Shoot first. Ask Questions Later. or Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission. / by Hugh Rawson

I think the question that I am asked most often is whether I ask permission to photograph people on the street. And if not, how do I get away with it - by which I assume there is surprise that I haven’t been thumped or beaten around the head by my rolled up street map. Or worse.

I don't ask. Fundamentally, I guess the difference is that while the people I shoot would like the world to see them as they would want the world to see them ... I don't. I want the world to see them as they really are. Or as they sometimes are - when they are off guard. This isn't out of some inherent cruelty. It's more a question of truth. After all, isn't that what Art concerns itself with?

The other element in this is that I am not a typical portrait photographer. I wouldn’t know where to begin with posing someone or giving direction. So I have to take what I see. 

Finally, I would much prefer to shoot someone caught in what Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment." Not some clever, long held pose. 

So, I rarely ask permission. There have been rare exceptions. A few months ago, I happened across a Harley-Davidson biker run for charity with all riders dressed as Santa Claus and collections made for local primary schools - something of an interesting shift away from cultural expectations and therefore rich with opportunity. I prowled among the riders with my camera at my hip, finger on the back-button, ready to shoot. And I shot a few. Then I made eye contact; a fatal error. Eye contact with a tall, tattooed, bearded and leather clad ring-leader in his worn waistcoat adorned with his name. Basher.

The omens weren’t good.

So I asked. And he smiled. Posed. And I clicked. It should have been mean, moody and confrontational. Had I had the sense to direct him, I could maybe have got something halfway to what I wanted. And what I wanted was definitely Basher going about his business as, well, a basher. Instead I got the smiling, bearded, Santa imitator - no amount of gritty post-processing would deliver the shot I wanted; the shot I could have got if I’d kept my mouth shut and my eyes down.

 

Most recently, on a street photography jaunt around London, I noticed two young office workers enjoying early refreshment along the south bank of the River Thames. Nothing unusual about that except that it was extremely cold (being January), they were already gulping down Laurent Perrier champagne, and had clearly been out all night since finishing work the day before. “Make us Facebook famous,” they laughed; I had already shot them from the hip, capturing the wide open champagned arms and flailing cigarette. Would they have chosen beer stained shirts, sleepless eyes and hangover hair for their portrait shoot? I doubt it. Yet somehow, the shot was closer to the truth - for that day at least.

Surely that is the essence of street photography.