What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? Part One

| August 26, 2014

Good photography is both a subtle art and complex craft, one that can be learned the hard way or the easy way. In an effort to help accelerate you on the “easy way” path, we asked top professional photographers from around the world for their insights into the most pressing difficulties and issues they face.

We have a series of questions and we’re going to post them for you over the next couple of weeks – we’d love your answers to these same questions below, so leave your thoughts on the comments section! Thanks.

Q. What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? (PART ONE)

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Vince Laforet It’s all about being genuine and feeling comfortable in your own skin. I think people immediately sense when you’re not comfortable taking their picture, or if you are doing so for the wrong reasons. If they sense your confidence and they don’t feel threatened by you, you’re in like Flynn. If you love what you do and radiate it – at the risk of sounding too Hippie – others sense it immediately. Especially if you tell people – should they ask why you’re taking their picture – that you find them or what they are doing (or the situation) beautiful/interesting/important – they almost always respond well.

David BurnettI have found the only thing that really works is humor. Letting someone understand that first, you’re not trying to “nail” them, but rather make a more interpretive statement. Humor is usually what opens that door, and lets a conversation begin. Self-deprecation, sharing a story which lets them understand that you, too, are human, is the one way I know to try and get uncooperative subjects to play ball. We all have heard great stories about threats: “Do you have any idea how bad the picture is they have ready to use?”, but I find that seldom wins a subject over.

Deanne Fitzmaurice Earlier in my career I used to think that as a photojournalist I should have no interaction with the people I photograph. I think differently now. If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, I try to understand why then I try to address their concerns and explain why I think it is important. I try to be upfront about my intentions. If it is a news situation where I don’t have an opportunity to speak with them I sometimes will use body language and lift my camera halfway to my face to see how they react. I’d prefer not to photograph people who don’t want to be photographed but the challenge is when my editor is expecting me to come back with photos. I do less news photography these days and prefer spending time understanding a story and telling it in a deep and meaningful way.

Ed KashiI basically approach them in a strategic manner. If they have something to fear or hide, then I take that into account, like in political or social issue stories where either they don’t trust the media or fear for their safety or privacy. That means being sensitive to what might set their fears or concerns off. When it comes to basic human shyness or lack of desire to deal with being photographed, that is somewhat easier. At least it’s easier to try to appeal to their basic humanity, vanity, etc. In general, the more you show you care, understand their story or situation and approach people with calmness and respect, the better results you get. I will say that certain places, groups and situations are harder or nearly impossible anymore to photograph.

Melissa Lyttle I usually start by asking, very simply and honestly, “why not?”. I’ll explain what I’m doing a story on, and how they fit into that. Usually I say something disarming like “Well, I was drawn to you because…” Sometimes it’s fear rooted in something else. Sometimes it’s a bigger concern that I would have no way of knowing. I always try to alleviate their concerns (especially if it’s something silly like, my house is a mess, my hair’s not done, etc…) by reassuring them that it’s ok. If it’s a bigger issue (like they’re a foster kid, they’re worried someone is going to see them and be able to find them based on the photo), I ask if there’s a way to make the image so it’s not identifiable. Sometimes they still say no, and that’s their prerogative, but there’s no harm in asking.

Nathan PaskI take it on as a personal challenge to win them over. Generally the people who don’t want to be photographed are often playing up because of their own insecurities. Taking someone’s portrait is a collaborative moment. You are wanting your subject to show an intimate side of themselves, but in order to do that requires trust. To earn their trust in a very short space of time is an art form really. You can teach anyone how to use a camera, but the real skill is turning an uncooperative subject into a cooperative one in a matter of minutes.

It sounds obvious, but flattery goes a long way. Subtle of course. If you lay it on thick, it can have the adverse effect. I like to go and talk privately with my subject without my camera. A one on one without their people or my assistants hanging about. I quite often tell a subject, “I’m not in the business of making people look bad. If I did, then I wouldn’t work very often. I want to do everything I can to make you look like you, but on a really good day.” I think if a subject knows you have their best interests at heart the ‘us and them’ scenario tends to break down. It’s at this point that often people open up and they might say, I don’t like my hair currently, I think my chin is too big, etc. etc. I then go on to assure them that I will do all I can not to accentuate these things. Once they realise that it’s a team effort and we are all on the same side, then it generally runs much smoother.

Another thing I learnt from assisting some great photographers back in the day was not spending the whole time with your eye glued to the back of the camera. Stop and chat and get to know your subject. It will relax them and you will ultimately get better pictures than just machine gunning your shutter button. I once worked with a photographer that if he had 30 minutes with someone for instance, he’d spend the first 20 with a cup of tea and he’d just chat and then when he felt his subject was ready he’d pick up the camera and spend just a few minutes getting what he wanted. It was a great lesson to learn.

Alex CogheUsually I avoid photographing people who do not want to be photographed. I think for a photographer, respect should be the first thing, and I try to apply this also when I am on the street, making my street photography.

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Thanks to all of our pros for their time in answering these question – more to come! Meanwhile, we’d love to hear YOUR ideas for this question! — What techniques do you use with people who don’t want to be photographed? Pop your answers down below in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next question… “What is consistently the most challenging thing on a shoot”

 

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Based in Melbourne, Australia, Simon manages social media for www.thinktankphoto.com You can find out more about Simon here - http://about.me/gtvone
  • http://www.katehailey.com/ Kate Hailey

    Great tips for sure. You know a lot of folks will say “I don’t like having my picture taken”, I have a friend who always replies with “don’t worry, I’ll take it.” and that normally results in a laugh from the client. Putting folks at ease is key, of course. It can of course be challenging, a little small talk and having confidence in your skills can go a long way.

  • Bob Grytten

    I find that a simple, “May I take your picture?” works best for me – in the language of the country I’m in. This simple courtesy seems to have universal appeal.

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  • Mike Banks

    Although street photography is not part of my professional work it is a major part of my personal projects. I’m in my upper 60′s and I think that gives me an advantage in some cases. I pretty much look like somebody’s grandfather and indeed I am. When I see an interesting person for one of my projects I will always ask to make the photograph. Usually they ask what it is that I’m doing and I spend a bit of time explaining. That interaction helps to open the door and ally fears that I’m some kind of predator. I also explain that I don’t know if the photo I want to make will end up in one of my projects but I am always willing to give them a copy via email or Drop Box. I offer my business card and tell them if they want a copy they can email me and once done I write an identifying number on the back of the card with date and time the photo was taken.
    There are also times when I see a subject and must take the shot right now. If I can I will walk up to that person or group and show them the picture on the LCD. If they object I will offer to erase it then and there and apologize, with an explanation as to why I took the photograph in the first place before eliminating the image. Usually that will spark conversation and I get to keep the shot.
    Dealing with people must be an honest exchange and in most cases that new person you just met will understand you as a photographer meant no harm. Never argue.

  • http://lyndersaydigital.com Mark Lyndersay

    I photograph a LOT of executives and busy professionals who are very aware they aren’t models and are pretty nervous about how their photographs are likely to turn out. Beyond calm conversation, I sometimes have to point out to a subject why I’m there and the best way I’ve found of expressing it is to look them in the eye and appeal to their bottomline interests in terms they understand.
    “You know,” I’ll normally say with a small smile, “I don’t profit by making you look bad.”
    I came up with that two decades when I was photographing the retirement portraits of a VERY senior captain of industry for an editorial assignment and when I saw how he relaxed after doing a quick value calculation on it, I’ve held it in reserve ever since.

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