Do Masks Alleviate Pressure for Street Photographers?

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Girl with Mask on Scooter. Photo by Derrick Story.

Broadly speaking, I recognize that I have the right to make pictures of people in public places. It’s a privilege that I don’t abuse, but I will take advantage of when the moment is right.

People ask me, “Don’t you need a model release to publish that shot?” If the use is editorial or fine art, I do not. And in fact, more often than not, I wouldn’t need one for other usages either.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. I do. All of the time.

This is especially true when I want to photograph children. I am torn in half on this issue. As a dad, I understand the knee-jerk reaction to strangers sharpening their optical sights on my boys.

“What is he doing?” I ask myself. “I think I’ll go check with him.”

Any photographer worth his or her salt will be ready to respond confidently and honestly to an inquiring parent. If that’s the case, then carry on. (Oh, and please send along a few copies for me as well.)

As a street photographer, children are a huge part of the equation. If we can’t include their colorful energy in our storytelling, then we’re omitting some of the best parts. And so I proceed (with caution). They deserve to be seen as well.

I was thinking about this while sitting on a park bench in San Rafael, CA. I had just finished the last swig of the water from my insulated bottle, and was ready to stroll over to Red Devil Records and investigate what new vinyl had arrived. Then, right in front of me:

Zooooom… A few seconds later, zooooom again.

A young girl on a 3-wheeled scooter whisked by. I could hear her mom calling in the distance.

“Not too far. Honey, not too far.”

I pulled my Fujifilm X100V from the side pocket of my backpack and lined up a composition straight ahead. It was just buildings. She wasn’t there. But I knew that would change in a matter of seconds.

Zoooom… Click!

I made the picture when she rolled into my frame. I didn’t engage in my typical emotional-mental-wrestling-match because, well, she had a mask on. All that was visible were her eyes.

In Northern California, wearing a mask is a big deal. It’s a sign of respect for the health of those you pass on the street. Not everyone embraces this, of course. We’re in America.

But on this day I was thankful for our mutual face coverings beyond antiviral reasons. Here we were in this totally weird moment in time making art unlike anything I had ever captured before. And it was fun.

Do face coverings change the rules of photography? Maybe. It’s possible that someone could be deemed unrecognizable with one on, and therefore a release would not be required when otherwise recommended. That’s of no concern to me.

All I know is that a little girl whizzed by me on her scooter and made my day. She was wearing ballet slippers, a colorful dress, a blue helmet … and a mask.

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Photography, podcasting, and writing. More at www.thedigitalstory.com and www.thenimblephotographer.com

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