Last month the whole team gathered for our monthly “workshop day,” where we pick a skill to expand on together. The theme for that meeting was posing, but it didn’t go how we thought it would go. We thought we would be comparing and contrasting our favorite go-to poses, but good posing ended up starting WAY earlier than when the client is in front of the camera. It started before we even met our clients.
We had our good friend Bobby join us for some role playing, and we each went through the entire photoshoot process with him: from greeting him at the door, discussing clothing and background options and the photo usage, all the way into finding those great poses during the actual photoshoot. Bobby, a professional actor, did an AWESOME job pretending to be our most nervous clients for us to de-stiffen into casual poses by the way!
What does this have to do with consent?
Everything. This is what we unexpectedly learned that day. First let’s break “consent” into the two meanings it has in photography: legal, and personal.
Do you need legally consent to take someone’s photo? It depends.
If I’m sitting in my own home wolfing down a hoagie busting with giardiniera and it’s getting all over my face and you really want to take a photo of my hilarious situation, you would need my permission to take that photo.
In public, however, the laws state that you can photograph anyone who is in a place reasonably considered public (such as a street, park, etc.). Obvious exceptions are made in areas that are deemed “private” in those public spaces, like restrooms and locker rooms. So if I were to be sitting at a park bench eating that hoagie and embarrassingly getting spicy giardiniera all over my face, you can take my photo and show it to your friends and laugh hysterically at it.
But there’s another layer to that public photo, whether it was taken with or without my consent. Most countries have different personality rights, aka laws of image, aka right to publicity, aka right to celebrity, and so on. And in the U.S., those aren’t controlled by the federal government so they vary from state to state. In some states you might be able to print that photo of me on a billboard and use it to sell spicy giardiniera and even write “GIARDINIERA MONSTER ON THE LOOSE REWARD $500” above my face. In other states, if I saw that billboard I could sue you for everything you’ve got, even if I already signed a waiver giving you the right to make that billboard.
Since we’re not in the business of street photography and everyone who comes into our studio for photos (or when we’re invited into their office, just like vampires) is giving us legal consent to photograph them, what we ended up spending a great deal of time talking about at our posing workshop is something I’ll call “personal consent.”
Having your photo professionally taken is a very personal thing. You are trusting us to not just take a photo of you, but to use our skills, knowledge, and creativity to make that image something that represents you the way you want to be represented. The wrong pose, the wrong clothing choice, or the wrong facial expression in an executive portrait could be the professional version of giardiniera all over your face.
And establishing that trust involves a lot of consent. Some of it is given to us before we even ask: when a client instructs us to help them choose wardrobe or to speak candidly about our recommendations and to give direction when posing. But it also means us specifically asking for consent to enter someone’s personal space and move their tie, touch their neck to move a necklace, or touch their hair to move it into place.
Having a stranger enter a bubble of your space smaller than 3 feet can be jarring (even before the pandemic), and can derail a photo session if it’s done without permission or surprises someone. And a client who has just been surprised is not relaxed and comfortable enough to… well… LOOK relaxed and comfortable in their next pose. Even when we ask for consent (“may I touch your hair to move it into a different spot for the photo?”) we have to be careful to not ask while we’re already walking from behind the camera to your head. Because now it’s not really a request, it’s a warning that we’re coming over and forcing you to say yes because we’re already halfway there.
When you give us your consent to photograph you, it could mean us verbally pulling your limbs into poses and angles you don’t normally find yourself in, while trusting us that it’s not going to look ridiculous… at least not when done in fast motion:
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