ASKING PERMISSION FOR PORTRAITS

“While traveling I often make portraits of people, but I think deeply how to do it in a respectful way. I believe it’s always best to ask first. When you ‘steal’ photos by waiting until you think they are not watching sends a clear message to others about your intentions, integrity and ethics. What do you think?”  -Doug

I do stand by the overall sentiment but this was originally written for students coming to my workshops to explore making more personally expressive portraits and not for photojournalists or street photographers. It is about MY process for making MY images as part of a sharing of what works for me and why. For me it’s not about making a travelogue but about trying to connect more deeply with both our subjects and our selves. Thankfully, there are many ways to express ourselves photographically.

It obviously can be a very different situation for photojournalists, war correspondents, street photographers, etc. A great example is the photo by Nick Ut of the naked girl running away from the napalm bombing in Vietnam. She certainly wasn’t asked for permission, probably wouldn’t have given it, yet that single photo helped turn the tide against the Vietnam War. There are numerous other examples of great street photography where the subjects are completely unaware of the camera. But those generally aren’t intimate portraits, which are different from those but with sometimes overlapping concerns and agendas. There is a big difference between candids with the subject unaware yet made respectfully and with stealing photos!

Since I am not a photojournalist, I don’t think just being a photographer gives me the right to photograph whomever I want without their blessing or consent. Yet, if photos are made out deep concern, visual inquiry, out of love or made with respect, many things are possible, including photos without the subjects’ permission that have great respect for the subject. I have also seen many photographers who ‘steal photos’ by sneaking around the edges of marketplaces and squares, photographing those they know don’t want to be photographed. It is often as if they are stalking their prey so I imagine this behavior to be very instinctual and primal.

This behavior is especially prevalent in workshops where one photographer is working on establishing rapport or connection with a subject, only to have another photographer come up unannounced and start blasting away with no connection whatsoever. Their photos usually look like there was no genuine connection between themselves and the subject.

I believe, for my photos, for the way I want to be in the world, that I need in most, but not all instances, to ask for permission from my subject. An exception is if the person is in public and part of a larger scene or if they are not recognizable in the photo (with their back to the camera, silhouetted, etc). To me, the photograph is not more important than the experience. It is definitely not more important than the wishes of the people inhabiting my photos. My obligation is to my subject, to the possibility of direct contact and deeper connection, and to learning something about them and maybe myself. If I happen to make some decent photos along the way, that’s a bonus.

‘Getting the shot’ is secondary to who I am in the world, my actions and intentions, the way I treat others, and the way I live my life. These are all much more important than what photographs I make and how good they are or aren’t. You don’t have to share this belief and I often admire photographers for whom getting the shot is everything. That is just not me or who I wish to be.

© Douglas Beasley 2015