Recently, I wrote an article about photographing strangers  in the street and the perils and risks that befall all of us who do such “horrid things.” Though this is the method I usually prefer, there often are times when I will ask permission of the people I photograph. It all depends on the situation.
For instance, one of my ongoing projects involves photographing people at their place of work. I chose to do this series by having the subjects pose for the camera because a cooperative subject facing the camera works best for this project. I want to take my time photographing someone in their environment. Sometimes I want to take a series of photographs, which, is difficult, if not impossible, if the subject is unaware of what I am doing.
Focus on Conversations to Win People Over
So how does one go about asking complete strangers for permission to take their picture? Over the years, through trial and error, I have developed a number of ways to approach strangers to request and receive their permission. What follows are but a few.
1. Often, it is the subject who approaches you. “Nice camera!” “Can you tell me how to get to…” “Got any spare change?” People approach you all the time. Some of them are interesting and others are not. When this happens all I have to do is engage them in a conversation for a short while and then ask.
2. Compliments are nice door openers. “Nice hat!” and “Nice dog!” are ways of breaking the ice. People like to be noticed. They respond favorably, we exchange some words and I ask. If they are gruff or ignore me, I move on.
3. People at work are often bored, and talking to them about their work or their lives is something that they appreciate. Again, they are noticed and are only too happy to speak to you about themselves. Waitresses and bartenders, sales staff, placard holders (very common these days) are all in this category. Remember, people like to talk about themselves — they really do — so learn to be a good listener.
4. Day to day, I talk to people about many mundane, everyday things. Picking up the laundry, getting my car serviced, business meetings, etc., put me into contact with many people on a daily basis. Eventually they become used to seeing you. Eventually you show up with a camera around your neck and they become used to seeing you that way. One day, you simply ask.
Sometimes It Pays to Have Patience
Having said all that, there is still a technique to get people to say yes. Walking up to somebody and saying “Nice dog! Can I take your picture?” is a bit aggressive. The subtle approach works best. Forget that there is a camera around your neck and just talk to them about anything. Save the picture-taking for later. Most of the time, once someone is comfortable with you, they say yes.
There have been occasions when I returned over and over to the same person on different occasions and finally asked them on the third or fourth visit. For instance there is one store in Palm Beach that I return to four or fives times a year and chat with one of the saleswomen. I have photographed her on many occasions but I am still not completely satisfied but this has spawned a relaxed, friendly relationship. She has invited my wife and me to parties, gallery openings, etc., and I have been more successful photographing her on these occasions than in the store. One thing always leads to another.
Sometimes it’s best to have some ammunition. Women photographers seem to get more yes’s than no’s. I wonder why? Older photographers are less “threatening.” If the photographer is with his or her dog, that surely helps because dogs are great conversation starters.
All it takes is practice, more practice and a lot of patience. This photograph was made recently close to my home. I was driving by, saw her holding the sign and parked a few blocks away. I walked back and as I passed her I smiled.
“Nice hair,” I said.
“Thank you.” she replied. “Do you want a tattoo?”
“No thanks, my wife probably would probably strangle me.” She laughed.
“Can I take your picture? I am doing a series on Dixie Highway and you would be perfect for it.”
“Oh, please do.” she replied, and I took six or seven shots of her. Her boss was sitting on a chair behind me.
“Cool camera. Do you do this all the time?”
“Yes,” I said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”
I asked if I could take a few of him. It was easy.