A View of a World Protected from Photography

My Dec. 15 posting here – “Fearmongers are Giving Photographers a Bad Name” — invited some interesting comments. Although many readers sympathize with the perils of street photography, there are a number who consider it rude and offensive to photograph a subject when they are unaware and without permission.

I get the impression that some readers think photographers are a crass lot, incapable of any feelings toward their subjects. A few suggest that they would never stoop so low as to photograph strangers. I even get the impression that they would like laws passed to enforce this notion.

Pictures Without People

What kind of world would it be if there were laws preventing people from photographing strangers without their permission? We wouldn’t have the magnificent work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, and countless others. Their work would be illegal.

The photographic record of the 20th century would be very different. It would consist of pictures of empty streets, devoid of people. The only pictures of people would be of them standing still, posing for a camera. Cameras would be forbidden at sporting events, public places, store openings, movie premiers, crime scenes, dog shows, wars — anywhere crowds are present.

Snapshots would be allowed, of course. But you would have to take special care when taking snapshots of children and family friends to make sure there are no strangers in the background. When taking pictures at your kid’s birthday party, you would need a signed release from all the parents. Weddings would be difficult, of course. Some guests would sign releases, but others would invoke their legal right not to be photographed.

News reporting would be entirely different – no photographs of people in the news, spectators, crowds or passersby. All newspapers could publish in the way of photographs would be formal portraits of newsmakers. It would be the same for television news.

Where Does It End?

It wouldn’t stop with people. Before long those who wish to protect their privacy would attempt to pass laws prohibiting photography of homes, offices and monuments. That’s the kind of society that can evolve when we allow ourselves to by driven by fear, political correctness, and ignorance.

Photographs harm no one. We all have the right to refuse to have our pictures taken — all we have to do is politely say no. But to presume we are protecting the general public by restricting these activities in others is fundamentally wrong.

There are two ways to go through life. One way is to be timid, constantly worry about offending others, never taking chances, and always siding with the majority. People like that seldom are very creative. The other way is to be out there, curious, hungry for discovery, and following your own path. That is the road I choose to take.

15 Responses to “A View of a World Protected from Photography”

  1. Amen. I read through a number of comments from your previous blog post and was very sad to see some people's attitudes towards photographing in a public place.

    Photography is not a crime. Photographing strangers does not make you a pervert, a criminal, or a terrorist. Like you said, think about all those great works of street photography that wouldn't exist if it were illegal or if you had to ask the subject's permission before clicking the shutter.

  2. You are right David. Interest in people makes me go outside and take photographs. I shoot first and talk after. If somebody does not want to be photographed I respect it. And I shoot at close range (28mm or 50mm).
    People with inner freedom are not afraid to be photographed.

  3. Amen!!

  4. Photography does not steal your soul. We are not some primitive bunch of Iron Age luddites. Get a grip people. My goodness, every cell phone comes with a camera now. Assume that you are always being photographed. Always.

  5. Insightful piece. I wrote this - http://russellcavanagh.me.uk/2011/03/23/fear-and-loathing-in-sheffield/ - nine months ago after a stressful exchange during a street photography session. Paranoia and mob mentality are clearer in people's minds than either the law or indeed an inclination to celebrate humanity.

  6. You don't have to take pictures of children to get into trouble Russell. Even photographing dogs get some people upset. http://saxephoto.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/356/

  7. This piece truly made me think. I love photography and I think that some of the most moving photography contains people--Strangers or otherwise. Thank you for having a voice, it is very much appreciated.

  8. I find the new anti-photography trend interesting, just as smartphone photography has exploded. Most smartphone users are incapable of turning on the flash, just as most point-and-shoot canera users are incapable of turning the flash off. There is a trend to pick on those with DSLRs, though as noted lately, the availability of cheap ones with kit lenses makes those of us with pro equipment less visible.

    In the Sistene Chapel, guards attempt to maintain the decorum of the place by constantly bellowing "No Photos!" in English, under the assumption that all those who do so are Americans or other English speakers. I'd rather put up with a hoard of Asians tourists popping off point-and-shoot flashes rather than listen to their booming voices.

    I've found most "no photos" people cave in as soon as confronted by a friendly response. They expect the photographer to cower and move away. I have discovered that if you approach the angry subject with a smile and an outstretched handshake, and say, "Hello! My name is Mel and I am from New York," the whole situation changes. The smile and outstretched hand are disarming - and invariably, you will get some flavor of the response, "I love New York!" - and a willingness to pose.

    If in doubt where religious sensitivities are knowable, I ask. In the East Jerusalem shuk, I asked a religiously appearing Muslim shopkeeper for permission, and he explained his religion doesn't permit it - and then, invited me in for tea. Of course I agreed.

    What I don't do is cave in and cower. That feeds the "no photography!" contingent.


  9. People are way too serious nowadays. Frankly, if the aim of the photograph isn't to ridicule the subject, what's the big issue? It will be sad if 21st century is remembered as pictures of city devoid of people or family snapshots.

  10. I think much of the problem with public attitudes is fueled by the police and in particular corporate animosity to photography. There are many, many well-publicised cases of heavy-handed policing involving photographers that probably find their roots in the security mindset following the WTC attacks. The "corporate" response to photographs taken of office buildings, shopping centres etc. is even more pervasive and probably reflects an obsession with control of the corporate image, paranoia and a general antipathy to anything that doesn't obviously generate profit.

    These well reported problems might be seen as a green light by the rest of the population to let rip with their own private paranoias on a subject that seems to be fair game - if it's good enough for the big boys it's good enough for us. Western societies as a whole (and our politicians for their own ends) seem to be very keen on the widespread vilification of groups and individuals on entirely spurious grounds, and it seems there's nothing people like more than the comfort of participating in a baying mob bound by a common small-minded prejudice. The growing hatred of public photography is just one of many out of control bandwagons that eventually gain an actual legitimacy simply from the sheer scale of their vitriol. The mob rules. Always.

  11. That's why I LOVE a silent shutter. I wish more cameras had them.

  12. Photos and videos without people is not a good idea. The news and current events industry would plummet. It would be an uninteresting and uninformed society.

    Sometimes a nod/smile is all it takes for strangers in public to feel no harm/offense in being photographed. Like Karen McHale said in the comments in your "Fearmongers" post, there's a big difference when the one roaming around taking pictures is female.

  13. Your line in the article, "We all have the right to refuse to have our pictures taken — all we have to do is politely say no." Is unfortunately wrong. In Canada, the USA and a good number of other countries, you don't have the right to say no. Someone can walk up and snap a picture of you without your permission, regardless of if you want them to or not and there's nothing you can do about it.

    Jumping to the deep end and writing up an article about banning all photography is utter stupidity. Many of the people are advocating for permission first for street photography of portraits of people, similar to how it's done in Quebec.

    It's generally accepted that if you're in a crowd, at a parade, at an event, etc that pictures will be taken. That's normal.

    Walking up to a family attempting to enjoy the day at a waterpark and taking pictures of their children, going to a cafe and snapping pictures of lovers attempting to share an intimate moment together, then posting it on your blog and attempting to call it 'art' is ridiculous.

    Asking permission for shots of people minding their own business should be required, especially if you're going to publish them and turn a dime. They aren't animals in a zoo, they aren't there for your pleasure, they're people. Too many street photographers forget that.

    Sure, it's not physically harming them, but you know what? It's still rude and just because it's only emotional harm doesn't mean it's okay to invade their privacy.

  14. To add one last thing, just because you're put on CCTV in a bank or a private parking lot or at the airport doesn't mean it gives you the right to do it to people on the street. Security cameras are used for security, to ensure no laws are being broken, things aren't stolen, etc. They aren't having their contents taken and then posted in a news article, in a book, on the cover of a magazine, in a blog for everyone to gawk at or to make money.

  15. @D N:
    "...Someone can walk up and snap a picture of you without your permission, regardless of if you want them to or not and there's nothing you can do about it..."

    True to a point. In the UK it's quite legit to photograph people on the street without consent. However, if they ask you to stop, you run the risk of being charged with harassment if you persist. I would imagine something similar exists in most jurisdictions although criteria for harassment may vary.

    Pushing the point without some actual journalistic 'public interest' however, is of course just plain bad manners in any case. Politeness works wonders.

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