Taking pictures of strangers is, well, strange

I used to snap pictures of strangers all the time. A cool “cultural” scene would present itself and I would sneak in with my camera and try to grab the moment. At first, I didn’t think about it. Then I realized that some of the faces my “subjects” were making communicated a disgruntled attitude. I had subjected them to cultural paparazzi.

In an attempt to assuage my guilt and still get cool shots I began snapping photos of the backs of people. Didn’t work. I still felt like a weirdo.

woman walking

So then I started to ask permission to take photos. Generally the responses were divided into two categories:

1. No.


2. This is how much I charge to have my photo taken.

This made me evaluate the whole concept of photographing strangers. I decided to take a break from taking photos of strangers based on two points of logic.

#1  Even though it has happened, I don’t like it when people single out my children and take pictures with them because of their light colored skin. (Sidenote: ironic that my children with very strong black roots would be singled out because of their lightness.)  I imagine that most people would feel the same way about my lens on their lives.

#2  Also, I came to the conclusion that I would not take pictures in my home culture of strangers who caught my eye at, for example, Walmart. I am not a fan of those who do, I am aware of the site and my comparison is deliberate. So why would I do that in my host culture that has graciously extended me a welcome?

Now, when taking pictures of strangers I feel like the strange one.

Every so often I get a nod of approval and an image like the following is the result. In the meanwhile, I will content myself with shots of people I know, nature, cityscapes, and still life compositions.

romp through the daisies

What are your thoughts on the topic of photographing strangers? Do you have a photography code of ethics? I would love to hear some input.



4 thoughts on “Taking pictures of strangers is, well, strange

  1. My solution? I wait until teams come down, and since they are busy doing all sorts of other culturally insensitive things, I let THEM take photos I want, and then I use them on our webpage. I know, I’m terrible. You asked! I do hate taking people shots. Normally the photos the teams take are in homes of people we are visiting, and we do ask permission first.

  2. I never thought twice about photos when we would come on a short-term outreach, but now as a full-time missionary I have been convicted about displaying photos on Facebook or such. I too thought about how no one in America is running around pulling in a driveway and talking pictures. In the culture we work with they enjoy picture taking, I just don’t want to exploit them.

  3. Because photography is the tool I use when on the missions field, and although I see what you are saying, I dont follow this line. We use photography as a way to raise awareness, to build relationships (you would be surprised at the amount of friends I have made, just by showing them the photo I have taken), and use it as a tool to teach others. 99% of the time I ask, there is the occasionally 1% that I dont want to lose the mood, and will take the photo anyways. Some of the places we now work, they just know I will always have my camera, cause its part of who I am. But I also try to be culturally sensitive. There are things that people dont want recorded, like gambling in the slums, etc. But we are also recording life, and praying for change.

    1. I like the idea of taking the time to show people your photos. I am glad you have found a peaceable way to photograph people and still be culturally sensitive. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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