The dilemma of taking photos of strangers


We worry over whether and how to take photos of strangers as we travel.  What do you do? An old Chinese man gave us a nod and pointed to his rather large camera, as if to ask, “May I take your picture?”  We nodded with a smile, and he happily took his photo of this older American couple visiting China.  How nice of him to ask!

The problem with asking is the result – a posed picture.  We hope to capture people doing what they do.  The decision to take photos of strangers without their permission is a judgment call; the choice is made in a gray area.  We consider the place (probably OK at a rock concert in the UK, we’re guessing not alright in an Orthodox Church service in Russia), the social setting (fine at weddings, not at funerals), and who the people are (never acceptable for the Amish).   Generally, when we’re in a public setting, such as a park, taking a photo of a stranger seems OK.  A private setting would be off limits.

We wanted to take more photos in Shanghai but weren’t sure if our judgment on what was acceptable would hold up in China.  Visits to the Bund and various parks gave us an opportunity to start taking people photos.  We proceeded with caution and at some distance, and we hope that the subjects would approve.






September 2013

About simpletravelourway

Beth and Joe enjoy simple travel.
This entry was posted in Around-the World - 2013-14, China and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The dilemma of taking photos of strangers

  1. Pingback: Photographers (everywhere) around the world | simpletravelourway

  2. Ariane says:

    I love taking pictures of people when I travel and have found that these are often the most interesting pictures for people back home as well. I used to take candid pictures but now I mostly just ask (or gesture) to the person I want to photograph. In many cultures it is not common to smile for pictures and I have found that the serious expression they give me makes for great photos. I’ve also found that children and older people seem to be the most open to having their picture taken which is great because they are often the most interesting subjects. Of course it varies from culture to culture so, as you mentioned, being sensitive to people’s reactions is always best.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Recently, we’ve been surprised by local people who, seeing our camera, asked us to take their photo. For example, two teenage girls posed in a park in Hanoi, and a grandmother, mother, toddler, and baby in a fishing village outside Hoi An waved us over and posed. In each case, nothing was expected, they just wanted to be in our photos. Your experience will serve as good advice for us.

  3. And speaking of who you want to have appear in your photos, remember to take photos with you in them. Years after your travels, it will be the photos of you (not the amazing rice fields) that your family will want to keep. But still shoot those rice fields because the are amazing!

  4. I think if you’re in a public place and you’re not taking inappropriate photos it’s fine, but I do try to avoid taking photos of others if I can.

    • Yes, although even in a public place one might avoid taking photos, eg of a funeral or a religious service. Just today we asked a mother and grandmother for permission to photo them with their daughter/granddaughter. They were pleased, but, had they said no, we would respect their wishes. Thanks for your advice and please let us know if you have further suggestions.

      • Our Airbnb experiences have varied, from what felt like a high end BnB to what seemed like a couch surfing experience. Most have been fine or better. Of 20 different Airbnb stays, we have been disappointed in perhaps three. We’ve learned to carefully look at reviews of previous guests and only book those airbnbs that have excellent, recent reviews. Most of the time we’re quite satisfied; occasionally we’re not happy but we leave with a good story to tell.

      • I agree. It’s simply a matter of common sense really and good manners. My husband doesn’t like having people in his photos and will wait for ages to get the perfect shot…which is going to the other extreme!!

  5. I agree with you sometime it can’t be helped other times I try to avoid it I have had cute women to bikers just smile other people move them selves out of the shot (If I notice I give them the time) and I got cussed out by an old women while photographing cars driving threw flood waters once.

  6. How wonderful these photographs are! I agree… what a dilemma about taking pictures of strangers….. i too am a fan of ‘unposed’ photos showing real life. What a super blog you have here!!! pls visit mine at x x x x

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