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Candid photography and the ethics of non-consent

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Posts: 25

Candid photography and the ethics of non-consent

Post Tue Nov 22, 2005 2:09 pm

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? ... 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).


Posts: 904
Location: Irvine, California

Post Tue Nov 22, 2005 9:04 pm

I was talking with a couple of Photographers awhile back (in person, not Online) about this since it does come up all of the time here. They were both pro, making a living off of their images.

Here is basically what they said:

Done enough, you get to know your craft. You can almost feel out a person. For instance, if there is a girl in a mall walking around with bright pink hair and chains hanging from a mini skirt. The odds are, she is an attention seeker and will not mind her photo being taken.

The craft is much about taking chances, pretty much like a fireman running into a burning building. While he has been trained, he never really knows the outcome from fire to fire.

As for taking candids in public, that's just what it is... The public. If a person has something to hide, stay home. We all live in an age where any individual can buy a camera for a hundred bucks. This means the chances of being the part of a photo, if even the background, are pretty good. How many do you think you and I are in as a result of spending the day at a theme park, and walking passed as a camera was snapping away?

As the Photographer said to me the other day. You better get the candid if it's a good one. Cause if you don't and I'm around, I sure will.

I love photoshopography.......

Posts: 92

Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 11:49 am


Tough subject to comment on as the answers will be as varied as the photographs taken. I will give you the opinion of myself and my wife as we discussed this tonight.

Does the end justify the means? Yes and no. If done in good taste for good intentions yes. I took a wide array of photographs from my time in Iraq. Many have scenes of death and destruction. I choose to not put those images on PBase. You have seen my Iraq gallery. I choose to show snapshots of my time there. Nothing in my opinion that would send a negative response form a viewer. Though I could be wrong.

As far as candids. If you are following the law, then by no means should you feel guilty for taking those pictures and sharing them here with us. I do believe that candids can be done in bad taste. Taking shots of girls on the beach for no other means to show a nipple shot or a g-string to millions of people on PBase is not tasteful photography and the ends doesn't justify a means in my opinion.

Another thing can come into play. Your reputation. You have a great reputation on PBase and I am sure in the whole world of photography. You show us the sincere side of human nature and the world we live in. I enjoy your photos very much.

With that said your images which you are well known for or the images of a professional might be accepted easier versus those of a beginner photographer or someone not well known. Some could take offense to the same image or not...depending on the person who took it.

For me I will take candid shots anywhere in the world. And in good taste according to the way I was raised and my level of respect for human you do. I will freely post any of those images of good taste on PBase if I wish. If during the processing of photographing someone asks me not to take their picture, I will delete it immediately...greatness of digital these days. If someone comes across my site with their images and they wish for them to not be publicly displayed, I will again respect their wishes.

I must say that from all my photographs from all over the globe I have never had anyone approach me and ask me to not take their photo. Nor have I been contacted to take one of my images off display here. It could happen...just not in my last 15 plus years of photographing.

Take photographs with respect and take them with the intention of showing the world an image or a moment they possibly could never see and be proud of it. You share so many wonderful times with the world. Feel great about it. Let those that want to argue...argue. For the majority of the world, we will go on sharing, loving, living, and laughing. We will live through photographs and moments we share with one another in person.

I love photography with a passion, I always will. I will share my pictures with the world until my dying days. And I will always be proud to have done it. I will always find joy in hearing from the countless lives that I touched with a photograph. That's what I love about PBase. Honest feedback of our images. Somedays it's overwhelming at the positive outlook and responses people give.

So for you..the end does justify your means. The sharing of beautifuil photos of events and people around the globe. Keep shooting and sharing. I admire you as a fellow photographer, and a damn good one at that. I never see that changing.

Very Respectfully,
Cory Bamburg

Posts: 383

Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 3:41 pm

As I've said before, taking pics for a newspaper makes it a bit easier to take candids ... BUT I have to get their names or it doesn't go into our paper. What I've learned is that no one usually says anything to me about taking their pic - even before they know who I am or what I am doing it for - I ask after the fact.. sometimes I tell them who I am.

obviously this is a small place and a large group of people know who I am by now.

But i do travel.. i do take candids for me and do not ask permission before or after. I do use my conscience, though. There is also that thing.. that intuitive thing .. where you can usually feel out someone's attitude towards it.

About "rights" or not... whether the end justifies the means, etc. I believe that there are as varied opinions on this as there will be on the definition of "exploitation". To me, exploitation is to use something for the "not so good" of the world or the person, etc. But to others 'exploitation' could be one of us posting on a site like this to show our photography skills and a perfect moment caught, or it could be as simple as just not asking permission.

I believe that certain times/places/people/events/moments need to be recorded. Sometimes for their beauty .. sometimes for their newsworthiness .. sometimes for the sheer horror and sadness of it. We need to see what we don't come face to face with every day. If we didn't, we'd live in a world so cloistered we'd NEVER understand others who inhabit this earth.

How much we would have missed without the photos Niall mentioned - the girl in vietnam.. the man being shot in the head in that era as well? Or the Times Square Kiss photo by Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstadt?

They moved us.. they made us sob at this world.. and made us rejoice with it. I wouldn't give that up for anything.. The amazement of feeling emotions so strong.. so intense .. just from someone's photo is to be reveled in.

We make decisions because of their effect on us.

One of my favorite photos I've taken was of an older man at a bowling alley - smoking as he waited to watch his pals start their game. After I got the photos I wanted of him, his friends noticed and started teasing him... he was not upset.. he just didn't understand. I went over to his table and when he asked "why" I said "you have a great face .. I wanted others to see".

We exist.. therefore we record ..

Posts: 250


Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 4:31 pm

Well. As you say, legally you are completely in the right.
Still, I won't (can't really) take candids because I feel it is rude to do so.
Why is it rude?
Because I believe there is a very good chance that if I asked the person to take their photo and publish it on the web, I'd be told no. So if I skip the permission and just do it, I think theirs a good chance that I'm acting against the subjects wishes. For me, this is rude. This applies in spades to those candid breast and butt shots that some guys seem to love doing. Even though I'd have to guess that someone half-dressed is indeed an "attention seeker," it's not my place to decide that means they want that sort of attention.
I don't want anyone shooting me like there's that whole "do unto others" thing to deal with as well.
As to Jude's concerns regarding events....those are newsworthy important events. The same rules do not apply. If you are celebrating or protesting in public, you are part of the news.
If you are enjoying a quiet moment in the park, walking to work, chatting with a friend or waiting for the bus, I don't feel I have the right to assume you would like to give up all aspects of your privacy. Even though you have legally done so.

Posts: 25

Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 5:30 pm


Yours is essentially the same position as put forward by this person I had the argument, which is that it's folly to imagine you can confidently second guess people's feelings about privacy. The only way to know for sure is to ask them.

That being said, what you consider rude another person will consider acceptable. I know I would say this, but if someone takes a picture of me in public (it's happened where I've been aware of it a few times) it feels a little awkward but I think "fair enough, I'm in a public place", assuming the person is not actively harrasing me. I know that other people instinctively blow up when the see a lens pointed their way. As you say, the point is, you don't know until you ask them.

However, a corollary of accepting your philosophy is that you and people of the same mind as you must therefore accept that that, in a polite, respectful world, every image of a person gained without their consent that does not meet the 'special' criteria you cite (news, protest march etc.) should be purged and none ever taken again. That is a logical outcome of your philosophy. While this may be seem like a hypothetical situation, privacy laws are becoming ever more stringent. This is not something to be blithe about. Imagine sitting someone down and asking whether they think taking and publishing without consent candid pictures of people in public is an invasion of their privacy. Prima facie, my guess is most will say "actually, yes it is." Then ask them to leaf through a copy of let's say The Guardian newspaper, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Then give them the same publications with all the technically 'invasive' photos taken out, or rather, the ribbons left of the publications. My guess is most people would at least think again...

It is not an issue of a moral 'right' being overruled by a 'want'. Neither is it a matter of deciding as a society what matters more: absolute sovreignty of privacy for the individual versus the right to document and share the real world (though I admit that much candids hardly have such a noble purpose). The reality is that both matter enough that there must be some compromise: it cannot be a zero-sum game. That's why laws are intended to afford reasonable protection to both sets of 'rights'. In the country in which I pay taxes and vote, the law states that it is permissable to take and publish photos of people in public places (with certain common sense exceptions). Perhaps this is naive of me, but I'd like to think that this law still reflects the preferences of the majority of its citizens, even if the law is usually behind the times. But let's say the majority of citizens tomorrow by referendum decided they wanted to be afforded greater protection of their privacy, I would have a moral as well as legal imperative to respect that.

In the mean time, I will continue to take and publish photos within the law and if someone objects to my taking or publishing their photos, I will, as a courtesy, delete or take them down.


Posts: 250

Logical outcomes

Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 7:27 pm

I don't accept your corollary because I don't feel the need to take things to any logical outcome. That would require that I think others should act as I do. I don't propose that anyone else follow the standards I set for myself. I rule myself and leave others to do the same.
Candid shots as you describe are outside of my comfort zone because I am unwilling to risk violating someone else's comfort in that way. If you, or anyone else, thinks that's unlikely to happen, or is too small a thing to notice, or just don't give a rip what people think, you should go about doing what you do. There are far more of you than there are of me and my perspective looses ground daily.
Until I'm elected God, that's the world we live in. (The election is next Tuesday by the early and vote often.)

Posts: 38

Photographers Rights

Post Wed Nov 23, 2005 7:57 pm

Here is a link to an attorney's site that has a .pdf you can print and carry in your wallet as a photographer in the United States.

There is also a link to a UK Photographer's Rights Guide.

This information may not resolve any arguments about the moral issues of candid photography, but it may help you to understand where you stand legally.

Posts: 94

Post Fri Nov 25, 2005 3:57 pm

I have been taking candids of people without their permission for years, if you check out my people gallery you can see some exapmles.

I did however participate in the PAD challange this summer for one week I took portraits of strangers with their permission, Some examples are also in the people gallery. When I took on the project I thought I would run into a nunch of people saying no, boy was I wrong of the 130+ people that I approached only 2 said no. I found that if I was friendly and professional people where more than happy to let me take their pictures. Even this photo which has had over 1700 hits was taken with the ladies permission.

That aside the only way to get a true canid is if the poeple either forget the camera is there, or don't know you are taking their picture.

The morality of the issue is a personal thing, I have lived in a big city for most of my life and just assume that I am either under video survalance or having my picture taken everyday so I don't have an issue doing it to other folks.

Legally I can take any picture I want as long as it is in a public place at a public event. If however I make money from that image and I do not have a signed model release then that person has every right to approach me for compensation.


Posts: 904
Location: Irvine, California

Post Fri Nov 25, 2005 8:14 pm

This morning I was going through my galleries and came across a candid of two fishermen I shot in February 2004. Back then I was struggling with the issue of invading space and lives. Here are two replies I got that kind of changed the way I thought:

Phil Douglis - You are not invading their space. You are telling a story about life. Invasion is a negative term. Think instead of joining them in space and time, sharing a few moments of time with them. Always work with a smile on your face. Think and act positively, and your fears and shyness will be replaced with gentle assertiveness. Good luck.

Anna Yu - Yes I second what Phil said. People are wonderful, and can be very generous in sharing their life history with a stranger behind a camera. Try talking to them and see! Here's another fisherman for ya.
I love photoshopography.......

Posts: 68

Post Sat Nov 26, 2005 2:15 am

I am pretty mean on this one, I am of the opinion that if they don´t know it won´t bother them. I wonder how many times I have been caught on a camera-phone without my permission - and I HATE being photographed.

Besides, a non-candid doesn´t necessarily make a "posed" photo. Just press the button after they think you have! ;)


Posts: 331

Post Sat Nov 26, 2005 4:56 am


I have always believed that if you are using an image for artistic purposes, journalistic, or documentary then the image is yours to do what you please with it. Publish it anyway that you want. If you plan on using it for commercial use, like selling a product, then consent is needed.

I do however believe that the type of image may require consent but that is due to suggestiveness sexually and what the purpose of the image is to the viewer of the image. If the photo is exploitive or the only intention is for the person viewing it to have a, I don’t know how to put this politely so I will just say it, wank, forgive me if I have offended, then that falls into another realm of both law and morals.

Just glancing briefly at your candid work, I don’t find it at all exploitive or demeaning to the people you take photos of.

Photography can be used in two ways. One is to proliferate humanity and document life, emotion, and all it is to be human and humane that is including the inhumane things we as humans do to each other or it can be used to exploit and demean. It is the job of a photographer to make use of a moment in time and craft that moment into art, journalism, and document it for time, whether the moment is something as simple as a the first steps of a child, a waking moment from sleep, a kiss in Times Square or a bullet going through the brain of another person, a soldier coming back from war hobbled, a homeless person begging.

You are a very good photographer and I don’t see anything wrong with your candid photos or any of your work. My own work is mostly with portraits both posed (somewhat) and candid (street, so to say). My biggest worry about posting images is not what the people will think of them if they run across then on the internet or in a gallery but what someone might use them for if they download them. I took down a lot of photos recently because I was getting personal remarks and odd comments, not from people here on PBase but guests. I try and keep my personal life personal, even if I am showing it to the world through photographs. I love the idea of sharing our work with people and getting it seen but I don’t like the nutters and weirdo’s out there. But that is a chance we all have to take if we want our work seen.

To end a long rant, have you heard of Eddie Izzard? He I does a lot a satirical comedy that may seem like he is poking fun at stereotypes but really he is just breaking the stereotypes down and making them ridiculous. Photography can do that as well but it is very difficult to do like writing satire.


Posts: 250

On further reflection....

Post Sun Nov 27, 2005 1:57 am

...and looking through my galleries, I have to say that I agree with the above statements about whether or not the images are exploitive in nature.
Even I have a few candid shots. Fishermen in a boat, people partying in New Orleans.... People were in these shots because people belonged in these shots. The people were part of the place and the natural content of any story about the place.

Posts: 520

Post Sun Nov 27, 2005 9:35 am

The point about people belonging in pictures is a really strong one. So 'candids' are inevitable.

So maybe this issue is defined by which end of the lens you are and what focal length that lens is.

Following advice from Ray Pettit, I take candids in places where people are more relaxed and cameras are generally more in use - my local city of Oxford is a tourist hot-spot.

If I focus on a candid subject at focal length 400mm from a distance away, she is less aware than if I am taking a building with a fish-eye and don't notice a person 5 metres away. In fact I sometimes have my candid subjects apologise for being in my way - they think I am shooting the scene behind!

I lack confidence in this area, but the photographer's body language is important. I try to behave like a tourist shooting the buildings. other advice I have heard is 'shoot and go'.

The biggest, silliest mistake I make is to think that the subject knows whether or not I have have pressed the shutter. You only need to look at someone through a lens and you have penetrated their 'privacy' - so not to press the shutter is pointless.

I suppose what I am saying is that most people in a 'scene' are unaware they are a candid subject, if the photographer is discreet.

As a final thought, I wish I was interesting enough to attract the attention of candid PBasers!

Posts: 897

Post Mon Nov 28, 2005 8:47 am

Not totally off-topic I hope...


I wonder what do you think of his behaviour.

8) Adal


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