On the Ethics of Taking Photos of Children in Public

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Is it possible at all to take photos of children in public without being creepy? As it is, taking photos of people in public can sometimes be a touchy subject. Absolutely no photographer that reads this site (I hope) wants to be known as the creep. And in all of our teachings, we have always only preached respect of your subjects. As it is, taking someone’s photograph isn’t disrespect. It’s simply an act. What could be disrespectful instead are the intentions of taking the pictures to begin with–but this connotation is usually associated with men more than women (though creeps come in all shapes, sizes and genders). If your intentions are simply to document the human condition, then depending on the situation, you should always approach with a sense of caution. But if you approach it in a way that doesn’t creep anyone out (no matter what gender you are) then you shouldn’t at all feel ashamed.

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Let’s first talk about taking photos of people in public. Every state and country has their own laws, but here in New York City a person is free to take photos of anyone or anything in a public setting. If you take a photo of someone picking their nose in public, you in no way are committing a crime. If someone threatens you after you have taken their photo in public then consider the fact that said person actually just broke the law. When a situation like this arises, you are in your absolute right to call for help from a police officer in the same way that you can call for help if someone is threatening to rob you.

If you run into a situation where someone wants you to delete an image, you are well within your rights to say no. However, sometimes it is, simply put, the nice thing to do. But with that statement, one should never threaten you to delete an image and it should be settled in a civil manner.

Even further into the issue of taking images of people in public is the one of taking photos of children in public. The reason why this is an even bigger issue is because the acts of pedophiles and the sensationalism of the coverage in media. It elicits fear, and when you combine this with the fact that street photographers are generally strangers to their subjects, the chemistry is explosive. Understanding this psyche is important to any photographer that wants to take photos in the streets and in public. But with that, the photographer needs to present themselves in a non-threatening way and not always just try to be the fly on the wall trying to get into the shot.

Before you attempt to take a photo of a child in public, you should ask yourself a couple of key questions. For starters, ask yourself what your intentions are. If they are in any way voyeuristic, then stop. Stop right there and don’t even think about taking the image. But if you genuinely love the scene, the lighting is just right, the emotions on the child’s face are wonderful and genuinely elicit a feeling out of you, and you are documenting a very human moment, then by all means go ahead and press that shutter button. Again, this all has to do with your own intentions.

If you’re afraid of taking a photo of the child, then you are well within your rights to talk to the parents and let them know that you aren’t trying to be creepy. Have a story ready and explain yourself. Offer the image to the parent and trade business cards or email addresses. And if you own a camera with WiFi capabilities, offer them the image right then and there if they want it. But keep in mind your own intentions and defend them. If someone calls you a creep but you aren’t one, then provide evidence to back it up.

But lastly, don’t ever forget who you are as a photographer. Your intentions are to capture life as it happens–not to go home and break a sweat over images of children.