At a photo workshop last weekend, a relative newcomer to photography posed this question to me, and it got me thinking. I didn't have a hard and fast answer. "Sometimes" was the first response that came to mind. Additionally, I couldn't seem to come up with a set of rules for immediately determining whether the answer would be yes or no. It is in some respects a pretty fundamental question, one that certainly defines the roles and relationship between photographer and subject. Of course, I'm not the first person to ponder the question, and I found a pretty good roundup of working professionals' responses on featureshoot here:
Some notable selections:
There are always people that will not allow you to photograph them because they either do not feel comfortable with having their image taken and sharing their stories or because they do not know you and your intentions. Often it is a matter of building a level of trust to get permission from people. When I pursue personal projects, which often deal with people on the fringes of society, I like to immerse myself in these. I often end up spending a lot of time with the individuals I photograph and relate to them in a non-judgmental way and on a friendship-level. That approach feels most natural to me and helps in getting permission to photograph as well as acquiring intimate shots. - Corrina Kern
Not always, it depends on the situation. If I’m street shooting, general scenes, I just shoot; it’s the scene and people are part of it, but it’s more about the moment, composition, light, and something I’m trying to capture. If I want to photograph someone in particular on the street, I generally talk to them first, a real conversation, not just “may I take your picture,” but I try to find something out about the person…but again, it depends on the situation and where I am, what country, what culture, etc. If I’m doing a portrait of someone which is set up as an appointment, besides going with my own ideas, I like to collaborate with the subject, involve them in the idea of what the portrait can be about and get their input, as it usually works out better. I get in deeper by involving the subject and sometimes their ideas are better than mine…..two heads are better than one. - Maggie Steber
I think for me, while the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, the clearest determinant must be intention. The question "why am I making this particular photograph?" and "What am I intending the prospective future viewer to feel" must come into play. In the case of a social issue or violent or criminal event, does the importance of the issue or event override the wishes of the subject? In the case of a situation as a military embed, would a subject be able to give permission without it being coerced or suspected of being coerced when you as photographer are traveling with 20 men carrying weapons?
In the end, it's a judgement call that I think all photographers must make for themselves. For me, as long as I don't feel as if I'm being exploitative, I will sometimes make a photograph without permission, but if I am able, I will try to engage with people on a human level either before or after, because that's a large part of what I love about photography - the engagement. But if a subject truly objects, I almost always respect their wishes.