Last night I had an argument with someone who regards my approach to candid photography: that is, not normally asking for permission or approaching the persons after to look for consent, as "morally wrong."
Her view can be boiled down to this: while privacy is a subjective thing, one never knows how someone feels about their photo being taken until you ask them. To not ask them is to ignore their right to say 'no'. This abuse is compounded when the photographer publishes those images on a medium like the Internet. She argued that the fact that candour and spontaneity are usually lost and that too often, people who are asked before or after you take the photograph say 'no', whether reasonable or not, is just too bad - the photographer has an obligation to discover the subject's position towards their photo being taken and to respect their wishes. She likened it to the encroachment of the Big Brother state and that people should have control over the use of their image. She excepted, for example, celebreties and people at a protest march, on the basis that they WANT to be recorded.
I didn't fundamentally disagee with her points on consent. In a make-believe world, it would be lovely to have signed release forms for every person you ever took a photo of and to have true candid photography at the same time. However, I think it's fair to say it's impossible to have both. It is an issue I struggle with: I certainly don't want to trample on people's privacy, yet I'm sure that on ocassion, I have.
However, I put to her that, if a global dictat were issued tomorrow to say that you couldn't take someone's photo without permission, you can forget newspapers, TV, books, exhibitions etc. as we know it - the world would be vastly depleted of information, of inspiration, of learning, of reality, of truth. You don't know what you have until it's gone. Can you imagine the photographer who took the image of the naked little girl burnt from napalm running on the road in Vietnam asking her permission? Or how about the winner of the World Press Photo Competition this year?
http://www.worldpressphoto.nl/index.php ... width=high
And why stop there? Wouldn't we also have to apply the same sovreignty of privacy to writing, for example? God help anyone trying to write a fair and true biography or autobiography. You'd never get everyone's permission! But that's not to say therefore you shouldn't write it, anyway. For that matter, does the photographer always know what the significance of a photo will be when s/he takes it?
The examples may be extreme but you see my point: who is to say definitively what constitutes a justifiable infringement of privacy and what is mere self-indulgence? Clearly, the only person who can do that is the photographer, according to his/her own conscience. Some people act in good conscience, though to another, it is bad conscience. Some act in spite of their good conscience. Has someone got a better solution? Anyone for mass censorship? Didn't think so...Laws in a democracy should attempt to balance the rights of the individual with the freedoms and values that the vast majority wish to remain sacrosanct.
I'm not so pompous as to compare what I do to the likes of that photographer in Vietnam. But I do know that many people enjoy my candids and it's not too much of a stretch to say that they inform, entertain and enlighten them. To put it in a nutshell: it brings them closer to humanity, which, when I examine my own impulses for taking candid photos, is the very reason I do it. Which person has looked at a magazine or newspaper and seen an excellent, tasteful candid photo and immediately thought "what a disgraceful incursion on this person's privacy, I am going to boycott this publication!"? Perhaps a few, but a few against the very many.
In fairness to this person, she did try to come up with ways you could try to preserve spontaneity while always knowing and respecting people wishes: asking them after (although even that could be construed as an abuse of power, having already taken the photo), or asking people at an event before hand. I agree, this IS preferable. She also insisted that most people when asked would give permission, before and after. I wish it were so by my experience in this country suggests that people tend to assume you are up to no good. Moreover, any photographer will know that these approaches will often break down, can have holes punched in them (what if one person in a group refuses, what if it's impossible to ask everyone) or be totally impractical because there is not time or no means to orchestrate everything. To observe her 'rules' rigorously would mean photographic opportunities decimated. Her view would be that photos achieved by "immoral" means are not worth the paper their printed on.
We must be honest and admit that the freedom to take candids and not ask for permission (provided they are lawful) inevitably means trampling on some people's privacy, as they define it.
So, my question is: in this case, does the end justify the means?
I just want to add that I'm not talking about the law here: in the UK, there's nothing unlawful (yet) about taking someone's picture, with or without permission in a public place, as long as they are decent. The person I had the argument with would say that what is legal and what it moral are not the same thing (and I would agree).