Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
Four seasoned practitioners give firsthand advice on etiquette for an Instagram world.
Last week, my mother casually texted me a photo of the back of an outlaw biker. She was out in a semi-rural part of Maryland, enjoying some crabs at a table adjacent to some members of The Pagans, the notorious motorcycle club. My very sweet mom sees beauty where others might see mortal danger, and the design on the group's jackets caught her eye.
"I hope you asked permission to take that!," I texted back, panicked (and jealous I wasn't hanging out somewhere as cool). She told me that she had; two members had refused, but one said he didn't mind.
My mother is hardly a street photographer, but she showed good instincts: Ask permission from your subject, explain your genuine interest, and you are less likely to get your ass kicked and more likely to get a great photo.
Today, compulsory smartphone ownership means always having a camera at the ready and the option to post photos instantly on any number of platforms, reaching any number of people. But not everyone—fired radio host Anthony Cumia being this month's prime example—has good judgement on when taking or posting a photo of a stranger is appropriate. Fewer still have the years of experience that seasoned street and party photographers rely on to make informed decisions before snapping or sending.
Though street and party photography are as old as Weegee and Warhol, the medium really exploded once the internet came along. Between lastnightsparty on the East Coast and thecobrasnake on the West Coast, if you weren't photographed by Merlin Bronques or Mark Hunter, respectively, while out on the town in the mid-2000s, you had failed at being young and fun. Those guys have put in their time, as have a few D.C.-based scene and street photographers who gave us some pointers on responsibly shooting strangers: Morgan Hungerford West, Franz Mahr, Matt Dunn, and Jeff Martin.
DO communicate with your subjects.
People tend to get creeped out when you're taking photos of them and they have no idea why. Try to establish a dialogue.
Morgan Hungerford West: When I started out doing streetstyle, I think the number one thing that worked for me was to be friendly and ask before even pulling out the camera. We were both entering a five-minute collaboration, and they had to be up for having their picture taken and they had to have trust that they'd be represented in a way they'd be happy with.
Jeff Martin: For party photography, I'd say to really try to connect with people either before or after you take a shot if you don't have permission to do it. People don't like feeling manipulated or subject to something they didn't expect. That's when they feel violated. Once you come to the same conclusion that you're both tying to make something fun or beautiful, or you explain what you thought was cool about them, it can turn into a really positive connection instead of someone taking something that wasn't theirs to take.
DON'T disregard a subject's wishes regarding their image.
It's true that, if you're in public, you can snap whatever you want. But that doesn't mean you should be a jerk about it.
Martin: With party photography, I'm never interested in stealing a photo of someone or sneaking a photo that a person would be uncomfortable having out there. If a person noticed I took a photo and gave me a bad look, that's a situation I'd want to mitigate. We'd talk about it and either delete the photo or come to an agreement that the photo was OK with everyone.
Franz Mahr: I'm from a photojournalism background, and it was pretty much drilled into my head that getting the shot is the absolutely most important priority, so I don't stop myself from taking any photo. If you're in public domain ... I don't have reservations about capturing somebody unless they see me and tell me, "No, don't take my photo," because then I'm going to be respectful.
DON'T take up space.
Seriously, down in front. The world doesn't need another cell phone in the air for the entire duration of a concert.
Mahr: Take your photo and move on. Don't crowd the air with your mobile device as you are taking 10, 20, even 100 photos, which people are tending to do because they can. Be quick about it.
DO become part of the environment—and respect it.
You can't be invisible, but you can inhabit the culture of the people and places that interest you.
Dunn: A street photographer is not a paparazzo. You have to inhabit the street and not be a jackass. That means cool, be there, own it, [but] don't get up in people's faces. The best pictures come when people let their guard down. If you are all over the street like a bull in a china shop, you're not going to get interesting work. Think about it like you're a traveler, and you want to avoid that "Ugly American" stereotype. You want to understand the culture and blend in. It's like the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. And leave no trace.
Martin: As much as party photographers would like to be a fly on the wall, you are part of the environment. I think what makes people mad is when they feel you're trying to control them in a way they do not want to be. They're out having a good time, and for some people that means having their photo taken, and for others their identity is to go out and not have their photo taken.
DO consider the power and reach—and possible misuse—of your images.
Images can go viral very quickly, and lose context and attribution in the process. Just like a professional photojournalist, make sure you have your story correct before launching an image that could be misconstrued.
Mahr: If you're going to be out and about, you need to be cautious about what you're taking and how it actually represents a particular scene. For instance, I took a photo [at a concert at the National Zoo] of a security guard, and he was dragging this 18-year-old kid out. The first thing people would think is that it was police brutality. But it was exactly the opposite: This 100-pound kid was ... enraged and started going off on the cops. That image could have represented the police in a really bad way if it was used maliciously. Which it really could have been.
Hungerford West: At the end of the day, it's about credibility. Whoever is using whatever platform has to have a set of rules they follow. If your thing is to take photos of people on the street and post them, then that's what you do. It might raise some ire. But everybody has the right to document their life, and now it's so much easier with the technology we have.
DON'T actively try to catch people looking hammered.
It's not a good look, for them or for you. Aim higher.
Martin: There's been a few cases at parties I was covering where I've noticed that someone was visibly intoxicated and making a scene, and I didn't feel comfortable taking photos of that person. It's a tough judgment to decide whether someone is drinking and having a good time or whether they are not in control of themselves.
Hungerford West: I'm always trying to be sensitive in the editing process. But what's your end goal? If it's to present an amazing shot of a show, and it happens to have two people in the corner making out who shouldn't be making out with each other...
DO seek beauty.
Think about what you're trying to capture and why. Maybe even wait a minute to decide whether to post something.
Dunn: In street style, there's an understanding that you're in public and there's no expectation of privacy, so you can shoot anything. But that doesn't mean you have to post everything you shoot. That's the issue with a lot of social media: People post everything. And most of this stuff is going to be incredibly mediocre. You want to be out on the long tail, with the stuff that's really dramatic and interesting. And you have to be a good editor of your work. The stuff that's really good and beautiful, that's not going to offend anybody. People will respect it. If you have a photograph and someone doesn't look good, it's not a good photograph.
DO have passion.
You're taking these photos for a reason, right? Share it with your subjects.
Dunn: The people you're photographing need to understand why you're doing what you're doing out there, that you're pursuing a passion and a love. There's no money in it, there's no commerce connection. You're doing it for love. It always behooves you to talk to people and let them know why you're passionate about something. That really diffuses any situations that might come up and sets them at ease. The myth is that you're invisible, but really you're part of the event. But you don't want to be the event.
DON'T get stuck in an Instagram vortex.
It's hard to believe, but it is not actually your sole duty to chronicle everything at all times with your phone.
Mahr: At first, I found [Instagram] really demotivating for me to continue with this craft. I like the idea of a lot people being interested in photography now, but I don't like seeing a sea of cameras everywhere. More than anything, enjoy where you're actually at and don't get caught up trying to capture it all.
Dunn: I have one post on Instagram. I'll mess around with my phone and always end up thinking, "Wow this could've been good if I'd just used my camera." I appreciate the immediacy and urgency of having a picture in real time. But my "real time" is a little slower. I took a photo at an event last night, and now it's on [a website] the next morning, with a whole story with it. And I know I took the best possible picture.