Click-click, shame-shame: Photographing people on the street

In line at bank this morning I was struck by how the three or four people around me all represented different ethnicities. In some places in America this wouldn’t be too surprising, but here in middle America, in small town America it’s pretty novel.

The people at the counter stood a (presumably) Sudanese couple, behind them were a woman in a burka and a Latino A man I believe was Lao held the door for me as I’d walked in.

Impressed by this diverse array, I took out my fancified phone intending to take a photo.

A woman in a burka uses the ATM.

What else does a guy in line have to do besides utilize the technology he pays for? By the time the photo program loaded on the phone, the photographic opportunity had passed and I ended up with a shot of the back of the burka, the Sudanese man more or less invisible behind her.

The Sudanese man, however, took offense to my taking a photo with. “Why are you taking my picture? You can’t do that,” he said in fairly clear but heavily accented English. “Why not?” I asked, which began a somewhat redundant exchange with others in the bank listening in.

“You can’t take someone’s picture without their permission,” he stated plainly. “It’s against the law.” This, point in fact, is just untrue in the United States. Now, if I were going to use that image for profit I would need to get that person to sign a release form. But for personal or even artistic use, we in America are free to photograph people on the street. I remember my professor of photography in college talked about how he would walk in between two people having a conversation in the pursuit of the perfect photograph, and more impressively how the people (in Miami, Florida anyway) would go right on with their conversation as if he weren’t there.

“Nooo, not in America it’s not,” I responded to the Sudanese man’s accusation. I’d already deleted the photo anyway, knowing it wasn’t what I wanted.

“You can’t do that,” he reiterated. By now I was starting to realize his English — while I could understand him well enough — was fairly limited.

Some cultures, African in particular as I recall, believe[d] that when you take a photograph of a person you steal their soul. I was hoping he would engage me in conversation and some such cultural difference would become apparent. Other cultures love to have their pictures taken though. In contrast, when I visited Ensenada, Mexico in 1995, people ran to be in front of your lens, children in particular.

“Why not,” I asked again in the sincerest and humblest of tones I could find. I really did want to know why he so seriously thought I could not take his picture. This discourse went on another minute or so in the same manner, and he eventually wandered out of the bank without satisfying my curiosity.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

2 Responses to Click-click, shame-shame: Photographing people on the street

  1. Word Lily says:

    When I visited Cameroon 10-plus years ago now, people were eager to be in photographs with me.

  2. Pingback: Racism at the bank « The Aesthetic Elevator

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