Please bear with me in this article, because I am going to start somewhere before the beginning 😉 Some of you may ask why this preamble is necessary and I can only respond by saying that I know it is for some people, from personal experience. While photographing strangers comes naturally to some photographers, it is a very much more difficult prospect to others.
These people (and you know who you are) love the photographs others produce, see photographs of their own as they walk down the street, but are not yet able to take them. They feel uncomfortable and restricted by their own reservations. That others do it with such ease is a course of frustration and consternation. Therefore, what I am going to do is split this article in two: Part 1 will be background – ‘head space’ foundation laying if you will – while Part 2 will deal more with the practical aspects of taking the photographs.
For those who have always felt a bit uncomfortable about taking photos of strangers, I hope that Part 1 will help separate the elephant from the roller skates a little. Before you take this as a rude dig, I was that elephant and I owned those roller skates.…
Who are You?
Photographing strangers is key to reportage, documentary and street photography. It is so important that, if not developed as a skill, it will have a far more adverse affect on your output than any of the technical and technique issues we spend time thinking about. How you feel about photographing strangers (or even people you know) will be a product of who you are as a person, naturally. Some of us are bold, confident types, who will have no problem with this. Others will feel unsure, embarrassed or even thoroughly guilty and this will severely hinder your ability to produce the images you seek.
While many photographers engaged in fashion, portrait or events photography may be highly extroverted types; photography would appear to include a great many Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). Typically about 20% of the general population, there is a much stronger showing in the arts and while this personality type is wonderfully suited to creative pursuits, some HSPs can seriously struggle with extroverted and assertive behaviour. You can read more about HSPs here. Alaine Aron’s book, ‘The Highly Sensitive Person” is a must read book, because if it does not apply to your good self, it may describe people you know and care about. These 20% think differently, act differently and respond to ‘situations’ differently.
The reason why some fid it so hard to photograph strangers is not related to their lack of knowledge or skill. It is because they are predisposed to being somewhat more reserved and usually feel bad about making demands of other people. At the time of writing, I’m 38 and have spent 15 years in the military doing all sorts of things that have overcome these innate reservations, but they are usually still there, below the surface. The transition from landscape photography to documentary and reportage, is one that I felt keenly due to the need to involve people and ‘get what I want from a situation and from them’. I felt uncomfortable with this and it took time to build a very personal approach to these issues. If any of this sounds applicable to you, looking at yourself is where you should start. I will not expand upon this further, but instead suggest that you read Elaine Aron’s book. It contains a wealth of insightful discussion. It is a book I wish I had read 25 years ago.
Personal Motivation: what are you doing and why?
Motivation: Once you have tackled your own personal reservation or shyness, now is the time to think about your motivation. Are you just getting out and about and taking pictures for fun, or is there a serious project in the making? It really helps to be aware of why you are taking photographs and to have thought about it, because people will ask! Your response needs to be convincing and this is a lot easier if you are convinced yourself. I cannot emphasis enough how important this can be, because if you do not have this nailed down, you will crumble under pressure!
Ethics: A failure to resolve the ethical dimension to your activities may result in an undermining of confidence. Nobody can assert himself or herself well while constantly asking if what they are doing is all right. You do need to be confident in what you are doing.
For me, at the core of this, is respect. If someone asks me specifically not to photograph them, I will always respect that. Sometimes I may negotiate a little – gently or playfully – to see if I can persuade them (especially if their fears are unfounded), but if it’s a clear ‘no’ then I will accept that graciously (I will discuss asking vs. not asking for photos in Part 2). I also never photograph people with a view to ridicule. While we have all laughed at various slightly cruel images that have been made, I choose not to make them myself. I just feel more comfortable this way and it means that if I photograph a large lady on the street and she asks “have you taken my picture to poke fun at me because I am big?” I can tell her “No” without a hint of guilt, because it is true (in this example there will be another motivation). Were I photographing a project on obesity and the fast food industry, I would naturally have to take a different tack, but it can still be respectful in the context of one’s motivation.
If you treat people with decency and have a purpose, there is rarely a need for guilt, but it can get complicated. Taking photos of homeless people on the street, or people living in poverty in foreign lands, is something I choose not to do unless I have a purpose that in some way seems ‘worthwhile’, even at a theoretical level. Without a purpose that extends beyond your own visual entertainment, it’s just another ‘cool’ image that imparts nothing to anyone. If you have an angle… if there is something you want to say and are going about saying it, then its different. I don’t think you have to be conducting a fundraiser in aid of homeless people to be able to justify taking such photographs, but in my opinions, you should be doing something worthwhile. This can include your own education and growing understanding, because this IS useful…. But you are not going to convince anyone of this motivation if you grab your photos and don’t bother to engage the subject or learn something from the experience. Perhaps use this as a simple validity test: If someone asks you why you are taking the photo, what would you say?
When shooting ‘Afghan Heroin: Not for Export’ I spent a very long time getting to know the addicts and gaining their trust. I had to do this after a few international journalists had been ‘economical with the truth’ with some of the addicts, who had become very camera shy. After spending a little time with them, most refused my initial requests to take photographs and those who agreed invariably wanted money. It would have been easy to pay them a few Afghanis for their next high, but that was not the relationship I wanted to build. The result was no photos for quite a while. Instead, I just continued talking to them. I spoke to those who said no and those who wanted money for drugs in the same way. I would bring them bread and milk in the morning (irrespective of whether they would let me photograph them) and made a point of not pushing.
Before too very long, some of the men who had said ‘no’ began to talk to me in detail about their lives and invariably ended up asking me to take their photograph. I did so with the promise that the images would never be published in Afghan media (due to the shame this would bring on their families) and I maintained my relationship with them after I had the images I wanted. One man said to me that it had become important to have his photo taken, because he no longer wished to be invisible. The act of me taking a photograph of him, regardless of what and why, was proof that he existed and this understanding meant a great deal to him and to me. Here I was as a complete stranger, a bald blond blue-eyed foreigner at that, and this is the trust and joint purpose we shared. No harm ever came to me (I was careful, of course) and when new addicts joined the wider community and were suspicious of me (and in some cases outright hostile), those with whom I had a relationship would tell them that I was OK. I was in touch with many of these men for nearly three years and I would be lying if I said that I do not feel the loss now that we have parted ways. Relationships like that may be hard won, but they will be forever out of your reach if you do not conduct yourself decently.
The ethics associated with making Russians and Royals and Afghan heroin: NFE are debatable. I knew what I wanted to achieve and why, but still had to make ethical decisions along the way. I had opportunities to photograph the dead, but declined, even though the result would probably have been strong images. I would have felt no direct ethical problem with doing so, but in electing not to I felt that I was giving just a little bit more respect to the living… a personal choice, for sure. Everyone has different perspectives and I am not suggesting my viewpoint is the only right one, but it’s about being comfortable with yours. No matter the choices you make, there will be an almost endless list of opportunities for you to create wonderful images. Having thought about these issues, the difference is that you will feel more confident, less predatory and more assured that what you are doing is not inherently unreasonable. That’s an important start!
In Part 2 I am going to discuss the more practical aspects of taking the photographs themselves. I had to get there eventually, right?