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That uncertain feeling

Stepping back from the seemingly endless noise of uncertainty, misinformation, myth and downright fibs about who, what, where and when someone is permitted to photograph, it’s very difficult to get away from the thought that lots of photographers would be more likely to leave certain pictures untaken than risk being questioned, challenged, stared at, filmed, shouted down, or beaten up.
Technological developments over the last couple of decades have demonstrably made the means to take a photograph much more widely available, empowering people to go out into the world and document it. But the reality of putting this into practice in a public situation is often rather more fraught, and quite a source of anxiety for a lot of photographers. As a London-based photojournalist put it to me, such can be the suspicion from security guards, the police, and members of the general public when he’s working, he might as well be pulling out an AK-47 when he reaches for his camera.
The awkward feeling this can cause certainly hasn’t deterred him, but it has made him a little clearer about who, what and where he’s not prepared to photograph. This is much less to do with doubts about his legal rights to take photographs than it is self-censoring; of having an instinctive sense of when a situation is ‘off limits’.
Hypothetically, it’s very easy to say that we shouldn’t show any fear, that dealing with approaches from strangers wanting to know what we’re up to is just part of the experience of being a photographer. But is it always so straightforward? Some photographers might be thick skinned and able to work in an emotional vacuum, unburdened by feelings of doubt, guilt, awkwardness, anxiety, or a pricked conscience, but not everyone can do this, and avoiding any sort of ‘conflict’ at all can be a far more powerful incentive than the urge to take a photograph… even if the end result is a photographer walking away, giving themselves a hard time for not having seen an idea through.
So some questions: how do you feel about shooting in public spaces? Is there anything or anybody you’d shy away from photographing? Are some situations totally off limits? How have you dealt with any confrontations you’ve had when out with your camera?
Andrew Conroy
Image Credit: Gareth Dent

Posted by author: Andrew Fitzgibbon

24 thoughts on “That uncertain feeling

  • Here I am again (not a photography student) having a point of view.
    I have noticed that the kind of photos I take on my travels has radically changed over the past 10 years or so. I used to only take photos of people – with lots of zooming in, because I love the infinite variety of faces.
    But these days I hardly see a face in my photos any more, because somehow it feels wrong to take a photo without permission. And its such a shame. Last month I was in Rome and could have filled an album with photos of nuns doing unexpected things (like buying red handbags and giggling over shared ice cream) – but I couldn’t bring myself to ‘steal’ their moment.
    And this Halloween there were some amazing opportunities for shots of the gaggles of kids in their scary costumes who came trick-or-treating at the door…but a little voice told me not to take a photo or some angry mama would swing for me.
    I wonder if maybe its because the photos we take are so readily shared?
    Does the fear that the subject will one day know you ‘stole’ their image make us wary of taking it in the first place?
    People are so much more protective of their public profile, and we are all maybe a bit more vain, and a bit more suspicious of anyone ‘using’ us without permission or payment.
    I saw a programme (ArtLand – on Sky I think) where they travel the US in a big bus looking for art and artists. There was a photographer on one episode who seemed to have no fear of walking straight up to the people who interested him and asking if he could take their photo as they went about their business. That then gave him the freedom to roll around on the ground to get his best shots without anyone batting an eyelid. But that doesn’t work if you want a truly candid shot.
    Maybe its simply a sign of the times. A new social norm.
    Or back to the times when to ‘take a likeness’ was to steal someone’s soul?

      • Excellent street photography, Helen. Your choice of framing is very unusual and interesting too, as is your use of negative space.

      • Helen, I just mentioned you the other day and wondered what you were up to! It’s nice to see some of your work and it’s good to see you are progressing. I think the nuns are very interesting and beautifully shot, especially in those muted colours. Have you spent much time with them? I wonder if you could do more with them?

        • Hi Sharon, this is actually an old image (2010) and just one I grabbed during a flying visit to Rome. I definitely have not spent much time with nuns. I don’t think we would have much in common! Hope to catch up with you again soon – I am really missing meeting up with everyone on the study tours….

  • I’ve said it many times over on the Flickr forum, but I did a street photography workshop with Nick Turpin a few years ago that completely changed the way I photograph on the street. I’ve sort of stopped now, but only really because I feel I’m moving in a different direction in terms of my photography as a whole.
    However, regardless of the way I choose to shoot now, the workshop was an excellent way of breaking into the right mindset, with useful exercises on shooting certain subjects that might be more “acceptable” before pushing the boundaries. And that’s the crux of it – you need to push the boundaries of what you feel comfortable with, to develop your thicker skin…

  • Only been confronted once, I was taking photos one winter of people tobogganing down a hillside, trying out motion blur and panning, adults and children, a chap (polite word) came up to me and not even nicely told me I was not supposed to be taking photographs, it was illegal, how dare I photograph his kids (I don’t even know if I did) and if I didn’t stop he would call the police. I smiled sweetly and told him I was perfectly within my rights, I apologized if I had upset him, would he like to go thru my images with me and I’d delete any that included his children, I had every intention of continuing taking photographs but would avoid his offspring and if he wanted to call the police I had them on speed dial on my mobile phone did he want to borrow it? He went away… BTW all images were totally awful too blurry to see who was who and they all went in the recycle bin anyway LOL. The male friend I was with now avoids taking pictures when kids are about. I still do, most of the time people don’t notice or care, if they do notice I smile and kind of raise an eyebrow as if to ask permission and again all seem fine. I do avoid obvious kiddy places like parks but in a crowd situation you’d never push the button if avoiding certain things.

  • The only really bad comment I’ve had was when I was making some images of my granddaughter on a blow-up slide. The woman next to me called her (presumably) daughter to her saying she didn’t want that pervert photographing my child. I was too stunned to make a reply. Considering this was a school fete and there were many parents and grandparents making images I was somewhat stunned to say the least.
    Making images on the street isn’t my favourite pastime and I avoid it whenever possible, I much prefer to have made an arrangement beforehand with the prospective subject(s) and try to disappear into the background to get the candid shots with them.

  • I guess most students feel some reticence about this when they study People & Place with OCA; I know I did. In the end, what will work best is what you feel comfortable with. I started with a small, discreet camera, sometimes ‘shooting from the hip’, as they say, and seeing what I got. No one noticed I was doing it, even when I was close in, and I got some interesting shots. However, I didn’t like them!! They were ‘sneaky’ images of people from odd angles and didn’t seem to add much to the world. Use a wide angle lens, get in close, and you’ll get some weird shots – but ‘so what’, was my personal reaction. That’s how I feel about Gilden’s approach, too. He is, to be fair to him, ‘in your face’ and up front, but I always get the feeling that the result is more about him than about the (so-called) ‘characters’ he photographs. You can’t argue with his success, though, so good luck to him.
    For my own part, I backed off. Rather as Carol suggests above, I went for a longer lens, a bit of discretion, and a ‘step back and observe’ approach. I remember standing for about three quarters of an hour, in the centre of Manchester, in a wide open space on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens, taking photographs of people ‘eating on the run’. I took dozens, and no one took a blind bit of notice, as far as I could tell. I did make editing choices, though. I had no desire to make people look silly, so I didn’t use the ones where my timing was out.
    I can only recall being challenged twice. The first was when I was photographing an interesting building that turned out to be a bank’s HQ offices. The security guards came out to check what I was up to but didn’t object further. The second time was when I was on my way back to the car after some street shooting for People & Place, camera over my shoulder. Two characters were standing having a smoke outside a bar, and their ‘challenge’ was to ask me to photograph them!! The result is at the end of the blog post on this link – and is one of my favourites!!

  • I saw two children, twins, in a push chair. They looked really sweet, so I asked if it would be OK to photograph them. The parents said no, and they were polite. I did not argue, but backed away. However, I did feel bad about this. In the end, I questioned my own motives. For whose benefit was I asking to take the picture? ‘Taking’ being the operative word. In future I will be having this internal debate before asking permission, and try to make sure the outcome isn’t just for my benefit, but offer to share the result and explain why I want to take the picture.
    On the other hand I did once spend some time explaining to a family why I wanted to take their photo for my OCA work. I spent ages describing the course and how the images would not be published. They just sat there and looked at me. This was puzzling until they started speaking to each other in Polish. I pointed at the camera, and smiled, and they grinned, so I went ahead with the shot. Maybe this new version of ‘point and shoot’ might be a good approach?

  • I was challenged by a security guard in Richmond Park recently when I was told I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of a particular house (I wasn’t) but I ended up having a really good chat with him about photography and the law. Returning to the topic of people, I do think it’s a real shame that children are so off-limits, when they make up such a large proportion of potential subjects. I do find I’m really conscious of children being in any picture I’m taking in case someone has paranoid ideas about what I’m up to! I was photographing cyclists last weekend and even they were giving me funny looks. 🙂
    Looking forward to People and Place though and challenging myself!

  • I have been hesitating at whether to add to these comments or not, fearing to raise my head well and truly above the parapet. It is not the first time I have seen similar debates here and I have a strong opinion on it, which I guess is unlikely to find much sympathy here. As a non photographer and a private person who dislikes being the centre of attention, I would personally feel appalled and violated if someone took my photograph secretly / discretely and then displayed it publicly. In these debates I always read about your rights as photographers to take what photos you want, and people’s aggressive response. Would you not consider yourselves the aggressors in this situation?
    I was struck in a similar way about the comments about self portraits how many commenting still seemed unable to empathise with the idea of being the subject.
    I’m going to duck now!

    • Hi Spillustrate
      As someone who, at various points in my life, has enjoyed taking photographs of people unaware and the person who is ultimately responsible for the fact that doing so is a requirement of the People and Place photography course, I feel you raise some interesting points.
      In thinking about the rights and wrongs of street photography, I think it is useful to think about who is harmed and who benefits.
      Let’s consider this photograph. Taken in Paris in 1954 the boy is clearly aware that he is being photographed, but I would certainly agree that he is not of an age where he could give informed consent. I think it is a joyous image, it has certainly made me happy when I have looked at it over the years. It is widely available as a postcard in France, so I am assuming that lots of other people agree and have wanted to buy it.
      There is a wider benefit in that the image now has historical value. It is a piece of evidence of how young children could play in the streets of Paris unsupervised at that time, and be sent on shopping errand by their parents. It points up a difference with our own times.
      Now in France public opinion has changed and the law with it. Henri Cartier Bresson, if he were working today, would find it more difficult to take images in this way. But has the boy been harmed by being the subject of this photograph? I rather doubt it. I can certainly see a way in which the image could conceivably be used to hurt – (for example, in a piece in the Sun with the headline ‘Depraved Drunken Parents Send Six Year Old To Buy Booze’) but this is not Cartier Bresson’s intent.
      I hope you do not feel that you have stuck your head above the parapet and I have blown it off. That was certainly not my intent. Rather, all I wanted to suggest is that human experience can be enriched by photography, even if some of it taken without the subject’s consent.

  • I do a great deal of street photography and apart from having someone flicking a finger at me have not experienced any confrontational situations. I do not photograph children unless I can get the agreement of a responsible adult (I have never been refused) and if I see someone take avoiding action I do not photograph them. If possible I make eye contact and smile inviting a response and if a response is forthcoming I explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. If I see someone who I would particularly like to photograph I approach them and seek their permission. If I photograph people who are asking for money or busking I will ask them if it is o.k and usually negotiate a price for the opportunity. For the ‘statues’ I will take the photograph and then drop a coin in the hat as a thank you.
    In essence I treat people as I would like to be treated myself which usually means being seen as a person and not just an object. Human beings are very good at interpreting body language and it works both ways – the photographer should always be aware of what the person is trying to communicate and above all else should avoid any attitude that suggests “You are in a public place and I can take your photograph if I want to!!”
    I do have a way of dealing with security guards or police officers. I explain what I am doing and why and sometimes show my OCA card and/or driving licence. If they continue to object then I apologise and move away even if I know I am in the right. There is always somewhere else to go.

  • I do enjoy street photography, the adrenalin rush when you spot the scene or individual who must be captured in frame, though I must admit that it always seems an easier activity when holidaying in Europe in holiday locations where the camera carrying tourist is more ubiquitous.
    I do find that with my street work here in the UK I have to be in a fairly determined mindset to achieve anything, if I am feeling a little timid or quiet in mood then there is no street work that day! and find, as per Cedric’s comments that body language and a smile do go a long way in appeasing any objection. Street photography in the UK is indeed far more difficult because of the media amplified suspicion that pervades the public mindset regarding photography and this suspicion shows no sign of dissipating. Toughness is key but I admit it is the hard part.

  • One of the difficulties for photographers these days is knowing whether you a re on public or ‘private’ property. Many places that one would assume to be public have been privatised and of course National Trust property and The Royal Parks are both ‘private’ with their own rules on who can and who cannot take photographs and of what. Railway stations are a mute point and so many streets and parks are now part of ‘developments’ and thus patrolled by those over developed, shaven headed, be-suited and ear-pieced security guards.

  • I am about to start the “people unaware” part of “People and Place”, and wonder if anyone has noticed a difference between taking photographs with a mobile phone, or with an SLR. I am feeling somewhat apprehensive about it, but obviously not alone.

    • If you have access to a tourist part of your locality, people generally have an expectation that photographers will be about, and don’t seem to mind being included in images.

      • Thanks JDNS. I live in the heart of the Norfolk Broads, so I will be testing your thoughts. I liked your comments about who the photograph is for. Around here, probably the most interesting shots will be of novice boaters making a mess of mooring, or navigating the local low bridge, so lots of opportunity for embarrassment.

    • Hi Jim, I have not used a mobile phone much for photography so can’t help you with that but I have taken a lot of ‘people unaware’ shots (including for P&P) and I hope your feelings of apprehension won’t hinder you. An adrenaline rush is good as it keeps you observant and quick. I often use the technique of stealing the shot and if I get spotted I just look into the far distance slightly to one side of the ‘victim’ as I take the camera down from my face. They may *suspect* you snapped them but they’ll have less conviction and are more unlikely to say anything. Unless you are in France. The first time I took a DSLR to Paris, I had no idea that it was illegal to shoot street (I actually still stubbornly refuse to ignore this reality) and I got told off every single day of the trip: “PAS DE PHOTOGRAPHY!”. It was worth it though.
      It sometimes also works well to get yourself situated at a street cafe or a by a fountain or monument and stay there for a while just clicking away at passers-by. Seems to be easier to become invisible that way. Clive was my tutor for P&P and encouraged me not to get hung up on the “Day of the Jackal” long lens approach so I regularly push myself to stick on my 16-35mm and get right into the thick of the crowds. This is still not my preferred approach (Me: “It looks so messy”, Clive: “Life is messy!”) but sometimes I get an image I love, like this one: http://www.helenrosemier.com/havana13colour/e5203ae86
      I must confess I get a kick out of capturing the moment when I get spotted and the subject looks straight at me – breaking of the fourth wall (except in Paris!).
      Good luck with the course. Just go for it – what is the worst thing that can happen? : )

      • Hi Helen. Thanks for your comment. I liked your pictures of Cuba. Obviously a different culture. In the close-up with the elderly lady, she seems proud that you are including the child.
        I have used a similar technique to your stealth, within groups of people known to me. I focussed in advance on something else, then a slight turn at the last moment, to catch their expression before they realise what is happening. This was in the days before auto-focus, but would still work. I might try the cafe approach. I suppose it gives one a reason to be stationary. I got myself a fish-eye, with the intention of getting in amongst a crowd, say a simulated civil war battle with the Sealed Knot. Unfortunately, you have to join and get a uniform, etc to get anywhere near, so not yet.
        I come from a theatrical background, so breaking the fourth wall is certainly undesirable (usually). Oh yes it is.
        Interesting about the French; I always thought they were a bit odd.
        I hope not to find out the worst thing that can happen!

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