15 Reasons Someone May Say ‘no’ When Asked for a Travel Portrait

One of the most rewarding types of photos you can take when traveling are those of local people. In general, we just love looking at other faces and it is all the more interesting when the faces are from another country or culture.

I am all in favor of asking permission before taking a photograph, rather than sneaking a picture. In fact, in one of the assignments in the travel photography course that I teach, students have to ask at least 10 strangers if it’s OK to take their photo (and then take a proper portrait, of course).

Nomad girl milking a yak in Mongolia

[A nomad girl is milking a yak early in the morning in Mongolia. Photo taken with permission]

Now, going up to a complete stranger and asking if you can take a portrait is not the easiest of tasks, and you are likely to get a few nos. But what could be the reason for those ‘rejections’ (and I am putting this in quotation marks deliberately)?

Together with the travel photography students, we compiled a list of reasons why someone might refuse to have their photo taken. Now, these reasons are usually not given to you explicitly, but it helps to keep them in mind when you receive a no.

We came up with the following reasons (so far, and in no particular order):

1. ‘I do not feel that I look good enough’
It may be that you think your subject looks great, but he/she may not feel they have their best day, or maybe that the strange squint you think looks great is actually a medical condition.

2. ‘I am not sure what you are going to do with the photos’
Quite a few photographers spread their photos everywhere, for example on Facebook. I once photographed in a small Indian village near the Pakistani border, where villagers had imposed a complete ban on photography. It turned out that in the past a photographer had posted images of some of the women on Facebook, even after he said he would not. Now, it may have been a small village, but the internet reaches quite far and one of the villagers had seen the images online, leading to the ban. Interestingly, this kind of suspicion is more common in the West, in spite of everyone distribution their own personal life in cyberspace.

3. ‘It takes away my soul or spirit’
In quite a few countries, photography is regarded as taking part of the soul of the subject. This may contradict your views, but the view of your subject is of course deciding the matter.

4. ‘It is against my religion’
In some religions, it is considered offensive to make images of the human form, as the human form is a reflection of the image of God.

5. ‘I do not have permission from my parents/husband/brother/uncle’
In some countries, photographing women is not allowed without permission from a male companion, be it a parent, husband, brother or uncle. It is worthwhile however, to then ask for his permission, which is quite often granted.

6. ‘I feel insecure about something’
See reason #1

7. ‘I don’t like it at all’
You have met them, probably also in your own country: people who do not like to have their picture taken at all. In fact, many photographers are camera-shy, so you can check your own reasons behind this blanket statement. It is probably covering up one of the other reasons in this list, or plain shyness.

8. ‘You are the person number 20 to ask’
In some places people travel, there are a lot of photographers or photographing tourists. If that place has some remarkable ‘characters’, many people want to photograph them, so it may be that you are number 20 when you ask them for a photo.

9. ‘I have had bad experiences with this in the past’
If you are not the first person to ask for a photo, the person’s reaction may well have to do with how the experience was with a previous photographer. Not all photographers behave respectfully with their subject, even after they have received their ‘yes’.

10. ‘I feel exposed, when others are also looking on’
Sometimes you need to photograph a person in the middle of their activities and there may be other people around looking on. This can make someone feel very selfconscious and many people try to avoid this situation.

11. ‘Why me and not somebody else?’
We continue from reason #10: if you photograph one person out of a whole group of people, the act of choosing may in itself lead to feelings of self consciousness. What are your reasons for selecting this one person and not the other?

12. ‘I am a police officer / a military / a criminal can’t you see?’
In some countries it is easier to photographs the above categories than in others, but in general, be conservative with these subjects.

13. ‘This is the city, we don’t do stuff like this. Go to a village!’
You probably know this from your own country: there is quite a difference between a city mentality and a small town mentality.

14. ‘I think you may be hitting on me’
In some countries, people are very sensitive to the interactions between men and women. This holds for both men photographing women and women photographing men. Make sure your intentions are clear (and clean).

15. ‘Can’t you see I am busy?’
Often, when people are in the middle of something, or on their way to something, they do not wish to be interrupted. Your request for a photo may just be too much of an interruption to the person.

Good news: all of the above reasons for saying ‘no’ to a photograph have nothing to do with you as a person! This means that their rejection is not a rejection of you, but a rejection of the act of taking the photo. It is extremely helpful to learn to separate the two and create more confidence in stepping up to the next person and ask for a portrait.

So, go out and start asking! You will find you get more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ and for the occasional ‘no’, above are at least 15 reasons why you as a person are not part of the equation ;-)

Good luck with your travel portraits!

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