Shooting Strangers

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by douglas k., Jul 29, 2002.

  1. Several recent threads have, in their own ways, discussed the issue of
    "increasing guts," i.e., of photographing strangers. Since this forum
    seems populated by many people who are interested in street
    photography, and many contributors seem challenged by the idea of
    photgraphing strangers, perhaps there could be some fruitful
    discussion of techniques. I shoot strangers quite often, and have
    found the following to be useful, in varying degrees according to the
    --Using a big, professional-looking camera so that people presume that
    I am supposed to be taking any pictures I like.<p>--Using a small,
    amateurish-looking camera so that people are less likely to notice me
    or to care.<p>--Shooting confidently from eye level.<p>--Shooting
    "from the hip."<p>The above are meant seriously...Different situations
    call for different approaches in order to maintain subjects'
    demeanors, which are probably what attracted you to them
    (photographically) in the first place. But a couple of other tactics
    seem fruitful in most all situations:<p>--Be confident. If you look
    like you have every right to take pics, many people will assume that
    you do have the right, and they will leave you alone. If you look
    sheepish, you're implying that even YOU think that you have done
    something wrong, and people will sense that.<p>If someone notices that
    you have taken their pic, simply smile and nod, as if to say "thanks,"
    and move along.<p>If someone confronts you, simply explain that (in
    U.S., at least) you have every right to photograph anyone in public
    places. If the person raises a stink, suggest calling the police, who
    can set the bozo straight. Always remember that YOU are in the right,
    legally speaking, when photographing in public places.<p>Shoot
    lots of film and you will become more comfortable photographing
    strangers.<p>So, what do the rest of you do? Have you ever been
    confronted by an angry stranger? How do you handle it?
  2. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I put strangers in three categories:
    1) People I can outrun or beat up (usually limited to people in wheelchairs and children under 8);
    2) People who aren't going to say anything whether or not they know; and
    3) People who could easily maim or kill me.
    For category 1, I just shoot. For category 2, I just shoot until I'm told not to. Just yesterday I saw some people I thought might be interesting, so I just started shooting. No-one even paid any attention, they were busy doing other things.
    That reminds me, shooting people who are working is great since they rarely think about it.
    For category 3, I always ask, or wait for them to say something. Some of the places I like to shoot have a lot of category 3 people, and I have to be careful. I have been physically confronted without shooting. I've also had offers to remove my camera, but I just stand my ground.
    It comes down to that - you really have to develop an iron will, or at least the appearance of one, which is what I try to have. You also have to be able to talk comfortably with people you don't know. If you can't do this, you are better off shooting people you know or doing landscapes.
    Here's a category 3 example. I was walking through an area I didn't know, and when he looked up, I knew I wanted to photograph him. I asked, he asked "Why" and I told him "Because that's what I do." Amazingly, it worked. But I never would have shot him without permission (and anyone who knows a lot about tattoo work will know why.)
    Tattoos, Copyright 2000 Jeff Spirer
    By the way, this was shot with a 35mm lens which gives you an idea where I was standing.
  3. i think the guy i posted is a 2.5
  4. Hey Jeff, so that was you taking my pic.........;)P
  5. Douglas,

    I agree with with you 100% on this. Personally i tend to use the inconspicuous camera(FM2/T with primes) and move around alot. Keeping professional distance is the key to preventing escalation. Now ihave 2 types of reactions to confrontations.

    1. The ones that i will look in the eye and tell them not to interfere with my work.

    2. The ones that i ask if they want a re-shoot.

    Works quite well, and totally depends on how serious someone is at that moment. Encountering someone that is agressive still remains a part of the work. I do however think standing firm etc would in some of these cases escalate, be mindfull of that. Not everyone cares about your legal rights, as i found out.

    I wonder what other people in this forum like to use most in terms of equipment when strolling through the cities.

    Thnx for picking up this subject,
  6. Those "type 3" people have to be handled carefully, though sometimes they approach me and demand to be photographed. But generally, I take the same approach as Jeff and ask them before tripping the shutter. I chatted a bit with this fellow before he went over to stand with his female friend, so after spotting her arm I felt pretty good about just walking up and asking for a picture, and they indifferently obliged me for a few frames. Just incidentally, I've found that the more outrageous-looking people are often quite pleased to be photographed -- after all, a guy wouldn't cover himself with tats unless he wanted to be looked at, would he?
    This was shot with a 35mm lens, which I favor -- I don't believe that street photography can (nor should) be done surreptitiously with long lenses; that approach may be perceived as dishonest and is more likely to cause trouble.
  7. I am concerned about three things:

    1. Genuine invasion of privacy.

    2. Physical retaliation.

    3. Theft or damage of equipment.

    One person I know carries business cards, offers prints, shows a small portfolio, takes names and addresses when possible, does follow-ups, and gets to know the people photographed.

    Others simply do random shooting while walking, and make no contact whatsoever.

    Also, many of the places I'd like to go with truly interesting steet people (like the "street's their home!")...sometimes at night...are places that can be a very dangerous...I'd like to know how a person like Mary Ellen Mark works in such dangerous situations. I get the feeling she does much homework on her assignments and lays some groundwork before a shoot...even with a staff.

    Also, is there "safety in numbers?"...that is: walk along with a companion.

    I also think there are two broad categories regarding candid people photography:

    1. Encounters with total strangers...the most intimidating.

    2. Spontaneous people candids at formal affairs: weddings, parties, social groups, business venues, etc. where you may know those you photograph.

    Incidently, when I was teaching elementary school we had to have a written signed form from parents if they did NOT want their child photographed at school. This was related to child safety and school web-site use of such photographs.

    I'm not even sure whether or not we can post some of the photos we are posting on this site legally.

    This is a real bag of wiggling worms!
  8. Let's set up a senario:

    I live near Hollister, California. I have never gone to the bikers gathering on July 4th weekend. I would like to.

    If I were to plan a trip there for the overt purpose of setting up a book on "Cycles at Hollister" and just went around and took thousands of random photos of bikers, biker babes, bikes, bike events, and such, that would be legal.

    Yet, trying to get names, addresses and releases would be a nightmare at such an event and publishing such in a book, without releases, for profit would not be legal.

    I ride a cycle and have great respect for bikers, but a few are not so kind, so there is also a danger element involved.

    I'm even wondering if the above photo is legal to present on the internet.

    So, after I take all these great photographs, what can I do with them, providing I'm still alive!

    How would you approach this assignment?
  9. Zone focused 35mm lens held in hand at waist level. Framing a 35mm lens shot is easy while not actually viewing. The basic formula is that the long side of the negative (whether horizontal or vertical) is equal to the distance from the subject. I was 4 or 5 feet from this person and that is how much was captured at the subject plane. Using this formula, you can "see" framelines around subjects as you walk around.
  10. Open street fair. Took a picture of his wife without asking, she wasn't happy. link And then her ol'man told me to take a hike. link Low risk,#1 on the scale, no stuffed animals were thrown in retaliation. A fellow photgrapher witnessed the drama and commented "If they're on the public street, they're fair game"
  11. I've just never really had a lot of problems. In fact, everyone of my subjects (all strangers) seem to really enjoy having me take their photo. The last time someone objected to me taking their photo was last year on the Paris Metro, and as this fellow got off the train, he apologized to me. Perhaps "Bozo" isn't the best attitude to approach a stranger with? With 99% of the people portraits I take, I try to photograph them as they wish to be seen, or in an heroic light. Here's one of Ed Bacon, one the the genius city planners of the last half century (and father of Kevin Bacon,) after a chance encounter on the street: Bessa-R, Nokton 50mm/f1.5, T-Max in XTOL 1:1:
    <IMG SRC="" WIDTH="500" HEIGHT="347">
  12. So, "you have every right to photograph anyone in public places", right? And by "every right" you must mean "not striclty forbidden by law", right? And you intend to stretch your "rights" to the limits, right?

    You must be a real sensitive, loving and caring person.
  13. Invasion of privacy is not a right. You can shoot anything you like
    in the open public sector, but cannot profit from publishing a
    recognizable likeness in any way without written permission. The
    minute you step onto privately owned property, even that open to
    the public, the owners, or their employees, can ask you to cease
    and desists. The property is open to the public for purposes
    other than as a photographic subject. The owners have the right
    to maintain the privacy of their patrons, and the right to protect
    their propriatary interior space from competitive spying. An
    exreme example to make the point: You have a garage sale. A
    person enters your property and begins photographing your
    house, gardens and the people shopping in your garage. Get it?
  14. Karel, "right" has got nothing to do with it. And your point is? A camera is a toy whose sole purpose is to entertain the user. If you feel this strongly, and uncomfortable interacting with people, then perhaps you should look around for other forums that more closly match your taste's. Just don't be so uptight, man! Cool out!
  15. Hi Glenn,

    Cooling down is not easy, it is hot here... :)

    OK, to state it otherwise with another quote from the original post:
    "If the person raises a stink, suggest calling the police, who can set the bozo straight. Always remember that YOU are in the right, legally speaking"
    My point is that in my opinion you are invading someone's privacy way before "the person raises a stink" (and probably have invaded lots of others people's privacy who did not "raise a stink" wether or not "YOU are in the right" and can find a cop to "set the bozo straight".
    In this quote nothing feels playfull as in situations where you state that the camera is a toy for fun...

    Some people don't mind being photographed: go ahead and have fun. But some people do mind: please respect their feelings and leave them alone. This is not a matter of being in your (legal) right but just being a considerate human being.

    The worst cases of people being "in their right" happens at accidents, when rescua people can not do their work because some people think they are "in their right" to see what is happening, shooting pictures or film (and probably earning some bucks selling the footage to some "real life" tv shows...). I also remember a picture (maybe nearly made it to win a World Press price) where a photographer steps over a dying child on order to get a better composition on somebody else dying...
  16. Glenn, I am curious as to why you refer to your equipment as
    "toys for the entertainment of the owner". This is not meant as
    an inflammatory question. You've stated it in the same way on a
    couple of posts, and I am qenuinely intrested in what you mean.
    Are you being facetious? Or do you believe it literally?
  17. When it comes to using candid pictures for display/publishing and the legal matters applicable to those, i have some suggestions:

    1. Make sure the subject sees you taking a picture, or else tell them afterwards. This way they can make it clear to you they dont want you to use their photo. If they alow you to take their picture youll have an agreement of some sort(not all agreements are on paper).

    2. When shooting candids and you want to take a shot of a BIG BUTT or something non-flattering, shoot without exposing their identity. Or ask them offcourse.

    3. Try to blend into the crowd. For instance when shooting a bikers meeting (here you go Todd) wear a Harley t-shirt or something. Personally i always wear a baseballcap or sunglasses(F3HP) because it makes me look more relaxed(sounds crazy i know).

    4. When you take a pic you know is going to pay off, and want to publish it. It would be kinda smart to carry a release form with you.

    5. When posting on, dont forget that its a password resticted site, and a non-profit organisation(think of national geographic). Still the points above should be considered.

  18. Henk, "not all agreements are on paper" ????

    If you take a picture with a verbal consent and no reliable
    witnesses, then publish the image or sell it in any way you are
    open to a lawsuit, which you will lose. There are many such
    examples already on the books, with horrible financial
    consequences for the publisher and the photographer. Our legal
    council at my Ad Agency keeps us up to date on landmark cases
    because we occassionally use both stock and previously used
    images for lower budget clients. A recent case involved the use
    of a stock photo, with releases, for what was deemed not the
    original intent and the people sued, won, and just about ruined
    the ad agency as well as the photographer. I even have to be
    careful about the samples I solicite, because if we do anything
    that looks similar, consciously or unconsciously, we are libel to a
  19. Sorry to stray off topic, but as to Henk's #5: is not fully password restricted - anyone can wander in and view images, read the forums, etc. And while the owners of the site do not make a profit, it was never my understanding that this is a non-profit organization. I imagine it's still ok to post unreleased images of people here, since you're not making commercial use of the photographs but instead posting for editorial/educational/discussion purposes, IMO.

    Please correct me if I'm wrong and feel free to moderate this post out of the thread - a subject in which I'm becoming more and more interested, and like others have mentioned, having trouble getting over my own shyness, etc. I appreciate the examples and insight offered; now I need to get out there and do more of it myself.
  20. Woops thnx for setting me straight.... Here on the european continent a verbal agreement is legally binding. As the entire legal system and 'sewing' culture is generally totally different to that of the U.S.. I think the main difference is that here you have to commit an act of crime(taking pictures and publishing them is not criminal) to be sanctioned, therefore actual proof of this criminal act has to be presented. Sewing for emotional damages is generally not done, and the compensations granted are 'peanuts' compared to those in the U.S..
    As an civil engeneer(i hope thats the correct term) i have a lot to do with permits and legal entanglements.

    Sorry about that.....
  21. Thnx Mike, i guess my point wasnt that unclear however my bad english is not something i should be posting with as it comes to these technical issues. I will not do so anymore, please disregard any of the legal implications i mentioned.

  22. What is the difference between taking and publishing photographs of "public" persons such as celebrities, and taking and publishing a photo of the lady at the open street fair, whether taken on public or private property?

    When does an ordinary person become a celebrity? The nine trapped miners became instant celebrities and it was a photographic field day.

    Even some celebrities take offense at being photographed and retaliate...Sean Penn for example.

    What about payment? Dorothea Lange's photo of Migrant Mother has been published extensively, but the woman photographed (who recently died) received a lot of nothing for the use of her image.

    Tabloids such as the Enquirer make extensive, and often questionable, use of unauthorized photographs of people, and I doubt these magazines could be considered "news" papers. They are commercial activities.

    It seems to me if I want to get deeply involved in candid people photography I need to be willing to risk whatever consequences may come from such photographic activity. That is what I need to consider seriously.
  23. The day of the candid HCB type photos went out with the
    proportional number of lawyers. A public figure is different than a
    private individual. But, even public figures have private lives and
    are now evoking that right when it's violated. So, legally you can
    shoot a stranger for non profit use. But if that person deems any
    public display of that image as demeaning they can sue you. It's
    called libel and slander, something you cannot do with pictures
    or words in a public forum....including this one. One can huff and
    puff all they want, but it is a serious piece of business when
    you're hit with a lawsuit, so care and a release form are the best
    weapons of defense. P.S. I was on the fringes of a lawsuit ( not
    the plaintif), that resulted in a $800,000. award against an
    advertiser, which they paid rather than dragging it out with
    lawyers costing almost that much again. After that I took out a
    $1,000,000 insurance policy against just such a mistake. Far to
    many people call their lawyer at a drop of a hat.
  24. Marc,

    I have been reading alot on previous posts in this site (search options 'legal' and 'law').
    It seems re-using a pic for an ad is the dumbest thing anyone could do. You should have the proper release form(not the one you had when you first used the pic, if you had it at all) BEFORE your start taking pictures.
    As to candid shots being used for non-commercial/artistic work i havent found anything that would suggest youll need a release form to post/publicise it(yet).
    As this is not a matter to take lightly i would suggest you will all look into previous postings.

    Thanx to all of ya.....
  25. Henk, the issue wasn't the reuse of an image previously used. It
    was one of using a Stock Image with attendant standard
    releases which are not a guarantee of absolute legal rights. Mis-
    use the picture and you could be libel.
  26. Marc,

    About this dreadfull ordeal, we can all make mistakes....

    Would it have made any difference if you did a reshoot, got a signed releaseform(before taking pictures) explicitly stating the photographs would be used for this specific ad, and compensated the model for his/her time.
    Or before using the photograph would have set up a 'new' contract with the model in which permission was granted for this ad, compensating the model for public exposure(or whatever you call it)?

    Or should you have done something else?

  27. Karel wrote: "My point is that in my opinion you are invading someone's privacy way before "the person raises a stink" (and probably have invaded lots of others people's privacy who did not "raise a stink" wether or not "YOU are in the right" and can find a cop to "set the bozo straight".<p>
    We can define "privacy" objectively in a legal sense, and in that sense, in public places, there is a right to photograph strangers in many nations, including my home. That's all that was being suggested. Subjective definitions of privacy, such as yours, will differ among different individuals and hence are only useful for judging your own behavior -- e.g., if something is legally permissible but you feel it is wrong, then you may choose to not behave in that fashion. But what right do you have to impose your values on others' behavior, when that behavior is legal? (You can tell that I am an American, as we get very preachy about our "rights"!)<p>

    Karel wrote: "Some people don't mind being photographed: go ahead and have fun. But some people do mind: please respect their feelings and leave them alone. This is not a matter of being in your (legal) right but just being a considerate human being."<p>
    And how do we separate out those people? Are we to simply know, by looking at a person, whether or not she would mind being photographed?<p>
    I think one thing that has been overlooked, but that Glenn touched on, is that street photography is often fun, that subjects often enjoy and are engaged by the experience. Those negative reactions are few and far between. But thank God that, at least in many places, there is a legal right to photograph these strangers. Hey Karel -- do you remember Rodney King? He was a black guy in Los Angeles who was beaten senseless by a bunch of racist white cops. The whole thing was captured on tape by some guy with a new video camera. Should that guy have NOT taped this atrocity, under the presumption that the cops wouldn't want to be depicted as brutal thugs? Yes, the connection between that incident and street photography is tenuous, but hopefully it illuminates why these "rights" -- rights which you belittle -- are important to a free society.
  28. Getting back toward the original topic... I liked Jeff's three categories of people and I'm pretty sure I can spot the 1's and 3's without too much trouble. How do you spot the 2's - those who won't object or might even be willing to be photographed by a stranger on the street?

    I'm assuming being more comfortable may come to me with time. I've got to work on my approach I guess. For the experienced street shooters - did it come to you easily from the start or did you have to work at it to get where you are now?
  29. I have a television news background and while it's been awhile. I do remember that in most situations where the image is being used for editorial purposes and not advertising and if the photo was shot on or from a public's fair game. This is a very good article from PDN that sums it up fairly well. /">hyperlink
  30. I didn't write the hyperlink it is.
  31. Todd asked how Mary Ellen Mark did her work with the "damaged" people; well, she get to know them and build a relationship with them before taking their photos.
  32. Nice link, Jenn. Enjoyed reading it.
  33. I also think HC-B's style is just the opposite from Mary Ellen Mark's (MEM). Which style is more useful or more effective?
    If your intention is to write about a people with photos to illustrate and to persuade, I guess MEM's would be more effective. If your intention is just take creative single shots with no intention to study a people and empathize with that people, HC-B's is the way to go, then.
    In the last 2 months, I have browsed thru somewhere around 15-20 photo essays published by HC-B, Stieglitz, Weston, Winogrand & MEM. In particular, I was very intrigued by HC-B's style. In some ways, his style is playful (like Mozart's music), creative and entertaining to look at; especially, his famous ones. The emotions I have after looking at his photos are normally that of 'wow' and 'good timing' and 'fast thinking'. I seldom come away with a 'the subjects need help.' MEM's photo-works stir up more empathy.
    The more I read about their works, the more I ask why am I shooting photos of strangers? Did I truly just wanted to record life in a fraction of a second or to persuade my viewers about something I believe in? Only you can answer it for yourself and you can, then, apply the appropriate style.
  34. Hi Douglas,

    Since you queted me 3 times, maybe some more thoughts about this highly interesting subject.

    First of all, you are right ehh, correct that is :), about me being subjective when I talk about something like "legal" right and my personal "moral" right. I know this is a very fine line and I'm trying to get a hold on it along the lines of this forum. I still don't have the right answers, but I think there are two extremes:

    - street photographers who are collecting their own freek picture shows: "gee look at the weirdo I shot today!"
    Personally, I hate this exploitation. It may be legally right but subjective wrong. Flame me for my opinion if you like.

    - street photographers who are truly engaged in what they see and who do deeply care about their subjects and who hope that their photography of appaling things might help improve things. Maybe the Rodney King video belongs here, maybe the photography of the Vietnam napalm girl, maybe lots of others on poverty in the cities, child labour and so on.
    (and probaly there are some freak-show collectors whose work turns out to "do good" as well, to make it even more complicated).

    It is the intention that counts. Where do you stand?

    And I agree that is it often difficult, if not impossible, to see an interesting situation and split-second decide wether or not your subjetc agrees in being photographed while you fiddle with composition and lighting.

    Difficult but interesting...

    And of course there are the vast amount of "photographs with people in it" that cause no problem (except maybe if you photograph a loving couple where one of the two is cheating on their wife or husband :) )

    Keep the discussion going,
  35. Re Karel's comments above: My original post describes legal rights and was not conveying a recommendation to shoot anyone, anywhere, anytime. The law confers specific rights, within which each photographer decides when to shoot and when to walk away. I agree that shooting every odd-looking person one encounters is akin to collecting a "freak's gallery" if there is no theme or project holding them together, and so I don't do this. And to tie this to another active thread, I also shy from photographing street people simply for the sake of it, though I have shot street people in anonymous, iconic compositions (faces unseen) when I foresee a point to the photo. I generally shy from photographing people who are down-on-their-luck unless I can do it quietly and without showing their faes, since to do otherwise seems a bit predatory -- I'm not Mary Ellen Mark, after all. And I would not photograph a reticent party unless he/she was engaged in some flagrant public display (such people, such as Mardi Gras revelers, usually seem to appreciate the attention, however, so it's a non-issue).

    But, to tie this with some other recent posts: once I press the button, the film is mine. I may later decide not to print a picture, but I will never hand over film to anyone, no matter how angry he may be.

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