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
The Singapore Architectural Masterclass from 1-7 July 2016 is now open for booking. Click here for more details and to book.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved