The photo above is made in Tsfat, Israel. In the photo are three orthodox Jewish men. They pass by in the streets of the old city center. In a mysterious way, the photo reflects the history of the town in combination with the traditions of the Jewish faith, represented by the three men. Asking permission to photograph
Although the three men are clearly in the photo, I didn’t ask literally permission to make the photo. That means before I made the photo I didn’t ask in words if the men were ok with being photographed. At first glance, this might sound impolite. Still, that is not the whole story. I did get approval from the men to make this photo, but in a way, it didn’t affect the scene I wanted to photograph.
The way I deal with getting permission from people has everything to do with the focus of my photos. In all my photos I search for daily life situations. Situations that could happen anywhere but I make them in Middle Eastern countries. I want to show the ordinary life covered in the beauty of colors and minimalism. For those scenes I need people to behave in the way they always do, naturally. Not distracted by anything and not at all by me and my camera.
The point is; my photos tell something about people in the Middle East. My photos are about the whole scene. The persons in my photos are a representation of a bigger group, it’s not about the personal characteristics of those persons.
When I would talk with people before I would make a photo of them, the scene will probably be completely different or even gone because people will not act naturally anymore.
So what do I do to know that people are ok with being in the photo? There’s one important rule I use as a substitute for not asking permission in words. When I photograph, I make sure people see me making photos. After making the photo I stay for a while with the people being photographed. I actively search for contact, even though there’s mostly a language barrier. I make eye contact and I show people what I’m doing. At this moment I easily get to know if people approve to be photographed or not.
Also, the moment after making the photo is the perfect moment to get in contact and know more about them. Most of the time this is the start of lovely conversations, even though with a language difference. Luckily, I never experienced it that someone wanted to erase the photo I made. Asking permission to photograph
To me, this is the best way to get permission without affecting the scenes I want to photograph. Of course, it also has its downsides when they see me making photos. Some people don’t want to be photographed. It’s easy to deal with this. If people look away from the camera I don’t make photos.
The opposite is harder. Some people are really eager to get photographed. Especially in Iran, I had difficulties with that. As soon as my camera was visible people started to pose or wave. This affected the scenes I wanted to photograph.
For the photo of the Three Men of Tsfat, the following happened: they saw me clearly standing while photographing them and they saw me making the photo. After that, one of the men knocked his head as a sign of approval and they continued their way. The permission for this photo was given non-verbally with the big advantage that it didn’t interrupt the scene.
Without a doubt, there are limits to this way of working. Right now, all my photos show people that are not directly being identified to a specific person. That means you can’t easily recognize the person being photographed. My way of working fits with making these kinds of photographs.
When making photos that show clearly the personal characteristics of a person, this way of working wouldn’t fit. For example in portraits.
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