Ethics & Fears of Engaging Strangers for Photography

August 16, 2012  •  2 Comments

Travel photography is undoubtedly my first photographic love. Capturing a sense of place, both in sweeping vistas and small details, is a delectable challenge to me. The one part I've always struggled with, though, is people. I never seem to know quite what to say, or how to approach. I don't want to seem disingenuous or make the person feel like a cheap commodity. The last thing I want to do is make them feel like they have a stalker!

Sometimes people are more receptive than you expect, such was the case when I was in Rome several years (too many!) ago. The morning market at the Campo dei Fiori provides a wealth of colors, shapes, textures, and patterns to indulge in. The energy is great, and completely worth getting up at 5AM to make it as the vendors set up their stalls. We arrived just as their day was beginning, and moments later an energetic young lady with a mop of blonde curls spilling from under her helmet pulled up to one group on her little scooter. She had brought a hearty dose of morning caffeine for everyone, along with a brilliant smile. She did speak some English, which along with my modest Italian, meant we could chat a little. She was a bit camera shy at first, but the rest of the group didn't seem to care much one way or the other. I snapped away a bit, then wished them a good day and got out of their hair.


Pretty girl in Rome

Shot with my Canon 40D and the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens. ISO 400, f/2.8 @1/100 (L) and f/3.5 @ 1/80 (R)

Feeling encouraged, I continued to shoot around the area. Some images were in the more traditional travel vein, others focusing on the terrific array of fruits and vegetables. I don't recall seeing any other photographers there, and since no one seemed bothered by me being there, I was able to get some great day-in-the-life type images as a result.

Collection of candid images taken in RomeCampo dei Fiori collection

Canon 40D with Canon 70-200mm f/4IS lens for most of these images, some with Tamron 28-75 f/2.8


My newly found confidence would be tested later in the trip, but I'll get there in just a moment. Sometimes I find myself frustrated by the times people do notice me when I'm hoping for just the opposite. It ruins the moment I was trying to catch, and leaves me feeling dejected regardless of whether their response is encouraging or not. One instance where I do feel this worked quite well is in the following image of a gaggle of Nonne (Grandmothers) waiting for the bus (I assume) near the Pantheon area of Rome.

Canon 40D, 48mm, ISO 400, f/4 @1/60th sec.

This is one of my favorite travel images ever, at least personally. The first couple of frames they didn't notice me, as they were chatting amongst themselves and I was a decent distance away. But once they did, they lady on the right turned away. Her two friends on the bench seems amused, the other two in the chairs completely indifferent. I love the various responses they each had once I was noticed (caught?). This was the last frame I took of them, because even though only one seemed bothered by it, I wanted to at least respect her very obvious desire to not be photographed.

Which brings my to my final thought, the image and moment that I still find myself thinking about 4 years later. In a larger city, it seems people are less bothered by photographers. I imagine that being overrun with tourists snapping away on a pretty regular basis is likely part of that - they kind of become white noise and you aren't noticed as readily. This may just apply to a place like Rome or even Europe in general - I still have to see if that theory bears out in other countries.

Once in Puglia, my father's home region in southern Italy, the vast majority of towns are quite small - they can often be walked in just a few scant hours. This also means that for the most part, there are far fewer tourists clicking around with the cameras. You can't really blend into a crowd when it consists of you, an old bike, and a sleepy dog in the middle of the street (true story!).

Complacent Dog

He did not move for the car, but rest assured the driver simply went around                                       him. Once it passed, he laid his head back down to continue dozing.


I noticed a man working on tambourines and other small wood items in his shop across the street. Some items were hung from the ceiling, and he had this great grizzled black beard. It was very much something you'd see in a travel magazine about small towns in southern Italy! I wanted to capture the doorway and atmosphere surrounding the shop, as well as the artisan at work. Naturally, he noticed me pretty quickly. Even from across the street, it looked like he was scowling at me. Determined not to be "chicken", I crossed the street and tentatively entered his workshop.

I asked him some questions about his work, and looked around a bit. I did my very best to get all my Italian right, but nerves tend to cause problems with that, so I may very well have gotten some key things wrong. It was definitely that vibe you get from some folks in small places - that "we don't like outsiders" sense of suspicion about you. That very well could be entirely my fault, so I hold no grudge and am not trying to fault the man at all.

I asked if I could  please take a photo of him in his shop, and while some was lost in the translation, it was definitely a resounding "No." I think he said something referencing the photos I took from across the street, which had made him uncomfortable in some way. I felt bad, and definitely disappointed. While for some approaching a stranger and asking to take their photo may be something that is second nature, it is difficult for me even now. It was a little like asking the mysterious new guy at school to hang out and getting a vaguely annoyed nu-uh for your trouble.

I've included the photo below for reference, not for any artistic merit. It's really a throw-away shot, especially now. The light was all wrong for what I wanted to achieve, and the angle of view poor, and I think the focus was off a bit too. Even if the light and my position had been perfect, I still couldn't use it because of his response. I've blurred out his face, because even though he will likely never, ever see this blog, I still will respect his wish to not be part of what I do.

How do you handle photographing strangers? Do you have any similar tales good or bad? It'd be great for anyone to share stories about your experiences or tips in this area!


Content Desire(non-registered)
such a well detailed article, Thank you so much. Great blog
Steven Hromnak - GAPHIKER(non-registered)
I will say one thing photographing on the street is an adrenaline rush. People can be strange but also very warm, open and friendly. Great work!!
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