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5 Painless Steps for Getting Rid of the Fear of Street Photography Once and for All

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“Look at me,” he said. Complying, I turned in the man’s direction. “Look me in the eyes!”… I tried to raise my eyes and look into his, but I couldn’t. Actually, I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes at that point, it felt weird and uncomfortable. That man… was my own older brother.

That’s how shy I was and how much I feared people … I couldn’t even look at my own brother in the eyes! But nowadays, I am a changed man, a documentary-street photographer that is not afraid to approach people and photograph them.

If you’re like I was, here are a few steps I suggest you take to get into street photography without fear. If someone who used to be afraid of looking his own brother in the eye can do it, so can you — plus, these tips are both effective and painless.

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Step 1: Understanding Fear

Fear is good… Crazy, right? It’s a built-in system that aims to keep you from danger. It’s fear, for example, that tells you to step on the gas when you’re driving through a shady neighborhood. Fear is simply a warning system, and it can be trained to suit your needs. But it’s like a fork in the road, the further you go down the path of fear, the further away you get from the path of fearlessness, and vice versa.

You will not wake up one day and be fearless; it’s small steps and small victories that lead to fearlessness. Take it one step at a time, but take the first step and start turning the tide towards fearlessness. The next steps are all about these small victories, continue doing them at your own pace and you will be amazed how much you will change. Trust me, I’ve been there, and only focusing on the small victories did it for me.

Step 2: Acknowledge people

Look at this picture I took in Haiti:

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Eek. Way to go to freaking us out, right!? Well, here’s the funny thing: Somebody showed him the picture, and he absolutely loves the photograph, here’s what he said:

“Look at me! I look like a tough dude! I look so cool! I like it so much!!! Can I have a copy of this picture? Please! Send me a copy”

Weird, huh? Here’s this guy who looks like the last guy on Earth you want to take a picture of, and yet he is so happy about the photograph. You see, in the streets people are anonymous, they are just one in a million. But when you point a camera at them you acknowledge them. You take notice of them, and everyone wants that. Including you, including me.

I remember I was in a subway once and a guy was drawing. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that he was in fact drawing … moi. It felt really good, let me tell you, and it’s the same as pointing a camera at someone.

Start going out on the streets without your camera and acknowledging people. How do you do that? You smile, you say “Hi,” and “Good Morning!” or “Hi! How are you?” and strike up a conversation. Do this and you will start building up your street karma.

Here’s an idea to ponder on: people react to you depending on the energy you put out. Plus, you also have a chance to brighten someone’s day. Simply saying “Hi” and smiling will start changing your state of mind in preparation for when you go out with a camera in hand. Not only will you see that there’s no reason to fear people, it will also have an impact on your photography.

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Step 3: Making photographs

Armed with a camera, you can be one of two things on the street: a Thief or an Image Maker. The first takes pictures, the second makes pictures. We fear street photography in large part because we feel that we are stealing pictures, but if we had the mindset of creating photographs, our approach would be different.

If we have the Thief mentality, we will act like creeps with cameras; but if we adopt the Image Maker mentality, our posture will change. You can spot image thieves easily, they’re the photogs who look like they’re up to no good.

Acknowledging people starts conditioning, not only you, but also your subjects that you mean no harm — you are not there to steal but to create something. I saw a video once of a guy walking out of a store with a brand new Bike … without paying for it. He wasn’t spotted because of his attitude and non-suspicious actions. He didn’t act like a thief, he just walked out of a store like anybody.

Once you are feeling comfortable acknowledging people without a camera, start going out with your camera and being conscious of your mindset. If you think you are there to steal images, change your thinking to actually making photographs.

The first is reactionary, the second is intentional. Just think about the karma principle: when it comes to people, they react depending to how you put yourself out there. You are there to create something with your camera, not steal someone’s image.

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Step 4: Engage and Disengage

Part of gaining confidence and fearlessness as a street photographer is understanding that what you are doing is ok. In order to prove to yourself that it is, ask people before you take a shot. After making the picture, show them the back of the screen or send them a .jpg by email.

Having enough positive response about what you are doing will change your mindset about others. Not only are you not stealing, your subjects themselves are flattered. Out of everything you could shoot, you took the time to take a picture of them — you made them feel special and acknowledged them.

After getting comfortable with asking people for their photos, start not to. It’s like taking the training wheels off your bike when you first learn to ride. After a while, you won’t need the feedback, you will know that most people are ok, if not flattered about getting their picture taken

Take note, however, that it’s also important to know who not to shoot. You have to read their energy, I’m not telling you to fear everyone, but I wouldn’t point my camera at a guy who looks like the Mafia, would you?

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Step 5: The “You are not close enough” Lie

It’s a shame Capa is still being misunderstood and misquoted 100 years after he was born. There are far too many who take the quote “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” too literally and reduce street photography to a game of getting close.

The be all end all of street photography is not how close you get to your subject, that’s pointless. Do you really think that one of the greatest photographers of all time would say something so obvious? Look at it the other way, you can’t make a nice photograph if you are not close.

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What Capa meant was to get closer to your work, to what you are doing. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough. How does that help in regards to fear and street photography? It tells you that you do not have to get physically close to your subject as the sole goal.

Some try to push the buttons of closeness and invade people’s personal space — that’s not the point. Street photography is not about getting as close as you can to people, it’s about expressing what you feel when you are in the streets.

Take Capa’s quote to heart: when you are out on the street, don’t think “how close can I comfortably get to that person without loosing consciousness” and start asking “how can I photograph what I feel inside of me?” It takes the weight off those who fear street photography because it’s not about getting physically close, it’s about expressing yourself. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough, just like Capa said.

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Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve never heard the advice I’ve laid out here quite this way before. Most of the advice I’ve heard others give (in my opinion) deals with symptoms. What I’ve described is aimed at the root causes of fear in street photography. Take your time, do it in small steps. If you suddenly hit reverse on a car running at 60mph, you’ll break it … so go slow with yourself.

Not being afraid as a street photographer is a state of mind and composure, which will affect how people react to you. If you follow the steps I’ve outlined, and you do just a little bit everyday, I know you can do it. And this coming from the guy who couldn’t look his own brother in the eye.


About the author: Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese documentary and street photographer. He is the editor, designer and co-founder of Inspired Eye Magazine and Presets. He also owns a male Unicorn. Join his newsletter for a free issue and more articles, or keep in touch through Google Plus, Facebook or Twitter.


 
  • Courtney

    Thank you for sharing this!!!

  • Ilkka

    Thank you for this great insight into photographic history. You should have let also Cornell Capa know what his brother actually meant so that he would not have misquoted and lied about his brother all these years.
    You are right. It is wrong to talk about focal lengths. Indeed, one doesn’t even need a camera to be emotionally close. Just like the millions of parents, spouses and children were emotionally close to the servicemen in the front lines around the world. I am sure this is what Capa really meant. Sorry Bob.

  • flightofbooks

    Yeah, upthread when I mentioned how people who use that quote are usually reductive and embarrassing. This is what I was talking about.

  • http://www.evg3.com/ Abelardo Ojeda

    My two cents here for those worried about selling street photography:

    I’ve been selling my work for about seven years. Most of the time I had no intention of selling, but people found my pictures on the web. It is not like you will sell a lot, but it’s possible.

    Street photography or any other kind of photography, is about making your own style, so if you shot people walking or watching to your camera, as many do… you are not doing anything new (and not even if you HRDrize your pics), on the contrary, you’ll be generating much visual garbage (kind of internet information overload that we are living right now).

    You need to learn narrative, angles, to choose very carefully your subjects. It is necessary an impeccable syntax cohesion, visual techniques and semiotic homogeneity.

    Then, you begin to grow… and then, you can sell your work.

    There are great examples of street photographers that have been selling their work as prints (very expensive ones), books (visual essays), etc. Moriyama is a great example.

  • flexible fotography

    M. Duong:

    “What Capa meant was to get closer to your work, to what you are doing. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough.”

    While I like your philosophy, this is NOT what Capa meant. He was referring specifically to ‘news or ‘reportage’ photography, not to general street/people in the street photography. So, you are right: the quote IS still being misunderstood ;-)

  • magotbrain

    “but who are they to tell me what i should ou shouldn’t be taking?”

    Only themselfs; you’re free to take what you want, but not them…

    And you, who are you…You are what you is…” F.Z.”

    It’s not a question of buisness; you just can’t use what it’s private. And even on the street, people are people. That’s all the problem with photography and reality. Everthing seems to be photographic, but everything is not photography.

  • Sundey

    These comments are some of the most ignorant I’ve heard in ages. Instead of appreciating a generous and elegantly written article people decide to judge what they clearly do not understand. A disgusting fault in most humans… and to think most of you people are probably actual photographers. How embarrassing. So cocky and arrogant, it makes me sick to my stomach. I personally loved the article/photographs and can appreciate ALL genres of photography, even the ones I choose to not delve into. Why? Because that is what you call RESPECT for the craft and RESPECT of other people’s ideas and interests. A RESPECT for ART, even when you don’t get it! My God, show some class, tact and common sense.

    BTW: If Street photography wasn’t relevant the article wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t be commenting on it in the first place. Give credit where it’s due and stop being selfish whining little brats. You can have an opinion without insulting someone else’s interests/career choices/etc.

  • Claire Dupuis

    Olivier as you know I am not a fan of street photogaphy (but I do like ours, otherwise I wouldn’t follow your excellent blog) and not a street photog myself. But as a portraitist I run into similar issues. Fear feeds fear. I personally am very comfortable to shoot, though I do have results related anxiety on a planed shoot. But I really go out of my way to transform it in confidence, because my models themselves are tense enough. It can be very hard to get somebody to relax and open up to the camera. One very cool little technique I’ve found is to included, when they are present, pets or even kids, to the shot. People tend to relax immediately, and remain more relaxed for the rest of the shoot ! Here’s an example, of a beautiful pregnant woman I shot last week, with my own little dog…

  • nikonian

    Exactly. Which is why I seldom do it. I only have so much time to edit my pics and at some point it becomes not worth my time to email 30 people free pictures. It is one of the reasons I stopped doing street photography.

  • http://www.oravecphotography.com/ Stephen Oravec

    I’m an amateur, this post hit the nail on the head for me. My first time at street photography I got a crowd of people to act like they were hitchhiking for the train.

  • Guest

    this was fun

  • Jeff

    I think the problem with street photography is it’s kinda like instant gratification. To an extent anyone can go out into the city, take pictures of strangers in black and white and get some cool looking photos. It allows people to skip having to learn to use a camera. This doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to a lot of people. I just listened to Oliviers taking vs making podcast and I think it really applies to this. It’s all about making, and making isn’t down the easy road.

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    “hese comments are some of the most ignorant I’ve heard in ages.” that’s why don’t read the comments that much :) So sorry it took me 19 days to respond :)

    Indeed, many do not have respect for what others are doing. I’ve seen people comment negatively on my work, and I was like, can’t we just appreciate what each other is doing without having to put in our opinions on how much we don’t like the particular style???

    There’s many styles of photography I don’t like, but I keep the comments to myself and try to push the person in the direction they want to go. I try to put myself in their place because of RESPECT. They put their heart and soul into something and I believe that it’s inherently valuable and try to see it their way. So I’ll appreciate something I don’t even touch….

    So thanks Sundey for this comment, I’m glad you said what needed to be said :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Street Photography is like the game Othello. It takes 2 minutes to learn, a lifetime to master. Accessibility only makes it more of a challenge :)
    Thanks for the listen my friend!

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  • Dave Ortiz

    Hi, I love shooting street photography because I meet many many interesting people in the street. While I agree that images of people just walking by may be boring, Id have to say that images of your family, may be more boring to me because of my lack of connection. I mean no insult, just, highlighting that street photography doesnt have to be your thing. You dont even have to get it.
    Jazz is to music as street is to photography. You may not like it, you may not understand it, but, for those that do, its a great outlet.

  • Toby Madrigal

    A couple of points please. One – I find that by far the most interesting people to capture on the streets are old guys. I can see nothing at all in the least bit photogenic in younger guys. I have found no problems at all shooting older guys, mostly they do not notice me. Two- I recently found the ideal camera for street shooting, it’s a Nikon F2 with a waist level finder (WLF). Lens to suit, usually 28/35/50mm. In use, I have the strap adjusted to allow the camera to rest at lower chest level. Looking into the WLF, people just do not notice me. I feel that people are so accustomed to seeing a camera held up to the eye, or someone squinting at a screen on the back, that they have forgotten the days of the twin lens reflex e.g
    Rollei. This type of gear is not restricted to the Nikon F2. You can make one with Nikon F or F3, Canon F1 or F1N to name but a few.

  • Ayatollyahso

    “Respect” in general is lacking across the internet. It is sad, most folks don’t realize how they come across;Some don’t care as long as they are relatively anonymous.Unfortunately; I see it as clear evidence of the downward spiral of our culture.

    On topic; I enjoyed the article, I think it made some excellent points.

  • Amelia Milling

    Great article. The only problem I have is my deafness…which means I can’t talk or hear. I can lip read a little. I really want to do street photography but I’m afraid that someone might will start speaking to me. Or when I want to ask someone for permission to take their picture. I always use the notepad app on my phone to communicate with hearings but that usually takes so much time. It also makes it a little awkward. I also have had some people that refuses to believe that I am deaf which makes things so much harder. Help me with this problem please. :)

  • http://www.theinspiredeye.net/ Olivier Duong

    Hi Amelia,
    Body language is universal….a few signs can make your point known, above all…positive energy :) We can discuss more options, just shoot me an email from my website :) Cheers

  • Paul Donohoe

    I’ve just reread this after several months. and I can’t believe how close to how I approach street photography it is. Love people. respect them. And highlighting the stupid myth about Capa’s saying is great too. Too much misunderstanding and dogma with street photography. I’ve been writing similar things for years. maybe the tide is turning and the truth about this wonderful art will come out and people will do it right