Photographing people in India is rewarding because life here is just so interesting, but it’s extremely important to do it respectfully. Asking permission, especially for close-up work, is essential.
This sculptor was making a mold for a bronze statue using the lost-wax process. He was happy to have me take photos.
There are many people who simply don’t want their photos taken, and you should honor their wishes. Even if you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to ask permission. Holding up your camera in a questioning way with a smile is universally understood, except by rural villagers who may be unfamiliar with cameras. If people don’t want their photo taken, then don’t take the photo.
On the other hand, some people are eager to have their photos taken, and will even ask you to take their photo. Be sure to show them the photo, if you are shooting digital. It’s almost always appreciated, and it may even lead to a fun interaction that you never would have had otherwise.
On the other hand, you should always avoid sticking your camera right in people’s faces, as these people were doing. Many people in India appear very exotic from a Westerner’s point of view, but they are just living their lives and it’s not good to intrude. India is not a giant amusement park that is here for your pleasure.
If you are shooting a big event or a crowd scene, there’s often not much you can do about asking for permission. However, you should be sensitive to the cultural context, especially if it’s religious. Muslims are often camera-shy, especially the women. If in doubt, ask someone whether it’s OK to take photos. Again, you can easily do this non-verbally. Choose someone who looks responsible or intelligent (you wouldn’t ask a sweeper or laborer, for instance). When you hold up your camera, just make some indication with your hand that you want to photograph the whole event. And don’t forget to smile. It can make a big difference in how your request is received.
Many people will ask you to send them a copy. Keep your answer encouraging but noncommittal unless you know you will really get around to doing it. If you make a commitment, you should honor it. If you say you’ll try or OK, that’s good enough. If you really do it, though, you will be fondly remembered should you ever pass that way again.