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Photographing When It’s Forbidden

When is it okay to lie to get the pictures you want?

In a previous post, we discussed Lewis Hine’s mission and photography. Hine (1874-1940) was a photographer and a sociologist who employed photography as an agent of change. A photograph was a document, an object of proof, that showed people the reality of the social injustices plaguing the world, and he did whatever it took to get the pictures he was after.

Case in point: The methodologies Hine used to expose child-labor conditions in the United States. Employed by the National Child Labor Committee, Hine sought entrance into factories and mills, but in many instances, the owners did not permit him to enter. So, he took matters into his own hands. Photo historian Daile Kaplan elaborates in Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992):

Nattily dressed in a suit, tie, and hat, Hine, the gentleman actor and mimic, assumed a variety of personas—including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery—to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace.

Moreover, he lied to get the pictures he wanted. And when that didn’t work, he situated himself as close as he could to his subjects and made the best of that vantage point. To Hine, the ends justified the means.


It brings up an important ethical consideration that many photographers come up against. When is it okay to lie to get the pictures you want, and when is it not okay? Are white lies permissible? What about outright big lies?

Your response says a lot about your relationship to photography. In many ways, it’s the heart of your personal vision, because it forces you to answer, “Why?”

If you decide to photograph where it’s forbidden, here are some questions to resolve before you move forward:

  • What is your goal?
  • How do you plan to approach your subject(s)?
  • What methodologies do you plan to employ to get the pictures you want? Will you be safe physically and emotionally?
  • Are there precautions you can take in advance, just in case certain outcomes end up playing out?
  • What’s at stake if you get caught? Are the risks worth it?
  • What is your current state of mind? Do you feel strong enough to undertake something uncomfortable, or worse, depending on the situation?

Breaking the rules entails having a thick skin. It’s a worthwhile muscle to exercise—and helpful in photographic and non-photographic situations alike—but it’s an important consideration for you to factor in as you decide whether to put yourself on the line.


Be honest with yourself. Put aside your ego and the anticipated gratification of potentially succeeding in your endeavor, and determine the real reasons that underlie your ambition. Sometimes as photographers we are so used to pushing ourselves, to rising to every challenge, that we fail to make a sober assessment of the situation.

Other times, things are clear, and moving forward is undoubtedly what you want to do.

Talk it over with colleagues, as well as people in your personal life who are not in the industry. Both points of view are invaluable when it comes to assessing your motivations and methodologies.




“Photographing When It’s Forbidden” Comments

  1. There are many situation where one has to question whether “no photos allowed” can actually be enforced? Do they truly have the right to prevent photos from being taken? I think they do not, in many situations.

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