I shared this post with the Out of Chicago community and thought I would share it here too.
Photographs of people are arguably the most universally compelling genre of photography. The human face is instantly recognizable and relatable. Strong portraits endure, stopping time, at that moment; forever.
When I first started taking pictures, I was immediately drawn to photographing people on the streets of my native Montreal. It was a challenge and a thrill. My first street shots were done secretly. I would slink through the streets, inconspicuously capturing moments without engaging or meeting people. Being a shy kid, it wasn’t easy for me to speak with strangers.
But my camera got me over that fear. It was an excuse for meeting and photographing diverse and fascinating people. Photographing people and the experiences I had while doing it have been many of my most rewarding moments and have enriched my life greatly.
That said, I don’t find it easy to approach strangers to take their picture. I give the analogy of jumping into cold water at the lake. It’s uncomfortable at first but after a while it feels fine.
I like the idea of always trying to stray from my comfort zone. Whether it’s moving around physically, trying new ways of doing things or trying something that scares me a little. Dealing with strangers, particularly in foreign cultures is not intuitive or easy for me. I don’t have to do it, but when I do, the rewards can be great.
As photographers, we have a lot of power to determine what that final image will look like. We can emphasize or de-emphasize physical characteristics through choice of light, angle, focal length and even the moment we take the shot–which can deliver a variety of different interpretations of the same person with no two alike.
Beg Forgiveness Rather Then Ask Permission
My approach to dealing with people is to first not have to deal at all. If I see something happening in front of my camera, I boldly go up to the scene and find my framing and shoot. I wasn’t always able to be so bold but I learned from experience that too many times if you don’t act without hesitation, you miss the shot.
That said, because I tend to shoot wide angle for the intimacy it communicates, when I move in close I get noticed. My first line of defense when someone sees me is to say something like, “it’s okay, just keep doing what you’re doing and ignore me”.
Sometimes that’s enough for people to just carry on. I’ve been given permission and can relax a little and begin to work the scene. Other times, they want more information, at which point I explain that I’m a street photographer and I’m just taking some shots. If that’s not enough, I go one explaining why I’m shooting. Often times, the moment is gone or it just isn’t the same and that’s okay. Other times it gets better. But thus far, I’ve managed to stay out of trouble.
Talk To Strangers
Depending on your shyness level, it will take practice to figure out what best works for you. If I see a person I want to photograph, I don’t ask if I can take their picture because even if they agreed, the expectation usually is that it would be a shoot and run scenario, one or two frames and that’s it.
For most people, that is their experience with photography. A snapshot grabbed to mark an important life’s event. But I don’t want to take one picture. I want to take many because I know from experience that the best images often come as the shoot evolves and not in the first few frames. So when I approach people I ask, can I speak with you for a second.
If they agree, a conversation is started and my odds of getting permission are increased. Often times the conversation sparks some new ideas for me, and the initial reason for being attracted to them as a subject deepens into something stronger and more meaningful.
But know that this process is different for everyone. You need to figure out your best approach and let your instincts be your guide. It will take practice and you will be rejected at times, but don’t give up. If you stick with it, you will get some great images, your confidence will build and the accomplishment of getting past your fears by leaving your comfort zone will feel great and transmit to other areas of your life in a positive way.
I love your street portraits and more to the point your philosophy on photography. There is a simple graphic power to your images that evoke emotion and that’s what it’s all about for me too. I haven’t had the courage to shoot first and ask permission afterwards yet. I think it comes with experience in evaluating the situation and persons which you have plenty of. I think I’ll try it today though and work up my courage. There is a annual TD artists paint in that takes up a long stretch of a residential street here in Victoria so I’ll give it a try. Thanks for advic and inspiration Steve!
Hi Richard, yes give it a try–likely you will have a positive experience but in case you don’t–keep trying. You will succeed and it does get easier–never easy but easier.