ETHICAL DILEMMA: The Right Way To Photograph People?

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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.



Posted on 3/12/2009 by

Joanne Kramb

Joanne Kramb

I just returned from Morocco and faced this dilemma quite often. I also encountered that most of the populate were very strongly against being photographed if asked. The advice above is very good, however, it is difficult to do when you don't speak the language...

Posted on 3/18/2009 by

Haeinn Woo

While traveling in Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I have begun to define myself a "camwhore." I just love taking pictures of everything I see for the sake of recording it for personal, artistic, and academic reasons. It allows me to see everything with a documentor's eye... Capturing things that are not just pretty but has a significant story that I can tell in the caption. So when I take pictures like that with people whom I did not ask for permission to take picture, I feel at least a bit better when I try to tell their stories to raise awareness among my friends and connections. But is my goodwilled action going to actually help the person in my photo in some indirect way someday? Perhaps... I also realize that I cannot be totally objective or telling the "truth" unless I ask for permission and actually hear the story from the character of my photo. But after all, a picture can tell a thousand words, it can deliver much more than the person who I interview may tell me. However, in the future, I will try to take the article's advice and develop relationship with the characters in my photo whenever its possible.

Posted on 3/21/2009 by

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

My 1st trip to Japan I observed elderly people with a spinal disease that made them walk bent over at the waist. I had not seen that disease in my home country and I thought it interesting to document. I was waiting for an opportunity to photograph it. One day in a busy train station an elderly man bent over sharply at the waist was slowly working his way up the steps. All the other people rushed by and we were about the only ones left in that area of the station. I was framing him in my lens and my conscience bothered me because I felt like I was objectifying him. I felt I might get a reward at the cost of his suffering. I was praying in my spirit about this and just a few steps behind him as we both walked up the stairs. I put my camera away without taking the photo. And just as my my hands were free the elderly man stumbled falling to the side and backwards. I caught him in my arms. He couldn't have weighed more than 80lb. He turned to see who had caught him from a stumble down a long flight of stairs. And our smiles to each other were one of the best rewards of my trip. I will never forget that man. He probably thinks of me also. Honestly I have been quite ruthless in taking pics incognito. And then often the best ones are not the hidden ones but the big smiles of shots taken head on.

Posted on 4/02/2009 by

Mandi Lindner

Mandi Lindner

When taking photos in unfamiliar cultures, also consider differences in values and beliefs. Some cultures simply do not condone photos as they view the captured image as an imprisonment of the soul/life force of a person. In certain cultures, taking photos is a religious and cultural taboo. In such an instance, a guide and/or translator can be priceless in notifying visitors of such norms.

Posted on 6/05/2009 by

Michael Lynch

Michael  Lynch

Somewhere there's a balance between getting people to relax around the camera and them hamming-it-up for you. I like to take shots of people acting naturally so they're not stiff or posed. Some of my best shots were taken with the subject unaware. I'll show them after and ask if they'll sign a release in exchange for a free photo. Most people in Japan are glad to cooperate, but I know in some countries snapshots of people are taboo. The problem here, is if Japanese know you're taking their photo, they can't help flashing the Peace sign!

Posted on 6/24/2009 by

Daniel Mueller

Daniel Mueller

I love taking pictures of farmers and regular people out doing what they do each day. At first, I took many pictures from a distance with a telephoto lens, not wanting to disrupt them or afraid to interact with them in their environment, but as we have lived here and interacted with, visited with and helped many of our neighbors, now they are asking to get their pictures taken and I will go to their house to give them their pictures. I have found those are indeed my most favorite, not always because they are the best, but because of the story and relationship behind the picture. In traveling, I have also taken that ideal--to learn how to interact simply in their language and share some about yourself and they will want to share amazing amounts about themselves. I have not understood some of their answers and have gotten rocks or mud thrown at me though too.

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