Ruffling a Fisherman’s Feathers in Essaouira – On Asking Permission to Take a Photo

Fisherman, Port of Essaouira, Morocco

This gentleman, sitting at the Moroccan port of Essaouira this morning, threw a fish at me after he noticed me snapping his picture. It was a sardine, and he missed. He then stood up, directed what sounded like angry words towards me, before sitting back down. I smiled, waved and played dumb. Yes, it comes quite naturally.

I couldn’t let the background and solitary moment pass. This was taken at about noon today, when dozens, perhaps hundreds of fisherman were organizing, prepping, packing and negotiating sales of the day’s catch. The port was a flurry of activity, a raucous cacophony of sights, sounds and smells that probably hasn’t changed that much over the past half century. My thirty minute stroll among the piles of fish was the only brush with authenticity I experienced in Essaouira, a picturesque Atlantic coast city of 70,000 that these days is awash with tourists on day trips from Marrakech. That no one else appears in the frame was somewhat of a feat in itself.

I realize that expectations of privacy vary wildly among cultures and even among generations of the same culture. I oftentimes do ask before snapping a photo, but in this case my instinct told me he’d say no. In hindsight, I think the only mistake I made was that I didn’t show it to him. I think it’s a respectful image that does manage to relate at least a few things about the man. I’d like to think that he’d like it and not smack me over the head with my camera.

I’ve got lots of thoughts on the ethical implications of asking versus not asking prior to taking someone’s photo which I’ll compile for a more specific post on the topic, but generally I side towards not asking. Many of the most iconic images ever made are candid shots, moments that simply couldn’t have been captured the same way had the subjects been asked for permission or even aware that a photo was being made. In editorial or documentary photography, that one argument is enough.

What do you think? Do you think the gentleman over-reacted? Or do you wish he was a better aim?

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Today’s Pic du Jour, the 250th (!!) straight, was snapped today, on 19-Sep-2014 in Essaouira, Morocco. Click on the image to view the full uncropped version.

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  1. Marielle says

    This is a really interesting question and I have a lot of thoughts. But I’m not a pro photographer btw. I’m more on the side that it’s not ethical. Yes, being aware that they’re being photographed can make a subject more awkward, and some of the most iconic images are candid. That doesn’t make it “right.” Just understandable that people do it for the sake of art. But if you don’t ask permission before, you should definitely ask permission/show after if you’re publishing it – so I agree with you on that. Maybe he would have liked it, maybe he would have asked for money, who knows. I do think it’s kind of a dick move to be like “oh, I usually ask permission but I thought he’d say no, so I didn’t this time.” I’m really not attacking you; that was just my impression from reading that part. Personally, if I saw some tourist taking a photo of me while I was going about my daily life, I’d be pretty offended. But that would never happen to me, because I’m a typical American living in America who doesn’t have to deal with the scrutiny of tourists.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks for your thoughts, Marielle. I probably (obviously, actually) didn’t articulate it very well in this quick late night post, but the reason I posted this last night was because I’m still grappling with the decision to snap it and the decision-making process I used.

      Nothing in the photo suggests how he was about to react – I could have left that part out of the explanation and no one would have any idea. I guess in this case it was more about me testing the boundaries I set for myself in Morocco, where people are in general more wary about having their photos taken than they are elsewhere.

      Question for you: would your reaction to the photo and my explanation be different had the man not looked up and saw me taking the photo?

      1. Marielle says

        No. This ethical dilemma is all on you as the agent, regardless of the person’s feelings. I’m still more biased towards having permission, definitely afterward if you can’t get it before. Honestly, it’s your status as a professional that’s making me lean this way.

        I’m just a person who travels and blogs, but not in a big way. I personally feel awkward taking photos of people (portraits, not just people in the background) while traveling and (very) rarely do. I try to make some eye contact/camera motion before doing it. But if I can’t and still post a photo, I don’t feel too bad about it because even though the Internet is forever and ever in cache, practically speaking, my audience is so limited that any effect is negligible/nonexistent. But since pro photographers are more likely to have a much wider audience, thinking about publishing is more important. I am, however, an intensely private person, so naturally this is coloring my opinions. It’s a very interesting issue.

  2. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas says

    I live in Spain and have been to Morocco a few times, as it’s easy to get between the two. On a long trip a few years ago, a friend warned me that Moroccans believed that cameras steal your soul, and that’s why they don’t like being photographed.

    To be honest, the same has happened to me in Asian countries. I felt odd having people take photos of me in India and China, even though I expected it!

    1. Bob R says

      I’ve come across that a few times elsewhere as well, Cat.

      And yes, I’ve had my photo taken plenty of times in other countries or by visitors to my city. Most recently, that I know of, was when I was huffing and puffing and pedaling up castle hill in Ljubljana in a few months ago, and a group of 16 Japanese tourists all stopped to snap photos of me. Shooting off rounds by the dozen. Autofocus hum and shutter drive staccato stabbed at the air as I inched by at 7.6 kilometers per hour. I’m sure it was because I was the dictionary definition of elegance, perseverance and grace. 🙂

  3. lisa says

    Many timies I ask permission if it’s an ‘up close and personal shot.’ Usually I try to explain that I am an artist, and the light and shadow is very dramatic and if I could take their picutre, I’d show them how they look through my eyes. I tell them if they don’t like it, I will delete it immediately. They are usually flattered.

    But if it’s a candid moment and in a public place, I do not mind taking the photo without their permission. If it’s really special, I try to show it to them and plead guilty of not asking.

    People change posture when they know in advance, and the images fall flat.

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