I have this rule when I shoot: If I'm taking a picture of a person, I ask their permission. This rule has caused some less than ideal outcomes.
Art museum security people—the ones that stealthily wander around and remind us to step back or to not use the flash—spend abnormal amounts of time looking at art and looking at people looking at art. On a visit to the OKC Museum of Art I found one of these officers particularly interesting-looking (which is never a nice compliment). I wanted to photograph her; I wanted to turn this protector of art into art.
I circled the room several times conjuring the courage to ask the uniformed woman, "Can I take your picture?" to which she replied, "Why, because I'm Asian?"
I think she was just messing with me.
I was in downtown OKC on another occasion when I saw an African-American woman walking towards me clutching a big Bible. This was a context of pure gold imbued with all sorts of understandings and interpretations. "Can I take your picture?" I asked. She acted as if I was some sort of fashion talent-scout and began to strike a pose. "No, just act normal like before, like I'm not here," but the moment was lost.
There are probably several takeaways from these stories: 1) Being a photographer takes a strange sort of courage, 2) A photographer is never merely an observer, but a participant-observer, 3) And this is the main point, as soon as the subject is aware she is the subject, reality is tainted.
In his book The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer speaks to a photographer's "desire for invisibility". Dyer exemplifies this idea by showing photographs of blind people in urban settings, most famously Blind Woman by Paul Strand from 1916. In this picture the woman wears a sign around her neck that identifies her as "blind". Photographers have continued to work with blind subjects not because it affords an easy target, I would hope, but rather because these subjects, these people, seem very true.
But not all photographers have this goal of invisibility. Some assert their presence in significant ways. Shelby Lee Adams, a native of Appalachia, works in a very controlled manner by carefully selecting his subjects and posing them to his liking. He has been accused of exploiting his subjects. Not incidentally, he shoots very poor, white people that live down long-forgotten hollers. His pictures, while true, are also highly calculated scenes in which Shelby's thumbprint is noticeable.
We must remember a picture is never a random window into the world. It is a moment that has been intentionally selected. Regardless of how visible or invisible, polite or rude, the photographer becomes part of the photograph which he takes. By his very presence and desire to steal a moment, he imposes himself on reality and creates an illusion of reality. He maintains a hidden power over how the story is written and also how it will be read. Can I still take your picture?