Personal Privacy and Photography: When Did It All Change?

When did it all change? A person pulls out a camera to photograph the congestion of people in Times Square. Just as they pull the camera from their eye they notice someone running towards them screaming obscenities and waving their hands. This is not exactly how you pictured it for some of the past greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand and Dorothea Lange. These, and others, were some of the photographers who captured some of the most memorable images of the past century. I think the time has come for us to ask ourselves why those actions of picking up the camera and photographing the world around us and the events seem so innocent, if not almost touching, compared to the response many photographers get today when simply shooting past an individual in public.

Many might say it’s the advent of better camera technology and the ability to do more things in post processing that has caused this fear and sometimes rage exhibited by someone who believes that their image has been captured on “film”.  Some have used the argument that it is simply an invasion of their personal space. In reality, that statement is totally true. Any time anyone has an image taken of them, commissioned or non-commissioned, it is an invasion of their personal space. In a sense, it is the job of the photographer to invade that space with permission. In the case of any photograph, the photographer is always in search of capturing an interesting image. In most cases, part of capturing that interesting image is capturing it when the subject forgets that the camera is there. So the question is, “What makes a street photographer any different than a private investigator capturing the image of a subject on the street?” In the manner that some photographers do street photography, shamefully, there is not much difference. How do we as photographers change how those actions are viewed by the general public?


The first thing that photographers can do is remember that not everyone wants to have their picture taken. In the case of street and travel photography, photographers must also remember that most people don’t understand concepts like lens compression and bokeh. They have no idea that we can point a lens in their general direction and be focused in on our intended subject and their image not be captured at all. They are unaware of the fact that we can also photograph our subject and have the background completely out of focus … including that lone straggler. In travel photography especially, sometimes the last thing you want is a crowd full of people filling your frame. That’s why many photographers go to such efforts to arrive at locations early in hopes of beating most of the crowds to the site.


In some cases, photographers may want to actually capture the image of the person on the street. Although you may want to capture that candid image of the subject, to growing concerns of people have changed how you must do that. First and foremost, approach your subject and talk to them. Present them credentials like a business card. Maybe even show them some of the pictures on the back of your camera you’ve captured during the day. Present them with a model release if you plan on using the photo for any commercial purposes (stock, etc). By doing these things you are simply giving credibility to yourself and lessening the fears that some people may have. Remember that just because you talk to someone doesn’t mean that you have to take their picture. You may find some people you speak to are not as interesting as you might’ve thought before approaching them. Part of the interesting image is an interesting story. After speaking to the person and taking in whatever information they’ve shared, simply ask if they would mind if you took a few photos of them. Explain to them that you want them to go about doing whatever they were doing. Is this the candid shot you were looking for? No. But it does become a shot that has a story (beginning, middle and end) and an image that if you’re lucky the person does give you that one shot that they forget that you’re there. More importantly you don’t offend an unsuspecting person who questions why you are sneaking a photo of them.


Photography in public is going to have to be a give-and-take between photographers and those who feel that they might have been captured in an image. On your drive to work, your image may be captured four or five times every day by traffic cameras and other cameras in the city. Photographers must change their approach to street and travel photography and the general public must realize that in most cases photographers really don’t want them in their shots. If the two can meet somewhere in the middle at the very least I think that we will find the fears and sometimes rage of the public subsiding.


To finish off this post I would like to pose these questions to you (Please answer truthfully. No one can blame you for the way you feel):


Leave a Comment