Permission. Yes or no? Do you ask someone if you can take their picture, or do you take it and run? It can be a big question. My answer: I rarely ask permission.
Why? Books could be written about what happens when someone knows their picture’s about to be taken (and yes, I find myself on the side of those who believe something is “taken” when the shutter is clicked) and I’m not eager to see the results of my asking. To me, asking someone for permission narrows a situation’s potential. Sometimes this is a good thing, with fantastic, unexpected results, but I like to look for fantastic, unexpected results elsewhere.
Many photographers do an incredible job of capturing people in the street, and they’ve asked permission. Asking permission is respectful; it opens-up a dialogue, and ultimately engages you on a societal level more than refraining. But it’s not my style, and I’ve been disappointed with the photographs I’ve made after asking. This is not a philosophical point (it may be the morally correct thing to do, actually) it’s just that I like my photos better when I don’t.
If you’re going to ask, expect to be rejected. (I can’t think of a time someone has said no, but still.) More often than not, you’ll be treated with curiosity. Who are you what are you doing why do you want to take my picture? And if you’re quick on your feet, you may be able to spend some time getting to know your subject. When I ask, it’s usually because that person has something so extraordinary going on for themselves, I can’t let the opportunity to photograph them walk away.
I ask permission when I’ve gotten into eye contact for awhile with the subject, and they appear curious about what I’m doing, and/or I feel exposed about what I’m doing. It’s a bit of a power play. In my view, street photography is more about athleticism than aggression, but silently getting in someone’s face with a big honkin’ SLR is definitely aggressive. So go ahead and ask, especially if you want to put the camera right in their face.
I use a 50mm prime lens for nearly everything. This entry’s about honesty, so it bears mentioning that working with a 50mm or 35mm lens is an honest way of taking pictures. Their shortness requires your involvement in the action on the street. It’s obvious what you’re up to; you’re taking pictures of people in the street. With a zoom lens, you might as well be in air-conditioned comfort in Qatar punching in coordinates for Baghdad. If you’re going to photograph on the street, get rid of the zoom and crawl out of your bunker.
If anyone engages me, I don’t give them the silent treatment, I tell them straight-up what I’m doing. My explanation is usually about light, rather than people, because ultimately, I wouldn’t be at that particular place if the light sucked. And I’ll show them why the light is good; I’ll point it out and we’ll watch it for a bit.
Most want to know what you’ll do with the images. I usually don’t mention the web, unless they seem receptive. Most have no idea what a photolog is (even in San Francisco), god bless them. I tell them it’s for personal use, that I’ll share the images with friends, and that I won’t be selling them to an ad agency or anything like that. I’ve been lax about getting business cards made, but this would be a great way to work – to hand someone a card.
When I ask permission, I smile and say, “may I photograph you?” or “can I take your picture?” (depending on their age) and thank them, even if they refuse. I never use the rapid fire burst mode because it’s cheap, easy, and some knee-jerk part of me thinks it’s disrespectful. If I were walking down the street and heard the heavy slap of an SLR mirror pointed in my direction, I’d be cool with one, but not four in quick succession. It’s overkill, even if one of the four is the great shot. Get the great shot with your shutter finger, not your burst mode. If you need an example of this, check out James Nachtwey in “War Photographer” photographing Palestinian rock throwers. If there’s ever a time for burst mode, it’s in conflict – yet Nachtwey chooses not to. You can be far more precise shooting single frames, and if you’re shooting digital, there’s never a card lag.
Because you’re out there on your own, taking photographs on the street and you don’t have a press pass or lots of heavy gear (like a van), you are assailable. A few weeks ago I was at No Flash Corner and a cameraman appeared with his full set-up (his van must have been around the corner). He’d stumbled across the light, and seemed excited by it, so I asked him what he was up to. He was shooting “b-roll” for a television show about aliens for the Discovery Channel. He said he was getting great shots of people on the street for a “they walk among us” segment.
Not one person asked what he was doing because he had a television camera. Television is the almighty. Street photographers are small potatoes. Expect everything; to be ignored, to be asked a lot of questions, to be frowned upon, pointed at, and photographed. Above all, realize that you’re taking someone’s picture, and there’s a price you may have to pay — you may have to engage the world and explain yourself. Do it ahead of time, if you choose, or be prepared to justify your actions after you’ve clicked the shutter.