Continued from Part 1
To Ask or Not to Ask
This seems to be a really troubling question for those new to street photography, but unfortunately the answer is ‘both’! Clearly if you are looking for spontaneous street shots unaffected by your presence, you cannot ask; it’s that simple. However, if you are hoping to gain an intimate portrait of someone you’ve spotted, you have no choice. The tricky bit lies between these two extremes, where you need to use your judgement. Sometimes asking will destroy the shot before you raise the camera… you can see that people have shifted their bodies and facial expressions to something that changes everything. I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened to me. Equally, you can try a passing shot (without permission) and stand a high probability of not quite nailing the shot for a number of reasons. Its really a toss up and you just have to decide in the moment. Accepting regular, monotonous failure is part of the process. The gems make it all worthwhile.
In terms of how to ask, I will generally apply either tactful flattery, point out a particular reason for being interested in a photo, or just ask for the photo and say nothing more. Sometimes I will just make eye contact, raise my eyebrows as if to ask and take the photo, consent being implied by the presence of the camera and non-verbal communication. Again, trial and error will allow you to develop your own patter and the worst that happens is someone says ‘no’. But sometimes they say ‘yes’ and you get to put it all together and refine your craft.
Naturally, if you are taking passing shots on the street, or perhaps quite direct candids, people can get upset, resulting in accusatory verbal behaviour and some sticky predicaments. Bear in mind that most of the time people get upset because they think you are up to something that is considerably worse than what you are actually doing (pervert, paedophile, paparazzi, weirdo).
If you are on firm ground to start with (see Part 1) this will shine through and be visible to those who interact with you. Nine times out of ten, you will be able to defuse the situation quite quickly.
Firstly, some basic considerations for everywhere:
1) Obey the law.
2) Respect local custom.
3) Use personal instinct and judgment, including an assessment of the situation right at that second: where are you, with whom etc.
4) Ensure your body language is appropriate at all times. Non-verbal communication is so important! A combination of disarming but confident is ideal.
5) Possess the necessary soft skills to diffuse tension should someone somewhere get upset. More on this later…
6) Always be as polite as possible under the circumstances. It makes a difference.
If you do end up being challenged, this can come in a variety of different forms. Clearly, if you feel that you in danger, you should not hang around. Get out of there, or seek out other people to diminish the likelihood of serious repercussions. Most of the time, it will just be a member of the public (or policeman) who is either curious or irritated. Here are some examples of the sort of encounters I have had in more benign settings.
Question: “what are you taking pictures of… what are you doing?”
The below response is effective because it is innocent and disarming. If someone is upset, or ready to get angry, this can be all that is required to diffuse that tension. It’s hard to be angry with someone who is full of positivity and acting in a fundamentally decent way. I have used this sort of comment amongst other words, when someone comes up to me with an air of suspicion, where I sense that the wrong answer could result in them getting cross. Nine times out of ten, the person will see the disarming behaviour, the smile, hear the passion and just let go. It can even result in a pleasant conversation! The key thing is not to rise to the often terse tone in which the initial ‘who are you and what are you doing here?’ is delivered. Don’t get defensive or go on the assault, just explain. I hear photographers responding to this sort of line with their ‘rights’ etc and this is just foolish. The interaction is nowhere near at that point yet.
Response: “I’ve lived in this area for X years and when it’s a nice day, so I’m just enjoying getting out and taking a few snaps. I enjoy doing this when I have a bit of spare time….”
If the person does not accept your explanation, you can add:
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I can assure you no harm was intended…. goodbye”
It is important to know when to stand and respond and when to leave gracefully. If you run away when you see someone coming to challenge you, that confirms to them that you are the sick pervert/nut job they suspect you to be. I therefore never leave when I see someone heading my way. It’s also a good opportunity to read their body language and get a sense of what might happen next. For reasons I cannot explain, most of the challenges I have had have been from women, even if I have been photographing mixed groups of people in the west. With men, obviously (if you are male) you have to be extra careful, although I have never had anyone initiate violence right off the bat. Not even close. You may also see the same people again, so it makes sense to try to explain rather than just avoid the engagement. It also builds confidence in the legitimacy of what you are doing. Almost always, people accept what you tell them, gladly or grudgingly, and everyone moves on.
Question: “You just took my photo didn’t you? Why did you take my photo!!!?”
This one sometimes arises up when you are photographing an expansive scene and someone, who you probably did not even notice, comes bearing down on you convinced that you could not have been photographing any of the other 92 people in the area and that it was all about THEM. The enquiry is usually delivered with some aggression or irritability. The response can be bent to fit and I deliver it either with a slight air of dismissiveness and disinterest for best effect, helping to convey the message of ‘why on earth would I be photographing you?’ The world is full of egomaniacs it seems (noticeable in big cities) who are convinced that at 50 yards they are the sole reason why you are there.
Response 1: “I don’t know, but doubt it…. I did not notice you.”
Response 2: “Huh? No, I’m trying to get a decent shot of the [whatever] but people keep walking into the frame… its proving near impossible!”
The next one can be useful, when you have taken a couple of shots in succession and someone starts bearing down on you, having suspected that you photographed them.
Response 3: [You see the challenge coming from ten paces away and know what they will ask, so ignore them, but just before they reach you take a few steps to the side and clearly take a shot without them in it. This takes the wind out of their sails before they even open their mouths]
“No I was not photographing you. In fact I was specifically trying to take a shot without people close to me. The last shot might be OK.”
As always, never be rude, but if people are rude to you, it’s important to stand your ground and not stumble with your words and seem awkward. Bullies will then set to work and try to cut you down to size. I have in the past dealt with some very rude people and had to cut them down to size with more pointed versions of the above. I remember a belligerent woman in New York continuing to harass me about photographing her (when she was a completely anonymous member of a large crowd) and my final line, delivered with an element of contempt was “Are you for real? Why on Earth would I be specifically interested in photographing you? I’m a tourist in New York for goodness sake!”
There is no point is standing and having an argument when the person is clearly out for a confrontation. This has only happened to me a couple of times and I just say something like “It seems we are not getting anywhere, so I am leaving now, bye”. Very few people will pursue you when you have done this. Your willingness to engage them at the beginning and your unhurried departure gives them little traction for continued engagement.
When working in more hostile environments, challenges can be much more stressful and come at a higher price. In Afghanistan, the police are notable for their corruption and they will usually make up the rules as they go. If you are taking photos of almost anything and a policeman sees you, the challenge may be inevitable. Dealing with these situations can be difficult, but most of the time, because I walk at a very high speed, very few policeman seem inclined to bother cutting across crowded streets to reach me. Once I have seen ‘that’ eye contact, I know they will collar me if I pass close to them, so I simply avoid them. This way, I am exploiting their laziness and the fact that they know they have no legitimate reason for interfering with me.
I have had a number of encounters with the police where I thought I was going to be arrested for no good reason (other than this being a good opportunity to ‘confiscate’ my equipment (AKA rob me) or shake me down. On one occasion a number of high/drunk police armed with AK-47s tried to instruct me to get into their minivan as they were leaving a site I was shooting Russians and Royals. I was alone and could not understand what they were saying but their hand gestures and pointing with their weapons made it clear.
On another, a junior police commander was tried to get me to go down to the police station with him because he claimed I was not allowed to photograph at the location I was at (total rubbish, of course). My driver/interpreter was there with me, so I was able to understand the that the policeman was building up to (arrest/detention).
In both cases I employed the same strategy, which was to completely ignore the instructions, smile a lot, try to completely break down the situation I faced and then walk away. With the police in the minivan, I instantly broke out into a smile, leant forward and shook their hands, have then the ‘Police great [thumbs up] pointed at the sun (beautiful day), pointed at my car, apologised for having to leave and walked off. With the junior police commander, I told my driver that we were going to leave and just before doing so, I leant forward, shook the policeman’s hand, thanked him profusely for his help, and walked off. The look of bamboozlement was priceless.
Sure, in both of these cases there was risk, but this is where judgment comes into it and I did not take either situation lightly. However, I did not want to end up chained up in a basement either, so made it as difficult as possible for either group to conduct what they hoped would be a struggle free ‘soft arrest’ of the unofficial kind.
Speed and Time
There are many different ways to go about street/open area documentary photography. You can either walk very slowly, chatting to people as you go, or glide along at high speed, ‘snap shooting’ along the way or taking time to explore a particular subject of interest when identified. I tend to do a little of both. In more hostile environments, I always use the high-speed option. This allows me to identify possible threats more easily (anyone matching my pace is acting unnaturally) and has allowed me to identify people following me on a couple of occasions. In more comfortable surroundings, it has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it ensures that as you walk with the flow, you are passing from behind and can see opportunities that you would miss. It also limits the amount of time people have to respond to you and your camera, but here is the downside: you have to be seriously fast. This is wrist strap territory with finger on the shutter release at all times. You can’t sling you camera, use bags and have to operate at a very high level of concentration. it is exhausting and suited to short bursts of activity: 10 mins here, jump in car, ten mins there…
If you slow the pace down, it’s a more relaxing experience, opportunities that you might have missed if moving at speed are instead seen, but more people in your immediate area may be aware of your camera. I often find myself doing a little of both, depending on the situation and the sort of people I am encountering. If, for example, I am working in and around busy commuters, a brisk pace and quick movements seem to work better. It it’s a quiet market or seaside environment, slower pace seems more in keeping. I don’t mind putting some effort into it and walking hard for extended periods if there is a good reason. For example, when photographing a series of markets in Kabul (for a project that may not see the light of day, we shall see), I moved quickly. This was not just for security reasons, but also because there were a lot of police around, whom I knew to be lazy. If I hung around too long in any one spot, or strolled, they would be tempted to collar me and give me a hard time. If I walked quickly and stayed away from them, I knew the hot sunshine would encourage them to stay under their sunshades, perspiration-free. Pace also leads my mind towards different cameras and the way they can be used, but I will ponder that for a possible Part 3….
Just Do It!
Nike had it right. Once you have thought about everything and prepared yourself, there is nothing like walking out of the front door and doing it. It’s not something that should be overthought, but for an obsessive thinker like me, doing the groundwork frees me up to stop thinking. Having thought out your motivations, run through a few ethical questions and armed yourself with some techniques for defusing possible challenges, your confidence should be higher. This will make everything else you do much more effective, right down to asking for a picture. Someone who confidently asks, takes the shot with a minimum of fuss, will do far better than the person who asks tentatively with a look of worry on their face! Stay within your comfort zone to begin with and become more confident.
Have you thought of offering up your product to a particular cause? You may be able to figure out how a charity or community group can use your photos for positive ends. If so, you are now armed with the ability to tell people of this cause or goal and, assuming it is a noble one, you will not only benefit from additional credibility on the street but you will feel you have given as well as taken. A few years back, I was asked to shoot a project with 24 other photographers for Variety Club in the UK (the project was called Hidden Gems), which benefited disadvantaged British children. I put my all into it and worked my ass off, focused on the outcome (fundraising auction of the prints). I was able to convey that to subjects I encountered and it made a big difference to them. Doors opened, physically and metaphorically. I was pleased with the work I did, the prints raised a few thousand pounds for a good cause and I got blisters. But those four days pounding the pavement from dawn to dusk in around an area the size of just two blocks, were incredible.
Street/documentary/reportage is difficult, but its amazing what can be done. Perhaps watch some videos of street photographers at work? Watch the non-verbal communication; watch the patter they use, the charm and well delivered words. These things matter, because the same act can have very different outcomes depending on how you go about it. The biggest single determining factor in all of it is you. These guys are not only brilliant photographers, they also understand people very well indeed. Where Bruce is pushy (at times), Garry is like a disarming bumbling eccentric covered in Teflon. Have a look at the below videos because they contain a wealth of information for those willing to look and listen closely.
The project ‘The Disorder of Species‘ was essentially a street project with a documentary concept. All of the techniques I had developed in the UK, US and Afghanistan were employed here, but changed a little for the environment and culture. Perhaps I will bring out some specific examples in Part 3, covering my general activity, the moment itself and equipment used…