“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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.