Top 75 Street Photography Blog

Asking Permission in Street Photography

There's a reason why this image is missing...

It was one of my favourite photographs I’d taken recently. The lady in the market stall was busy selling beautiful, coloured cloths and I’d focussed on her hands, as she folded one of these cloths in mid air. It filled the frame almost entirely as she worked, the contrast from the shafts of golden light giving an almost lyrical feeling of movement to her hands and the material. It was just before Christmas, and I’d been focusing on hands at work. It was pretty much the perfect shot to showpiece – a moment that in a few seconds I saw, captured, and was sure I’d add to my portfolio.

But you can’t see it, because it no longer exists. Which leads me on to the dangers of checking people are happy with your photographs. And by now you’ve probably guessed what happened.

I made the very unusual decision (for me) to show the image to the lady in question. I didn’t think it would be a problem – after all, it was a nice photograph. You couldn’t see her face or identify her in any way. You couldn’t even tell the location by looking at the shot – it was just her hands, and the cloth. She was friendly and personable, and I expect she’d like to see it, I optimistically thought to myself. “Ooh no”, she said, “thank you but I’d really rather you didn’t keep that, please can you delete it? Please.”

She was very polite, and not angry, but sadly was uncomfortable about the unexpected photograph. Even after some friendly persuasion from me – “you can’t see who it is” and all that kind of thing – I was left in the very difficult situation of either deleting the image then and there, flat refusing, or maybe pretending to delete the image but actually keeping it. The best option – simply to walk away before any of this, with her being none the wiser – was already gone.

Personally, I draw the line at lying or using an image if I knew for certain the subject is unhappy about it. So I had to make a very difficult executive decision. I selected delete and saw the image disappear from my screen. The lady thanked me, I apologised and that was that. Gutted. With a capital G.

I’ve rarely shown people my images since that afternoon. Which in turn has made me think very carefully about the tightrope we all walk – between respect and the kind of risk I’ve just described.

By its nature, street photography requires taking photographs of people without their permission. I completely understand the reservations some people may have about this – but what can you do? Ask every person we ever photograph? Cart around a pen and a stack of model release forms for every trip we take? That’s impossible really. Indeed, the only 100% safe option is to stop taking photographs. So we’ll all just have to live with it.

Usually, asking permission is not going to happen. So this is why respect should be such a centrally important consideration in street photography. And I think it’s just an issue of simple, common sense.

Back to the market stall. If I’d refused to delete the picture, I’d have made a very bad impression – the lady might now be thinking that all street photographers are dodgy, intrusive and inconsiderate. That’s not an image any of us want. No matter how good the photograph, or how unreasonable people may be, street photography should never be an excuse for rudeness or unreasonable intrusion. We should always act with respect and consider the needs of others. Otherwise, we all pay – through the bad impression that a small minority of photographers has created for us.

Of course, the trouble with terms like ‘common sense’ and ‘unreasonable intrusion’ is that they mean one thing to someone, and another to someone else. Where do you draw the line?

Some have published photos of a clearly unhappy subject ‘flipping the bird’ at the camera in anger. I wouldn’t want to use a photo like that if I’d taken it. I don’t think that sends out a good message about us as photographers. I think perhaps we should think about whether, if we were the subject, we would be comfortable with the photograph being used. If the answer is no, then we should not use it.

If I’m not sure, I might make a spur of the moment decision to check with someone. I recently photographed an armed policeman (notice my use of the verb ‘photographed’ as opposed to ‘shot’…) and his dog, whose reflections were caught nicely in a shop window. He saw me take the photo, so I said hello and showed him the image. I wasn’t entirely sure he’d be happy about it – he was taking part in a police exercise, and under the current social climate I was mindful of being seen as some kind of a security risk. He was totally fine with it: “I reckon I’m on Getty Images several times already” he said.

The thing is, this wasn’t a particularly successful image – I wouldn’t have been too sorry to delete it. But after losing my favourite “hands at work” shot, I’m honestly not sure if I’d take that risk in every situation, if I liked the photograph enough. It truly is a grey area. And by the very nature of street photography, asking permission is always going to be a taboo subject.

It’s often impossible, and always a risk to show your photos to someone when you’re out in the field. All I would say is that we need to keep a strong hold on our ethics. We need to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. And if we lose a few photos along the way, then that’s a small price to pay in keeping attitudes towards street photography as healthy as they can be.

Asking permission in street photography

I didn’t ask this chap for permission when I took his photograph. What do you think he’d have thought of it?