Photographing Strangers: Ok or Not?

Photographing strangers and posting the pictures to a public forum is creepy. Even if the picture is beautifully framed, wonderfully lit, and visually stimulating, unless the person has agreed to be photographed you’re crossing a line. Instagram has made this type of photography wildly popular and more accepted than ever. Many of my closest friends and relatives do this. Subway pictures of strangers, people waiting for a train, people crossing a street, eating food – I get it. The landscape of NYC littered with its citizens makes for compelling photographs. This is the sum + substance of why people watching here is so satisfying. But I don’t agree with the notion that just because it’s possible and popular, it’s ok to voyeuristically post pictures of strangers.

If I caught a stranger taking a picture of me, for whatever noble and artistic reason, it would bug me. Particularly if they were being sneaky about it. More so if they were taking a picture of any of my children. Honestly, that would freak me out. It’s just invasive, and that is the truth.

I think there are some exceptions. Vague pictures, not specifically showing faces but instead more of a landscape. Performers, who presumably are putting themselves out into the world to be watched. Maybe even police officers or other public figures on duty. Anyone who is not having a private moment. But the rest of us are just going from A to B, without trying to be on the stage of social media, maybe not feeling our best or looking our best or maybe we’re going through something or possibly feeling vulnerable or wearing something we thought looked great but actually looks awful.

But we have not agreed to be part of your artistic expression. By being in public, is it just implied that we consent? I don’t think so.

I’m seriously kind of shocked by how many people take and publicly post pictures of others. When did this become ok? How does it seem like a valid form of art? And if they have to do it covertly, doesn’t that just sort of negate any argument that it’s fine? In my experience, anything a person has to hide is usually kind of on dodgy ground.

I’d love to hear how others feel about this – particularly people who do it. Truthfully, I’ve done it before. I’ve seen a funny situation, photographed it, then posted it. But after seeing it done more and more, with people dancing a little too close to the line of invasive disregard, I’ve had to put the kibosh on my own involvement. It could be that I’m being ridiculous, though. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Photographing Strangers: Ok or Not?

  1. Not ok. This has been a pet peeve of mine. I see people doing this all the time. I think if you can’t put your camera in the open to snap a shot, you shouldn’t be shooting at all.

  2. Ha. Obviously I’m ok w street photos. In fact I love the street pics I am treated to everyday from Paris, Stokholm, Jeruselem, and good ol’ NYC. I love seeing what’s going on, happy, sad, funny, and weird and up to the minute. A treat.

    Bruce Davidson captured the NY subway in the ’80s in a way I don’t think verbal descriptions could match. I’m so glad he recorded it!

    Once, with all our kids in tow and a dozen balloons, my friend and I hoisted a stroller up the subway stairs. We were a classic everyday NY circus, no big deal. And there was a dude shooting the whole ordeal.

    Y’know? I don’t care. It was funny and picturesque. The minute people stop documenting their surroundings, that’s when Art takes a big smack to the head.

    Everybody has the ability to document easily now, and I love the democracy of that.

    What it comes down to for me is respect and motive.

    And I think most people know what’s right in that regard.

  3. I’m really unsure. I can fall both ways and see valid arguments in either direction. I have take the quintessential “italian grandmother” shot in Italy that I was deliberately covert about (she was basking in the sun and I truly didn’t want to interrupt her day). But would I publish that in a public venue? No. Could I see wanting to share that in a public venue? Definitely. It is such a fine line that we walk. Our society is becoming so intrusive into our private lives, sometimes we don’t even realize how far across the line we’ve gotten, or how far we’ve let people in!

  4. How do you feel about the fact that in both public and private places in most American cities – especially NYC – you are under almost perpetual video surveillance? Is there something about the anonymity of the security cameras that makes them seem less “creepy” than a person with a still camera? Does your answer depend on whether the video is being recorded onto a VCR in a dark room or is being monitored by a paid security worker in real time?

  5. No matter where you are no one can stick a camera in your face and start taking pictures against your will, but once you’re out in public, a park, street, or any public area, you have given up your reasonable expectation of privacy. While you may feel uncomfortable with the photographer in the park taking pictures of (the flowers?) (the trees?) (their child on the swing?) (…?) , it doesn’t seem reasonable to teach a child to feel uncomfortable around grownups with cameras because you “feel creepy”.

  6. I will reiterate what “photographer” said. I used to be a newspaper photographer, and legally, once in public you are allowed to be photographed. The internet has changed things, so perhaps the laws will change. But currently, no one has to ask your permission. I don’t know if I agree or disagree, but I just wanted to share that info :)

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