account is that different countries have laws that actually prohibit taking photos in certain circumstances, even in public spaces, and we should all make sure we check this out before going to another country. Defence installations, airports and so on of course all have even stricter restrictions on unauthorised photography.

  13. Philip Arthur Brindle says:

    When it comes to photographing the poor and homeless I could not agree with you more. We just moved back to Philippines after a four year stint in Korea, and I’m sure you know there are hundreds of thousands of homeless families living in Metro Manila alone. After working in 36 countries, most of them just like the Philippines, for me I just don’t see any reason why I would want to take photographs of the poor and homeless, there is no compelling reason to do so, what’s the point. However I can tell you that after all the years of traveling I am very humble. Thanks very much as alway for sharing your thoughts with us…

    • I think there’s a very fine line between photographing people because they’re interesting, regardless of socioeconomic background, and exploiting poverty. That’s the last thing we should be doing – even if it follows the underlying psychology of being interesting because it breaks pattern for the one doing the photographing. But I still wouldn’t do it, because I don’t see any way in which photographing them isn’t exploitative – there’s nothing they gain, but you (presumably) do.

  14. This is one of the great things about living in Japan (and, as you are a fairly regular visitor, you’ll know what I mean) – you’d have to be either unlucky or outright ignorant and “KY” (as the Japanese say : literally, “Kuki Yomenai” – can’t read the air, i.e. tactless and prone to social blunders) to get into a confrontational scene when photographing. I think it’s down to the social structure of the place : Japan depends on co-operation to function. It has to, with the kind of population density you find in the big cities. I once took some lessons in Swedish from a native Swedish speaker who lives in Japan; noting the relatively similar sizes of Japan and Sweden, she commented that “if Sweden had Japan’s population, there would be civil war!”.

    Responding to Sally : I know exactly what you mean. I would be very much inclined not to photograph kids without permission in my home country (England) for fear of anything from a polite request to stop, to a lynch mob being formed.

    I think Ming’s comments are basically accurate – essentially, use common sense and imagine yourself as the subject of the photo. This topic turns up on Scott Kelby’s video series with Jay Maisel – Jay said that he used to be furtive and sneaky, but now he makes no attempt to hide that he is photographing. If someone asks why he took their picture, he will tell them the honest reason, even if they get into a state about it. After all, we’re not physically assaulting people (although Bruce Gilden’s style, to the people subjected to it, probably sort of feels that way).

    • I think every society could benefit from a little of the tolerance and cooperation, but most of the time it’s just every man for himself. This puts us on the defensive, which in turn aggravates the situation. The best way to get what we want – an image – is by breaking that and as Maisel said, being open and transparent. I don’t think photographers are collectively doing each other any favours by doing otherwise – if anything, the opposite. The last thing the world needs now is the spread of more unfriendliness and suspicion.

  15. I agree with you on all of this. I am extremely sensitive about trespassing. I don’t do it. If I happen to come across an abandoned house or building, I try to find someone in the vicinity that I can ask about the property and if it would be okay for me to photograph it. Going on property that is clearly marked “No Trespassing” is a definite no no, however, I occasionally see other photographers do it. Not smart and very, very dangerous. Especially in areas where there is/was mining. Where people are concerned, I ask. Unless it’s on a crowded street somewhere in a large city, and then it’s merely for a “street” shot, with people walking, etc. Otherwise, if I see someone I think is interesting, I ask them if I may take their photograph. I never, ever want to offend anyone or be insensitive. It’s not just impolite, but, like you said, it’s exploitative. You have made excellent points. Thank you for this.

    • Thanks – abandoned property is almost certainly still owned by somebody, so checking ownership (and IP) rights is the correct thing to do.

  16. What about photographing unknown children in a public place? Nowadays parents are, justifiably, wary of anyone with a camera. Even though I’m a grandmother figure, I still feel I should briefly explain what I’m doing and ask permission. Sally

    • I wouldn’t do it because everybody seems to assume the worst these days. Oddly though nobody seems to mind if you’ve got kids of your own present, but I’d still be very cautious – main reason probably being we assume that adults will vocally object, but kids might not (and be subject to exploitation).

  17. richard majchrzak says:

    worthwhile ideas , ‘specially about “streetlive”… years ago i read in “Zen In The Art Of Photography” : what you focus on, you become. that for the guys thinking they have to shoot poverty etc.

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