All images in this article are my own, as I lack the rights to publish work from the artists discussed.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” ― Susan Sontag (1977)
When do you need to ask permission to take someone’s photo? I’m going to put legal issues aside as they differ from place to place, suffice to say that you need to be aware of what they are, particularly when traveling abroad. I have met photographers who will always try to seek permission from their subjects and others who swear they never will. However, from my perspective, there is no simple answer to when consent is required.
To make this question a little easier to answer, let’s look at the types of photos you may take that include people.
The Establishing Shot
I usually have an idea of where I am going to be tackling a photography session. One of the first photos I take is a wide-angle establishing shot. The establisher is often just a personal record of where I have been, although good lighting will often lead to a fantastic photo in its own right. As this picture is a wide angle of a street, there will invariably be people in the frame. I have rarely been worried about permission in these instances. There are too many people to ask, and people rarely appear to notice a photographers presence.
The Classic Portrait
I use a wide-angle lens for portraits, and appreciate the slightly exaggerated headshot these lenses create. This style of shooting means I am very up close and personal with the subject. In these instances, permission needs to be sought. Often, I will not talk to my subject at all, a nod at the camera suffices for a question, and a returning smile indicates they are happy having their image captured. While communication is minimal before capturing this style of photo, afterward I will share the image and try to find out a little more about the person.