Shoot People While Traveling, But Do So With Respect!

Boy with Dad by Sheree Zielke


A man ran up to our table at the local farmers market, and boom, he and his camera were in my granddaughter’s face.  No preamble, no “Hi. How are you?”  No nothing.  Just wham, bam . . . you get the picture (pardon the pun).

I was stunned.  It was all I could do not to grab the guy by his camera cord and demand that he erase the picture.  He stupidly bobbed his head, mumbling something about how he “hoped I didn’t mind,” but I knew he wasn’t asking permission.  He was just reacting to the look on my face. 

He scuttled away like the vermin he had proven himself to be.

Do you photograph people this way?  If so, you are WRONG!  And worse, you are a coward.

As a photographer, I am very opposed to this grab-and-run style of thievery.  In my estimation, it is a type of violence, a rape, if you will.   Without some form of permission, be it a slight nod of acceptance or a full model release, modern day shutterbugs should NOT be zooming in on people, and taking their photos.

Here are some suggestions to ensure you remain civilized when shooting photographs of strangers.  Read on . . .

I travel all over.  Some of my most favorite subjects are people.  I never have any problem finding subjects, especially when it comes to children living in poorer areas like Mexico and Central America.  But just as I would respect the child of a well-heeled parent in North America, I give those less well-off children the same respect.

I photograph military border guards with guns, big guns; I photograph artists on beaches and in graveyards; I photograph metal workers and fishermen in Alaska; I photograph beggar women with tiny children; and, I photograph celebrities in New York City.  (I follow different rules for shooting celebs, by the way.)

Here’s my quick list:

  1. Celebrities:  They’ve made their bed – they should be ready to lie in it.  In other words, if they are out and about in public, I will take their picture, any way I can get it.  But only while they are in public.  I do NOT chase them into restaurants, or peek through their fences.
  2. Strangers (anywhere):  I once spotted the most wonderfully wrinkled old lady – she was sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant in Switzerland, of all places.  I wanted her photo so badly, that it was all I could do not to just lift the camera and begin snapping away. But I did what I always do – I caught her eye, nodded to my camera, and bobbed my head in question.  She utterly refused, and kept waving me away.  I obeyed her wishes.  To this day, that wonderful woman’s face is emblazoned on my memory, but it will never know my printer’s ink.  And that’s okay.  You win some, you lose some.  You get used to it.People in public places.  I do not get permission from people included in my photos during public events.  There’s a different set of rules applied here.  Pictures of public events falls into the journalism arena.  You have the right to photograph anybody under those circumstances.  But if you zoom in on a single person, even while they are out in public, you may not use their photo without their expressed written consent.

NYC Police Dog by Sheree Zielke

3. Adults at work. Sometimes a quick nod at my intended subject and a lift of my camera in their direction is enough to get permission to shoot a person’s picture.  Like the Mexico-Texas border guards in Progresso.  They could see I meant no harm; I was just a goofy tourist with a camera.  I got permission instantly. But what works for me, might not work for you. I am pretty harmless looking. 

I look like a grandmother (well, I am one), I am short, I guess I look kind of cuddly.  So, most people find me completely trustworthy.  I get away with a ton of stuff because I present no threat.  But that isn’t true of young bucks, tall well-muscled guys in their thirties or forties.  Just ask one of my cruise ship students.

We got off the ship in Mexico.  We were met by a bunch of border guards, all heavily armed with machine guns.  I spotted one fellow, made eye contact, chatted briefly (I think he understood) me, and then motioned to my camera.  No problem.  I got my shot, and moved on.  My student (a tall man in hid mid-thirties) came up behind me and followed my lead.  He was rebuffed instantly.

Be prepared; how you present yourself really matters. 

The above police officers and their monster dog knew they were public property.  I had every right to shoot them.  But would I have stopped if they told me not to take any pictures?  Maybe.  It would have depended on what else was going on.  And just how big the gun was they were holding in my face.

The Alaskan metalworker was tougher to shoot.  I spent nearly an hour chatting with Jeff, before he allowed me to take his picture.  But by then, we were friends.  He was relaxed, and this photo shows that.  Thanks Jeff.

Jeff the Metalworker by Sheree Zielke

4. Children flock to me.  Everywhere.  And if they can speak any English at all, we get along extremely well.  The ones I call the “wharf rats” and those who regularly meet the tourists, are brazen little whelps, and they expect a little cash for posing.  I see no harm in this when the children are obviously older.  I have a problem with doling out money when I see older children “selling” the services of their younger brothers, sisters, or cousins.  The little guys are usually cuter, more photogenic.  The older kids know this and exploit.  Too much like pimping, in my estimation.  So, I avoid photographing kids in this instance.
By the way, the little boy at the top was photographed in Canada, on a deserted beach on the Eastern coast.  While I can never sell this photo, I took all the pictures with his father’s permission.  (That’s the man in the background.)  I use this picture in my teaching, because legally I can do that.  I just can’t make a profit from it.

5. Some people, like tour guides and interactive performers, expect to be photographed.  So shoot away.  Here’s a lady of the evening who hammed it up for the camera-happy tourists on an Alaskan dock.  And like every good lady of the night, she expected a tip.  And why not?  But while you can take her picture, can you sell it to a stock agency or a magazine?  Absolutely not, at least not without a rock solid signed model release.

Dolly of Alaska by Sheree Zielke

6.  Back to celebrities.  If I see ’em, I shoot ’em.  Would I ever ask permission?  Only if I caught Russell Crowe alone in Central Park.  Then I’d try to convince him to let me do a full candid shoot.  I’d, of course, offer to send him copies.  Could I sell the photos I took of him?  Actually, I wouldn’t want to.  Some pictures just aren’t meant to be shared.

Kevin Bacon by Sheree Zielke
But if I caught Russell in the act of tearing up a bar on Columbus Avenue.  Well, duh, of course.  I’d have those uploaded so fast to the nearest celebrity stock photo agency.  (Above is Kevin Bacon appearing on the CBS Early Show in NYC.)

7.  What if you are challenged while taking pictures.  What are your rights?  Here’s a great link.  Photographer’s Rights

8.  Here’s another great article on taking people photos from the online Digital Photography School.

In a nutshell, think at least for a moment before snapping that intriguing face.  What if someone ran up and shoved a camera in your face?  How would it make you feel?  How would you like to be treated? 

How do you take people photographs?  What moral standards do you have in place?  Do you shoot and run?  Do you get to know your subjects first?  Any hints for getting difficult celebrity shots?

Wishing you safe and happy travels,

You are welcome to comment.  Let me know if my blog has helped you.  Or add a comment if you feel I have missed an important point.  I don’t mind correction.  A “dig” on a social networking site would be appreciated, too.  Just use the handy links below.  Subscribe to the Picajet Blog to receive notices of replies to your comments, and new blog postings.) 

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