Monday, July 13, 2009

Taking Photos of People while Traveling

Tour guide in full 18th century costume in PhiladelphiaI’ve mentioned it before. Adding people in your travel photos brings context to locations, and often can exemplify, present and unveil the culture of wherever your visiting. Especially if you’re visiting a city, town, or even a rural populated area, including people in your photos can boost their quality and interest.

The problem is, adding people into your photos can be fraught with pitfalls, beyond setting the exposure and focusing your photograph correctly. For example, in the US, it’s generally true that when someone is out in public they have no right to privacy, so therefore, in general, you may photograph them, even if they are recognizable in your photograph, without permission. In France, if someone is included in your photograph and they are at all recognizable, you must have their permission to include them in your photo.

Here are my top 10 suggestions for including people in your travel photographs.
  1. Research the law and customs in the countries and specific locals to which you will be traveling. There is an abundant amount of information on the Internet about this subject, so I would start there. Consulting with a professional travel photographer may be helpful, however, don’t expect to get specific “legal advice” from a pro travel photographer, unless they happen to be attorneys too. I know I scrupulously stay clear of offering “legal advice” about this subject.
  2. If people end up in my photographs incidentally, such as in the street scenes I took at the Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Championship parade, I don’t seek their permission to have their photographs taken. Most of them aren’t recognizable anyway.
  3. If I’m at a performance or concert, if there had been no directive which bans photography at the event, the performers are normally considered public figures (public, limited, or involuntary) and therefore I generally don’t ask permission to take photos of the event and its performers.
  4. Phillies fan at 2008 World Series victory parade in PhiladelphiaIf a person is the main subject of my photograph I request permission to take their photograph, such as in this portrait of a woman at the Phillies parade all decked out in her Phillies clothing and jewelry, with her World Series memorabilia.
  5. Most of the time, asking permission to take someone’s photo means catching their eye, smiling, then pointing to my camera. I asked the question that very way to the gentlemen at the top of the article, who leads tours of historic Philadelphia in full 18th century costume. Such gestures and motions normally cross all language barriers. It’s been very rare I’ve been turned down.
  6. If my intent is to offer the photograph I’m taking for sale, I always attempt to get written permission to take the photo of the person. I have a bunch of release forms, and a pen, I carry in my bag for such a purpose. As stated before, I’m a photographer, not an attorney so I’m not going into the legal ins and out of this subject.
  7. When I ask someone to take their photograph, I try to keep in mind the tone and words I’d like to hear from a photographer asking me for permission to take my photo.
  8. Family in front of Old Christ Church along Market Street in PhiladelphiaIf I’m taking a photograph of children, I always attempt to obtain permission from their parent(s). Sometimes this can be very difficult considering the persistence of kids who want their photo taken, or because the parents or a sitter aren’t around, and because of the fear these days of child pornography, whether real or misplaced.
  9. If someone says no, or says yes, but seems uncomfortable when I go to photograph them, I don’t take their photograph. In some cultures people want to be very polite and say go ahead, even though they prefer not to have their photograph taken. In some cultures they believe a photograph will capture their spirit and absolutely don’t want their photograph taken. Sometimes a person is just shy and can’t say no, even though they want to. I never take out a long lens to sneak in a photograph of a person if they don’t want their photo taken.
  10. Short of sending a copy of the photo to someone I’m photographing while traveling, I’ve never “paid” to take a photograph of a person. I know some who have paid cash, and others who have given token gifts for the photos. I don’t do that.
Those are my suggestions and general rules of thumb for taking photographs of people while traveling. If you have some more good ones, put them in the comments, or email me.


John said...

I too freak out when there might be an errant kid in a shot. For a blog I work with we do a Where Am I? contest and I took one of a skate park with some kids doing their thing--I felt kind of odd and waited till there were fewer kids and they were far enough away to be totally unrecognizable!

Ned S. Levi said...

John, when I'm taking street photos, if a kid shows up in the scene and you can more or less can recognize the kid in the photo, I don't worry about it.

On the other hand, if I'm taking photos specifically of kids, at play for example, unless I've talked to the parents and guardians, told them what I'm doing, and received their permission, I won't take the shots unless I can ensure they can't possibly be recognized. Most of the time the parents give me permission. If not, I usually walk away.

I'm very sensitive to this issue. My kids played youth soccer. The kids and the parents wanted to put their names on the backs of the uniforms like the pros. I opposed this explaining that if done, pedophiles and other unsavory adults could then much more easily identify the children and surely they didn't want that. They didn't and the uniforms only had numbers.

Liz said...

I had a man come up to me, and some other mothers in a playground in Columbus. He had expensive equipment, and he was soft spoken. He said he was doing a book about children in playgrounds. I wasn't convinced and there was something about him which seemed seedy. He hadn't shaved in a day or two, and while I know that's a "style" these days, we all told him NO!

About 5 minutes later my friend Sally saw him several hundred yards away with a long lens taking photos of our kids. We quickly rounded them up and called the cops who rushed out to help us. They missed getting him. I guess when he saw us rounding up the kids he knew we were on to him, and quickly took off.

The playground is right at the end of the street, and since it's so convenient, we've all been back as a group and he's stayed away, but we're vigilant.

Another man came over to us last week with the same basic story. He showed us his driver's license and was much more forthcoming. We didn't have the same gut feeling about him and let him take the photos. He's emailed us some and they're wonderful.


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