I have a Christmas Day memory of being choked around the neck by an individual upset with my photography. I mean he was upset I was taking his picture, not that he was passing judgment on my career’s work, hopefully. It was my fault entirely. I was covering the annual community Christmas meal and through my lens, I mistook him for another person whom I had earlier asked and been given permission to photograph. I realized my mistake in the few seconds it took for his hands to reach my neck. All was quickly settled and forgiven. It was Christmas, after all.
Photography has often been considered an aggressive act. At the turn of the 20th century the number of amateur photographers in the U.S. jumped to 4 million, and for the first time smaller camera equipment enabled surreptitious photographs. Publications referred to these new hobbiests as “camera fiends” and considered them a nuisance to society. Photographing at beach resorts to catch female bathers unawares became so prevalent that one resort posted the notice: “People are forbidden to use their Kodaks on the beach.” Photographers soon added their mea culpa. “Our moral character dwindles as our instruments get smaller,” quoted an article from The Amateur Photographer, Oct. 4, 1910.
Now, in an age where almost everyone carries a camera or video device in their pocket and images are uploaded to YouTube in seconds, it’s hard to imagine such disgust and anger directed at photographers. But at the Journal-World our photo staff realizes that not everyone desires to be photographed. Our decisions on who and what we photograph are based largely on understanding the difference between “taking” and “making” a photograph. We don’t run around trying to take compromising photographs of people or sneak shots of unsuspecting subjects. Usually we are documenting people and events where we have been invited, have established a relationship with or are photographing candidly in a public space. The person being photographed is made part of the process, engaged with the photographer and knowledgeable of where and how their image might be used. “May I take your photograph for the newspaper?” is a typical opening line for us.
Here are a few tips to help you engage unfamiliar subjects:
• When you travel with your camera, be aware of area customs and traditions. Photographing is restricted among some religious and ethnic groups and at sacred sites, etc.
• Don’t be shy. Approach subjects with a smile and ask them permission to photograph.
• Don’t speak the language? Engage a subject with a smile, point to your camera and then to them. Let them know your intent.
• To break the ice, show people photographs already on your camera.
• When photographing children seek permission from a parent or guardian first.
Being aware of the environment in which you are photographing and establishing a rapport with subjects can go a long way in avoiding a choke hold around your neck.