Don’t just shoot, first ask

Five simple rules when taking photos of strangers

Documenting difference and snapping strangers has its blurred lines and Hudson, Valencia and Nashville can only filter your snap on Instagram, not the message it is portraying. With a good understanding of how to ethically work, the photographic result can be more than just a self-promoting experience; it can be one that allows the subject more dignity and active agency. Whether you’re a trained professional, self-made snapper or a happy hashtag-er, you should always keep your ethics about you. We spoke to street and portrait photographers Sydelle Willow Smith, Tony Houz and Emmanuel Munano to find out how artistic, powerful, and ethical photographs can be made in real time.

Snapping tourists on Township Tours have long been seen as a repulsive colonial gazing project, with their ridiculously Gatsbyesque telephoto lense, shooting the next great pic for their travel blog. Recently even royalty like Prince Harry has been called out on his photography session in Lesotho. While the age of social media has called into question how photographers go about getting their snaps without exploiting or dehumanising those in it we give you five things to remember before you capture the moment.

Asking permission and getting to know your subjects. This is Raphael posing next to his Dhow boat. “I tell them why I want to take their photo and where I hope to use it and why - and if they agree I take it, says Smith.  Photo:  Sydelle Willow Smith

Asking permission and getting to know your subjects. This is Raphael posing next to his Dhow boat. “I tell them why I want to take their photo and where I hope to use it and why – and if they agree I take it, says Smith. Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

1. Ask Permission

Sometimes the hardest thing to do, but probably one of the most important. If you see someone you want to photograph, go up and ask to take their portrait. You can then work together in how they also want to be presented. Or go up to them after you’ve stolen that natural shot. Anyone heard of Brandon Stanton? Humans of New York (HONY) photographer? He made his work a success all because he asked first. This also gives you opportunity for getting consent to publish (even if you photographed in a public space).

2. Get the name

One of the most fundamental and humanising aspects of who we are, is our names. This can be especially useful for making street portraits. Giving a person credit for their time to let you photograph them, recognising that they too contributed. You wouldn’t not credit Rolene Strauss in a Magazine spread, why should it be different for a stranger’s time?

3. Share on the spot

We all like receiving a lil’ something-something, whether it’s Christmas, our birthday or just someone being kind. If you have a Facebook page, give the address to the subject, or email them. If the person doesn’t have internet, try get them a printed copy if possible or at least show them the photograph on your screen monitor. Yes, photographers sometimes have insane schedules but these street models are unpaid. Take that one step further to share your work- and possibly gain a greater following.

4. Know your motive

In South Africa, where the socio-economic divide is so prominent, thinking about the “greater picture” and scheme of things is important. Will snapping the bergie or drugged up skollie contribute to social change? Or just contribute to your Facebook like count? Being critically and socially aware of the implications should arguably be everyone’s responsibility, locals and tourists alike. Involving your subject might be key to understanding the art of street photography and backing up your reasons for why you photographed someone.

Dikkie in Mozambique was able to receive his portrait via email. “Often I will then send them a copy of the photo if they have a phone with a camera, or an email address” Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

Dikkie in Mozambique was able to receive his portrait via email. “Often I will then send them a copy of the photo if they have a phone with a camera, or an email address” Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith

5. Be Social Media Savvy

Much of these points can still be applied when you use your phone. You may not realise, but tweeting, posting and sharing are forms of publishing. You can get creative with your images and photograph shadows, or focus on signs, any way that makes a subject anonymous.

Emmanuel Munano, who uses social media as a means to promote street photography through artistic composition says, “I reckon the streets are a gold mine of hidden spiritual and cultural truths waiting to be revealed.” He understands the laws too, which includes having the right to photograph in a public space. “I am making an important historical contribution in telling everyday stories using my camera.”

Making the authentic moment sometimes requires connecting with a subject after photographing them when unaware. “When doing photography of strangers, I am looking for that hones, deep reality of photography. When I am done taking a picture of that particular stranger then I start to engage with them trying to understand  the current challenges they face  everyday.” Photo: Tony Houz

Making the authentic moment sometimes requires connecting with a subject after photographing them when unaware. “When doing photography of strangers, I am looking for that hones, deep reality of photography. When I am done taking a picture of that particular stranger then I start to engage with them trying to understand the current challenges they face everyday.” Photo: Tony Houz

Each of these tips can be applied, either as a whole or as bits of advice when you’re out there photographing. Ethics is a broad and debatable conversation that differs to law. Knowing the basics and understanding the whole picture can make your images that much stronger.

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