Getting consent from your subjects – I almost said “victims” – is a perennial question in street photography. At the extreme, of course, you can ask them for a model release: consent in writing. The trouble is, this normally results in losing the moment, and (at best) in a wooden recreation of what caught our eye in the first place. More realistically, therefore, most of us rely on “consent by acquiescence”. In other words, unless they make it clear that they don’t want their picture taken, whether before or after we press the shutter release, we take it as an implied license to take the picture. And to use it.
Copyright © Roger Hicks
What is the situation here, though? I smiled and took the picture. Between the smile and the time I pressed the shutter release, the girl on the right covered her face. Then she uncovered it again and I smiled and they smiled and I took it as tacit consent. Perhaps needless to say, I would not have used it here if I thought it was in the least bit demeaning or unkind. To me, it seems to be the sort of everyday interaction that inevitably happens on the street. If we all guard our personal image so jealously that we scream with agony and rage every time someone takes our picture, we have to some extent forfeited our membership of the human race. Of course there are times when we shouldn’t take pictures, or when, having taken them, we shouldn’t use them. Equally obviously, we should err on the side of caution. But “caution” doesn’t mean “stopping taking pictures of people”.
There is a big difference, too, between a swift interaction – a smile, a picture, and another smile – and striking up a conversation. A lot depends on sex, relative age and where you are. My general rule is to let the other party (or parties, in this case) take the initiative, and this especially applies to young women: I don’t regard a smile, or even a picture, as taking much of an initiative. A giggle and a smile on their part: that’s the end of the interaction.
What is the picture about, then? Why did I take it? Because in much of southern Europe a great deal of life is lived on the street – as it has been for hundreds or even thousands of years. Small kids play; bigger kids hang out; adults promenade. In Spain it is even formalized as the paseo, the early evening stroll for old and young alike: a place to bump into friends, to admire how their children are growing up, to inquire after their health. The street is a public place, not just a means of scurrying between private spaces.
The girl on the left could as easily have chosen to play with her telephone in her room or in the back courtyard, but instead she chose to be part of life on the street; and I admire her for it. As far as I recall, her friend had one too. Yes, social media can isolate us, and they can edge out small numbers of real friends – the sort you sit beside on a sun-warmed step – in favour of much larger numbers of “friends” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: people you may not really know at all, and whose personalities may be carefully curated so that you see only what they want you to see. Or you can mix real life and social media, which is what I saw here.
We are all by turns bold and shy and happy and miserable. Being on the street helps us adapt to other people, not least by comparing ourselves with them. Turning in on ourselves, and hiding indoors, is likely by contrast to lead rapidly to loneliness, suspicion and fear. These girls do not look lonely, suspicious or afraid.