I’ve been working on a project which required me to spend some time yesterday going through various photography quotes. I found this one here, which got me to thinking: how important is your intention when you’re photographing someone? We sometimes change the traditionally aggressive terminology that’s associated with photography. Instead of taking a picture, we make one. We don’t shoot or capture, we save moments. But then I thought of a friend of mine who goes out of her way to take unflattering photos of people. She always means it to be a joke. But when you’re the unlucky one who gets caught in her lens, the word “captured” most definitely describes how it feels.

This got me to thinking about the whole process. It can be a mutual exchange of exposure and trust. And it can also be a violation, like the paparazzi who stalk people waiting for a chance to expose something embarrassing. But what makes it embarrassing? I think it’s the idea that a vulnerable piece of us would be carelessly spotlighted for others to see… and worse, judge.

So when a person allows you to take their picture, they’re essentially saying that they trust you with their vulnerabilities. This makes it such an honor and responsibility, and also a special challenge if you don’t know much about the person. Sarah Rhoads is one of my all-time favorite photographers. She recently went to Thailand, and had some really interesting things to say about her approach to street photography. She talks about how it’s not easy to walk up to a stranger and ask if it’s okay to take their picture. But I think it’s the willingness to be vulnerable first which opens the door for someone to trust you enough to expose them. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. How do you bridge the gap between trust and exposure?


  1. says

    I tend to be very careful of what I use on my blog especially when people are in a public places and unaware that they are being photographed either as part of a larger group or sometimes as an individual.

    I have trouble asking permission first, plus it changes the energy.

    Great post with interesting thought provoking possibilities.

    I shot a bit yesterday in a restaurant, but kept most of it fairly tightly food focused.

  2. says

    Great post, with lots to think about. I love your terminology about what we as photographers are doing – "making" a picture rather than "taking." We are "saving moments" rather than shooting or capturing. The latter two feeling rather scary, although I’ve never thought of it that way before now.

    As a photographer, I prefer to be a silent observer, whether I’m at a photo session, a wedding or at a public event. I am most interested in preserving the moment, and quite often that doesn’t require eye contact with my subjects. Yes, my portfolio has plenty of posed shots & eye contact, but I feel my best images are those taken in-between the poses or while a person or persons are in the midst of whatever it is they are doing. To me those images carry the most emotion. They embrace the essence of the moment, which, if you disturb that moment by asking permission to photograph them, the moment simply disappears. I am very mindful of the sensitivities in certain circumstances, such as an angry or sorrowful event. For those I do not photograph, regardless of how I feel an image may look as a result.

  3. says

    Such a thoughtful post…so much to ponder. In general – I prefer to sit back and silently observe. The magic (for me) happens in the transitions and moments between the poses and when the subject is caught unaware. I suppose that is where I find the ‘nobility’ – in the unplanned and unexpected.
    Here are a couple of recent ones of mine:

  4. says

    As an editor and budding documentary filmmaker, the subjects of our films have given permission before we start filming. I realized what a gift this was recently when a subject got very emotional on camera. I had to fight the instinct to shut the camera off and give him what comfort I could, but restrained myself. It was compelling but torturous to watch.

    I haven’t quite got there with my photography yet – it takes a courage that I haven’t summoned. Landscapes, found objects, my family – no problem. With my video camera I can often "shoot from the hip", thus reducing the discomfort of having a lens right in someone’s face.

    I think this will be my next goal – to give nobility to those whom I’m photographing, after obtaining their permission.

  5. says

    I’ve run into this a lot lately. Some of the pictures I’ve taken are considered unflattering by the subjects. If the picture is truly unflattering, I delete it. If it merely exposes a core emotion in a vulnerable moment, I keep it.

  6. says

    My friend Meghan and I recently tried to do a stranger photography session. She succeeded, but I panicked. Somewhere I will find courage…!

  7. says

    I experienced this at an event last weekend. Everyone is relaxed and having a great time – until you ask to take their picture. They either become guarded or put on the "smile". It definately changes the energy when you are forced to ask for the shot. I really appreciate your term "making pictures" and "saving moments"

  8. says

    I love photographing strangers and have no problem asking if I can take their photos….and almost always they seem surprised and then flattered and say "yes"…….it takes nerve, but it’s always worth asking…..the worst thing that can happen is that they say no….and certainly a "no" isn’t the end of the world…..

    I loved what you said about trust and being vulnerable…..just loved it !

  9. says

    Short answer: I don’t know.

    I take pictures of my immediate family until they give me "that look" (you know the one: ) and I know it’s time to put it away. None of them love being the subject of my photography but none of them mind too much, because I am the only one documenting our time together with any regularity. There are tons of pictures of us and the cousins as kids, but as time passes and we stop changing quite so fast I think it stops seeming so urgent. My grandparents however refuse to actively get in front of a lens, which makes me sad. I did manage to get a few when they were otherwise occupied at Christmas that they were actually alright with when I showed them after the fact:

    I don’t often bring my camera out with friends unless they are also photo enthusiasts… I just don’t really know how to start that conversation.

    And while I would love to be able to introduce myself and take photos of strangers, I am not that brave yet. (I have visions of someday doing a "100 strangers" project or something… but I am a long way from that at this point).

  10. maile says

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments everyone. Jenn, I don’t know either. What’s so cool about photography is that we all find our own ways of working through the process. You are all so inspiring! xo

  11. says

    I like to think I capture the moment, that little piece that is so fleeting. Capturing the moment requires complete respect for the subject. Moving at their speed, taking their cues and putting the camera away when they are done.

  12. says

    I think I have been approaching this question through more practice with self-portraiture–the idea that I take so many pictures of myself I am not comfortable with, reminds me to be respectful of the kind of shots I take of others. And on the other hand, getting more comfortable approaching myself–trying for that noble shot–helps give me confidence to someday approach others about making their portraits.

  13. says

    Trust is the key word, isn’t it? Agreeing to be photographed is trusting the photographer, which means you have to do your best to be trustworthy.

    Also, interesting thoughts about the taking and making of pictures. I had always understood the difference to be about letting things happen as they may (to take a picture as it appears in front of you) or actively trying to build a picture (to make it). In the "making" case, the photographer might be changing the scene (moving an object, giving instructions to a model, using artificial light) or simply postprocessing the image but the important point is that there’s a conscious effort to create something. Well, that was my understanding anyway.

    But the idea that taking is more aggressive than making makes sense too. Wasn’t it Susan Sontag who made the comparison between a camera and a gun?

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    And congratulations Jenn for capturing that look so well.
    I still wonder whether this guy was giving me the look too:


  14. says

    I’m doing a 365 self-portrait challenge. I’m not used to being on the other side of the camera. It has really made me more understanding regarding being the person IN the photo, as opposed to just taking the photo.

    I did a shoot last weekend and one girl hated every photo she was in…and they were lovely captures of her. I think some people will always dislike themselves in photos and focus on things they don’t like about themselves. It is kind of sad in a way, isn’t it?

  15. says

    Depending on the setting, the people, the comfort level…I ask first. For example, when I am at my son’s basketball games, I do not ask parents permission to take photo’s of their son. I do ask if I can use them or post them and if they say ‘no’…I respect that. The other night at a game, I seen the cutest little girl, twirling around, enjoying life without a care in the world, and I wanted to capture it so bad, I could feel it, LOL. I went and asked the adult she was with if I could take her photo, just for my own collection and showed her the other photos that had (i was trying to get the right BLUR) to let her know that the face was not really recognizable. She politely said no. I thanked her and she started to try and explain to which I told her no explanation was necessary….as a parent that is your God given right. and as a parent myself, I respected and tried to reassure her there was no ill feelings…. So…

    i use a case by case basis on taking photo’s of complete strangers but for the most part I ask….if I try to get a ‘feel’ for the group or the setting and some times I KNOW its not going to go over very well so I dont ask but if I have a inkling it will, I do…

  16. says

    trust and exposure has come up so recent in my photography. Just recently I was invited to take some photos at an annual event a friend puts on. It is attended by a lot of people and since most people don’t want their picture taken, I always ask if I may before I snap the photo. I prefaced it this year by telling them that they could preview it and if they did not like it I would delete it right there since they were gracious enough to allow me to take it to begin with. A few days later, a boyfriend contacted me, and asked me to please send him a photo that his date had vetoed. That photo had not been deleted for various reasons but I would not send it to him. I explained to him that it was a matter of honor and trust and I did not want her to refuse next year because I broke her trust this year. He was somewhat unhappy but I held my ground as it is…..a matter of trust and exposure. It did not matter that *I* thought the other photos were good, it mattered that *she* did not.

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