Observe or Participate?

En gammel amerikaner og en ung kubaner

The camera is a powerful tool – to not only capture photos, but also in its ability to connect, whether it’s between the subject and the photographer or the subject and the viewer. How strong a connection depends on how the camera is being used. If the photographer interacts and becomes a participant in an event, usually the connection will be much stronger. Likewise, and in contrary, if the photographer stands back and becomes an observer, clearly the connection between the subject and the photographer will diminish, if not cease completely – as will the connection between the subject and the viewer.

The latter doesn’t mean that such pictures are necessarily less strong or less captivating, but they play on different strings. Instead of cuing in on a connection, we become fascinated by a fly-on-the-wall look at an event, and we take in more of the whole scenery – not only the main subject. The unobtrusively captured photo can depict events or moments that not necessarily relate, but by being rendered next to each other in time and space, makes a contextual connection instead. The late and renowned Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master observer at such.

Obviously, there is a big difference between being part of the action, and just being a witness to the action. I am very much a participating photographer, but every so often, I enjoy the role of the observer. Personally, I believe it’s easier to make stronger images by connecting to people I photograph – by the inherent connection being established between me and whoever I photograph. However, one way is not better than the other. Whichever way you choose, though, has practical, aesthetical, moral and even legal implications – at least when photographing people.

As an observer, you do not generally interfere with the course of events. On the other hand, if you are a participant rather than an observer then by taking photographs, you are directly interfering with the event. From a photographic point of view, it means that the images you get may be more powerful, but not necessarily as genuine because the subjects are aware of the camera and will almost certainly change their behaviour accordingly, which again changes the image and changes the course of events because the subjects change the way they act around the camera. As an observing photographer, you will capture the natural reactions of your subjects – but at the expense of involvement for the viewing audience.

There are times when participating in the event is not the right approach. Think photojournalism. By participating you change the event – and that might be, at least in certain situations, completely wrong. I have covered marches and protests, which went by quietly and peacefully, that is until a bunch of photographer started to mingle with the protesters. Suddenly the animosity rose and the protest turned much more aggressive, all for the sake of the photographers. Or, even worse, in hostage situations, when hostages are being killed for the benefit of the photographer. Absolutely unacceptable, of course.

Likewise, there are times when you should not be a passive observer. In intimate social situations, for example, hiding behind your camera would just come across as awkward, antisocial and downright rude. Portraiture is another example. People naturally connect and express emotions more easily when there is another human on the receiving end. Moreover, of course, there is always the discussion about whether or not to photograph people on the street without their knowing and consent.

More so than other genres, people photography is fraught with concerns of morality. These concerns usually stem from the basic right to look and to be looked at. Is it right to photograph people without their knowledge? How should you behave when taking someone’s photograph? Where do you draw the line between private and public? Some of these boundaries are defined by law, others by you. When photographing people, always be very aware of the moral implications of your practise, if for no better reason than to defend yourself, and you pictures, if necessary.

I often go for a compromise between observing and participating. I engage with people that I want to take photographs of. But then I keep at it, and wait for the moment when people don’t longer notice me. They are still aware of me, but more and more I become an observer. People relax and I get to capture the candid moments.


54 thoughts on “Observe or Participate?

  1. This is an interesting explanation of the two approaches. I see myself as an observer. I am uncomfortable with the aspect of intruding or influencing the outcome of the subjects. And yet, I adore good portraiture which requires that very important connection that you mention.

  2. Yes, another good post. It took me a while , after just photographing wildlife, to take up my camera to people , but now I love it. I just take the photo and say thank you with a smile afterwards..amazing , most folk are quite pleased that I want to take their picture!!

  3. I have seen wonderful street photography and many of the photos are very compelling. But I don’t like the idea of posting or publishing photos of people who are recognizable without their consent. I value my own privacy very highly and I’m sure many others do as well. My advise to photographers has always been to continue to take the pictures and when you get that great shot get a verbal or, better yet, written consent from the subject. It just seems like a decent thing to do.

    1. I think we have to find our own way into this very difficult topic. You absolutely have a point, although I never use what is called a model release. When I get involved with people and they accept my taking photos of them, I take that as their consent. All this really goes to the core of what is public and what is private, doesn’t it.

  4. Someone once asked me why I don’t take people photos. I always described people vs non-people photos being that taking people photos shows emotions of the people, taking non-people photos shows my own emotions. I know that’s a very blanket statement but it’s interesting to hear the difference even within the people photo category!

  5. Agreed and I also think it depends what the aim by the photographer for what out come he/she wants to make. Some time candid capture is priceless at the same time engaging with the person allows the person to directly convey the message to be captured. The two seems like a clear cut but in reality, I think that is hard to decide, IMHO. Very good post!

  6. For me, at least, I don’t consciously think whether I am the observant or participant photographer. It just happens automatically. Of course, I have a preference but the situation and subject dictates. No time to think, just shoot.

  7. I really like your strategy of being involved in the action and then stepping back until you are no longer observable to others, but you are able to be a witness to the action. I think that from the very first time I saw your photographs I thought it was remarkable that you captured spirit and personality. The people weren’t just the “subject” or a character; they are friends, even if you have just met them. And that shows in your photography. You really do have a very gifted eye for finding ordinary moments and making them special. I am always so inspired…and impressed, Otto! I love the subject of this lesson today! 🙂

    1. YES! This is what I have loved about your photography from the first time I saw it, too, Otto. Debra has expressed my feelings exactly. I am NOT a people photographer but I so admire your ability to photograph them the way you do. Your connection with your subjects is clear whether you are participating or observing, and I feel that connection myself when looking at your photographs.

  8. In an “open” situation I’m usually an observer – I want to see what happens. On the other hand a change discovery at the moment of capture might be interesting. But I never provoke it. And ask for permission afterwards, if possible. There are grey zones in all cases, of course.

    In a family situation the the setting is very different. I feel grandchildren are at their best when you have crawled around for an hour or two and have forgotten that you even have a camera

  9. Wonderful post, as always dear Otto. I can say this, nothing is so comfortable for me than to take cats’ photograph… 🙂 But do you know, dear Otto, I never feel myself comfortable with my camera especially in outside, in the streets… How I miss to feel relax and free… What you all shared with us, means a lot for a photographer… You are great with your camera. Thank you, love, nia

    1. Thank you for your lovely words, Nia. And yes, I have noticed from your blog that you feel at ease and enjoy photographing cats. Becoming more relaxed on the streets, is all about getting used to it. 🙂

  10. I had not really thought about the difference between observer and participant in photography before. I really like how you pointed out that you are changing not just the way the subject or event is perceived by viewers, but that you can actually change the mood of the subject/event by engaging.

  11. Wise words as ever Otto. I think it takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable with approaching people, but I have never been refused when I have done so. But I also love to take those sneaky shots when people are not aware of the camera. I agree that there is a decision to be made in those cases as to whether to publish.

  12. Such an interesting topic, and one i have given much thought too of recent. So nice to have the time and place to observe familiar surroundings and the falling shadows of places in special ways. Something i would like to work towards….observation. Your picture above is a gorgeous moment.

  13. Here in France, there is the right to the image, it positions itself more as an observer, in the discretion and being careful how you take the picture without harm !!
    Of course one could ask, but then you have written …. Only the word, this is not good !! then removed all natural –
    For this type of photo, must be done abroad

  14. I see myself much as a spectator, but little by little I’m trying to participate.
    I did it for a baptism, where I was asked to do a photo shoot
    and even after a performance when I asked the girls to make their pictures.
    I must admit that I enjoyed!
    Very interesting article, thanks Otto.
    Ciao, Pat

  15. An interesting subject and one I haven’t had much experience with…I know that for photojournalists though there can be real dilemmas especially when they are in situations where intervention may be necessary. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  16. The distinction between a “participating” photographer and an “observing” one is one I hadn’t thought of. But that’s why you wrote this post. (Not just for me, I’m sure.)

  17. Right now, I am uncomfortable taking photographs of people who are unaware of my actions, unless it is a group that is mostly turned away from me (at a festival or street event). And I’m too shy to ask permission…. yet. I also think street portraits can be very powerful. I always feel that you are engaged with your view, Otto. Cheers.

  18. Great discussion and you share such an important topic which I think all photographers feel at one time: should I interact or not. There are times when interaction works and other times it does not…I generally love to interact if I get the chance – becoming part of the scene is both a magical moment with the camera and with the mind, but also when I try to be invisible it can be just as rewarding. I like the way you approach things 🙂

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