Permission to photograph

On Sunday my hubby and I visited Horšovský Týn, the town we assigned to February in our photo project. It was a cold but sunny day and provided for a great photo walk. We enjoyed it thoroughly but three times we ran into a situation we had to deal with which I would like to discuss here.

The first situation happened when I was walking along a street and came to a passage leading to a yard. I loved the light showing there! There was an open door in the passage and I heard music playing and people talking and it sounded as if a group of people was enjoying a friendly meeting. I was thinking first whether or not it would be appropriate to take a photo but then I decided to try to capture that light in the yard. There was nothing personal, no people, no mess, just a nicely lit space. When I was aiming my camera at it, a man with a woman came out of the door inside and when the man saw my camera, he asked me what I was photographing there. I told him that it was the light in the yard as it looked beautiful and he was looking at me as if I was speaking a different language. I can understand that. I smiled at them and told them that I was not inspecting anything. I left and they raised no more objections so I kept the photo.

Then we continued our walk and a few house blocks further, I stopped intrigued by great-looking clouds combined with electrical lines above the houses. I aimed my camera at them, high up, and tried a few compositions, when a woman appeared behind a curtain in a window right across the street and hurried out to ask me what I was photographing there and whether I was hired by a newspaper. I said I was not, I was there just for fun and aimed at the lines, not at her house and I offered her to look at the screen of my camera to prove my words. She politely refused to look at the camera but seemed to accept my explanation, told me I could keep photographing and left with a smile.

About an hour later we came to a different part of the town. My hubby was taking a photo of an interesting building when an old woman who was shuffling along the sidewalk with the help of a walking aid came near him and told him loudly and disagreeably that he should not take photos of her because she is an old woman. He was aiming his camera in a completely different direction with no intention of photographing her so she quite surprised him at the moment. He assured her of his intentions and continued capturing the building. About half an hour later we came across her again when I was taking a photo of a gate in the main square and when she saw me, she cried aloud that we might have done it on purpose and were stalking her. I wanted to take another photo of the gate but for the sake of calming her I chose to leave…

The situations were not serious but totally out of my comfort zone, I’ve never ran into so many on just one occasion. I could come up with quite a few plausible hypotheses why the people reacted like they did and emotions such as fear, guilt, suspicion, insecurity or sheer curiosity would play their role in them, but how should I handle them? I don’t want to get discouraged by people telling me what I can photograph or not if it’s not limited by any regulations.

I understand that people may not like when you photograph (or just seem to photograph) them or their property because they don’t know what your intentions are and try to protect themselves so I’m willing to explain and discuss. I’m also willing to delete the photo if they had a problem with it but I would weigh their and my reasons and the circumstances.

There is always the option to choose another photography path, photographing a landscape or still life arrangements seems so much easier with regard to my personality. Yet I love this documentary photography, the capturing of the towns and their many aspects and I feel attracted to it deeply. Sometimes choices that are easy are not the ones to be made if you want to grow and be true to yourself.



  1. I think you handled things as well as could be done. The steps you list to follow when confronted seem logical and reasonable (explain; discuss; weigh; and, if necessary, delete). It does seem odd that you encountered so many objections in one outing. If you know other photographers who focus on street photography, you might ask them how they handle situations like this. Confrontations like this would trouble me, too. Don’t let it discourage you, though. And I’m really glad you didn’t delete the first image. It’s beautiful!

    1. Linda, thank you for sharing your opinion. This is not exactly street photography in the sense of taking candid portraits but I agree that some circumstances may be quite similar. The pieces of advice I read for street photography are not unified. It really depends on the situation and your decision what to do. To discuss, argue, run away or pretend, all are used so I guess I just have to find my own strategy for those various confrontations as some are quite friendly while other are quite hostile.

      I’m pleased to hear you like the first image. It hasn’t come out as well as I imagined (that’s why I didn’t save it for my final post about the town) but it has preserved the moment when I saw the light in the yard which feels quite special.

  2. The first photo has an air of mystery to it. This line could describe me too: “photographing a landscape or still life arrangements seems so much easier with regard to my personality.” There are are a couple of street/city photographers whose works I really admire. One of them “softens” the focus of people so privacy is preserved. However, you didn’t even photograph any people here! You wonder about the paranoia. I am enjoying this series you’re doing of different towns.

    1. Barb, thank you for your comment. I’m quite happy about this project, actually more than I expected. When we stroll through the towns, we may face some challenges but on the other hand, we are inspired by the places. The Czech Republic is not only Prague and the large cities and this is an occasion for me to capture more than that.

  3. Could it be that these people are not grumpy but have some kind of bad memories when the Czech Republic was still part of Czechoslovakia and under the control of a more totalitarian regime? It’s just a guess because I remember that from the time when East Germany was the GDR and taking photos was more suspicious. I might be completely wrong here.
    I think you and your husband handles the situations well and I really love that first image.

    1. Carola, that’s an interesting idea but I think it’s not the case. I was thinking about another reason of why people could be concerned e.g. when you aim your camera at their roof. There was a major debate here about a year or two ago about how to ensure that people don’t burn environmentally unfriendly materials such as plastic bottles in their stoves and one suggestion was that you can record suspicious smoke coming out of someone’s chimney and the owner could be inspected based on it…

  4. Hi Petra, you may wish to read the article in the link below shown in the Amateur Photographer mag.
    We do get lots of problems in UK about street photography because of the ongoing Terrorist activity. This gets some people upset, but providing you are in a public place its legal. Obviously you have to be sensible and considerate about it but thats law hear.

    1. Roy, thank you very much for the link, it’s an interesting and informative article. I especially appreciated the point explaining that “if you are standing on public property you can legally photograph private property, but you still need to be respectful of personal privacy”, that’s how I understand it. The article also mentions one thing that the last photo walk made me realise which is not to linger too long in front of private (or otherwise sensitive) buildings even if you are standing on public property, you attract way too much attention.

      I know and respect the Czech law I have to observe here and I think I’m considerate enough when it comes to other people and their property but what I obviously need is to improve my communication skills and not to be afraid of talking to those people… To be prepared for these situations mentally helps.

  5. I have always been worried about this happening to me. Here too, we can photograph from the street or other public land, but not on personal property.

    Maybe something had just happened in that village to put people on edge. Anyway, I hope this experience so early in your photo year, does not put you off.

    Looking forward to the next village!

    1. Sandy, thank you for the encouragement. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it would be naive to expect that everybody would like my photography aims no matter how innocent they might be. The experience made me go through my rights and restrictions as a photographer once again and think about how to deal with these situations if they recur (and I’m sure they will) so as uncomfortable as it was, eventually it might be useful.

  6. i started thinking the same thing right away, that’s a lot of people in one little town giving you trouble about your picture taking! But I totally agree with Linda that you handled each one just fine and also glad you didn’t delete that photo. And Carola had a very interesting take on the situation.

    I say, just carry on and keep enjoying your outings with your mate!

    1. Susan, thank you for your encouraging words. Yesterday we visited the town again (with some trepidation on my side I have to admit) but this time we went to a different part of the town and everything was calm and peaceful. I was even greeted twice, so perhaps it’s more about the particular people than the place itself. The experience taught me a lesson though and hopefully made me better prepared next time.

  7. I guess it wasn’t a touristy town or they would be used to it! I ask permission to photograph people but not buildings. In Japan I had to learn how to ask that question in Japanese! That certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone, but those were some of my favorite photos.

    1. Sarah, there is a castle and many beautiful houses in the square but otherwise it’s just a small town so I guess if anybody takes photos there, it’s especially in and around the square. People probably are not used to their houses and streets being photographed. I admire your courage and agree, getting out of the comfort zone is often highly rewarding.

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