ETHICAL DILEMMA: The Right Way To Photograph People?
You see the perfect shot. A weathered guitar player leans against a Havana beach wall and belts out a heartfelt canción. A little boy dumps his ice cream on an Amsterdam sidewalk and licks an empty cone. A man looks up from a Vietnamese rice field and casts a long shadow across the patties. You snap a shot. And then you walk away.
Harmless, right? The picture didn’t hurt anyone. You weren’t trespassing, and you weren’t invading anyone’s privacy. The camera was just another set of eyes, one that will allow you to preserve that perfect image and share it with people back home.
Yet, in the back of your mind, you feel a little guilty. You never met the person you photographed. He didn’t see you, and he didn’t know you took his picture. Or maybe he did see you, out of the corner of his eye, and maybe it made him a bit uncomfortable. Now you’ll be showing his picture to people he will never meet, and somehow that seems wrong—or at the very least, sneaky.
What is the right way to photograph people?
As a publication about real life abroad, this is a question close to our hearts. It is also a question that many of our contributors wrestle with. One recently mentioned to us his recurring desire to be invisible while taking photos—to disappear from sight so that he can capture images in their purest, most objective form. It’s something many photographers probably feel—a desire to see but remain unseen.
We certainly understand this feeling. It’s natural to want to avoid affecting people or having an awkward conversation with them.
But our advice to photographers is the opposite: Be visible. Don’t hide from your subjects; get to know them. If you take a picture of the Cuban guitar player, tell him you’ve taken his picture. Show it to him and offer him a copy. If he has time to talk, get to know his story. Tell him your own story and what you intend to do with the photo. More often than not, you’ll find that people are friendly and receptive, and appreciate your taking the time to listen.
During a recent presentation of her photo exhibit, “A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel,” National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths Belt discussed the nature of her art. Photographing people, she said, is not just about having a great eye and great technique. It’s also about relationships. You can’t take great photos of people until you get to know them, spend time with them, and make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. Once this relationship is established, they won’t stiffly pose for you; rather, they will feel comfortable just being themselves. As a result, the images you capture will be as authentic as any photos you slyly snagged on the street.
But best of all, your images will be guilt-free.