The problem with photographing people

I am in love with photographs of people’s faces. The face tells the story of the person in a way that words cannot. I’m not talking specifically about the faces of fruit vendors or farmers or tribal leaders in remote parts of the world (although their faces are plenty interesting too) but all faces.

DP and I were in a food court in the new shopping centre in Singapore (where I was, indeed, taking photographs of people) and I asked him why there are so many more published photos of rural people in developing nations. He responded that there are plenty of published photos of people in their native urban cityscapes.

I’m not so sure about this. I read a lot of blogs and almost no one publishes photographs of the faces of strangers. Why is this? Are we concerned about being sued by web-surfing urban dwellers who spot themselves on our blogs or Flickr accounts? When we were setting up 14 Lenses DP did some research about this issue and learned that you are legally permitted to take the photograph of someone in public as long as your photograph does nothing to defame the human subject of the photo. Still, DP rarely shoots photographs of people and it makes him uncomfortable when my camera rests for too long on a person or a group of people. DPs objection to this practice undoubtedly comes from his deep desire to not make others uncomfortable. The comfort of others is a good and virtuous goal.  As a consequence of DPs concerns, I’ve been reflecting on my own photography habits and have begun training myself to take fewer shots of the people around us on our travels.

This is not to say that I am going to stop taking photos of people. You are my lovely bread and butter, photographically-speaking. What I’d like you to know is that if I take your photograph in a public place, it’s because you are beautiful. I photograph you because there is something utterly fascinating about you and what you are doing; even the most “mundane” details of your life may be fascinating to others. I find people more compelling than buildings and trees and tourist sites. (Okay… I find palaces pretty interesting!) What I’d like to say is that I am not trying to steal your soul and I promise that I am not stalking you. Really!

4 comments

  1. Like you, I find people more fascinating to photograph than buildings and landscapes, but I'm also trying to learn how best to do this without making people feel uncomfortable. This is why street and portrait photographers never fail to make me feel admiration and inspiration for them.

  2. On the subject of rights and responsibilities, it seems to me that a candid snapper could also be in trouble if they made money from the photograph (aside from celebrities who have a reasonable expectation to be photographed), or if the subject appeared to be providing some sort of endorsement of a product or political candidate. That said, there are also people who think you're stealing their souls…Otherwise, snap away!

  3. @RonThat's the ticket exactly… taking a couple of photos without making people feel uncomfortable.@JeffyI wonder, then, what steps National Geographer photographers take to protect themselves from being sued as they clearly make a living from taking photographs of non-celebrities.@HeatherI look at photos of building that I took in Mexico and Europe and I think… so what? Why did I take this? This is not interesting to me.

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