PetaPixel

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.


 
 
  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    And you’re the one that will go to jail for this, and compensate the photographer for his pain & suffering and broken camera. This same exact situation just played out with another Raleigh area street photographer at the state fair. The guy that got irate wasn’t even the subject of the photography. But the police were happy to carry him off to jail.

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

    Your comparison with wildlife is extremely interesting. Henri Cartier Bresson was a hunter himself and had the same parallel:

    “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living.”

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

    There’s a precedent in this. There’s a case where the Photographer won for a Street Portrait that he took after the subject sued. The image sold for thousands….

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

    Thanks so much Matt!

  • Rick Scheibner

    Well, I think we’ve successfully found a hot topic for PetaPixel: Post an article about street photography and everybody comes out of the woodwork. That said, I’ve been an admirer of the genre for awhile now, without really having an interest (or an opportunity) to try my hand at it. Thanks for the helpful article here.

  • http://twitter.com/kenny Kenneth Younger III

    Just curious why that is a dreaded question?

  • senate

    i got people in my face for “taking their pic” from 15meters away with a 28mm, so yeah i stopped caring about what they think. there’s always someone unhappy anyway…
    i leave in a country where people have rights but photographers have rights too and i don’t let someone stepping on mine if i ain’t stepping on theirs. basically if you’re in the streets and i don’t make money with your pic you’re fair game.
    i live in France.

  • nikonian

    Because it can lead to you spending all of your free time giving out pictures or getting yelled at as most don’t want to pay…

  • http://twitter.com/kenny Kenneth Younger III

    I suppose if they are asking for a physical copy that can be tedious, and of course they should pay for that.

    I just tell them that if the picture turns out, then they can find it on my flickr page. As long as they aren’t going to make money from it, why not get the extra attention to my other photography?

  • madmax

    No way people can understand this, Kurt. A lot of people here suffer of chronical G.A.S. They will hold on buying expensive professional equipment they don´t need with their hard earned money. For them, photography is not a hobby, but an illness, just like alcoholism. Photography gear corporations are very happy nevertheless.

  • flightofbooks

    Finally, someone uses that Capa quote in a way that isn’t reductive and embarrassing. Well done.

  • flightofbooks

    the fact street photography can’t be commercialized is part of what’s cool about it. art that resists the capitalist ethic. how about that.

  • flightofbooks

    I don’t see how what you’re saying about what Capa meant (which I happen to agree with) contradicts what’s in the article. Capa said you had to get close to the action if you wanted your images to capture what it felt like to be there. That’s all this article is saying. Discussing physical distance in terms of focal lengths is beside the point.

  • flightofbooks

    You don’t get why someone would make a photograph they can’t make money off of? Oh Wow.

  • flightofbooks

    Who’s buying pro gear solely to shoot street photos? Serious question.

  • flightofbooks

    That’s probably why so many street photographers are using point and shoots, like the ricoh gr series. I only know one serious street photographer who uses a pro body, and he doesn’t even use that most of the time. Most of the time he uses a digi rebel.

  • flightofbooks

    Just checked your profile and your project looks cool. Just liked you on facebook so I can view your images in depth at a better hour.

  • flightofbooks

    A model release is not required for “editorial use”. You can look this up in literally any guide on model releases and see that it’s correct.

  • flightofbooks

    Why does it matter?

  • flightofbooks

    Then how did they get to be iconic?

  • flightofbooks

    Since you can’t comprehend why someone would make a photograph they can’t turn a profit on, what holds your interest really isn’t something any serious photographer should pay any mind to.

    Not surprised you don’t “get” street photography. I imagine it’s one of many times in your life you’ve known the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  • flightofbooks

    “human wildlife photography” sounds a lot more voyeuristic and gross than “secretly taking photos of homeless people or other more nefarious captures with unideal motivations”. Actually, it sounds a lot like the same thing, only more naive.

  • flightofbooks

    sometimes I see a comment that I want to uprate and downrate at the same time. yours is one of these. congratulations.

  • http://www.photography-dw.de/ Daniel Walldorf

    Sometimes it’s just about being nice and not about claiming your rights. Maybe if you wouldn’t have that douchebag attitude, people wouldn’t even feel offended if you take their picture.
    Photography is not only about the photographer and his or her rights.

  • http://www.photography-dw.de/ Daniel Walldorf

    Some really nice tips! I always feel like people in Berlin are different and some might even become aggressive just be saying hi to them. But I think I will give it a try anyway :)

  • robin

    I don’t understand why most of the street photography is black and white.

  • http://sudeep.us/ Sudeep Agarwal

    Thanks for this article; this is a topic that’s not brought up very often. I’ve had my own fair share of negative experiences, and there are definitely some valid points here to help effect a change in one’s mindset or approach to street photography.

  • Paul Donohoe

    with respect YOU don’t have to “get it” Lots of people DO get it, ask them. SP is about recording the seemingly ordinary moments in the lives of “ordinary” people. Many different interpretations of what that means. For me. there are no ordinary moments and never any ordinary people. SP has recorded the culture, environment, even the clothes people wear. Hope it continues

  • Paul Donohoe

    I agree with all this..some good analogies too.

  • greenarcher02

    You have a narrow worldview. Homeless people aren’t the only ones outside on the streets… Or do you happen to be one of the 1%?

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

    Thanks Rick!
    Street Photography is the most accessible form of photography I think, it keeps the shooting active :)

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

    Make you want to cry, right? :)
    Thank you :)

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

    It happens, just never let it get to you and not let past experience ruin the future good ones :) Just smile :)

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

    Doesn’t have to be, the choice is up for the photographer. For myself, I see in Black and White :)

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

    Bring some Business Cards with you, it’s the proof you are after no harm :)

  • http://www.intensitystudios.com/ Antonio Carrasco

    Yeah great shots! Very inspiring.

  • Ilkka

    Read the point 5 again. He is clearly trying to say that Capa meant something else, not so obvious as getting closer to the action. Getting close to your work. That is totally different from what Capa said. And it is patronizing to nth degree to claim that this is what Capa actually meant. That he is misquoted and misunderstood by everybody who takes his comment literally.

  • flightofbooks

    Capa was talking about mental space as much as physical space. Most people who drag out that quote miss that fact. This article seeks to correct that misapprehension. There’s not anything condescending about that, at all, certainly not compared to reducing Capa’s ethic to something as vulgar as focal lengths.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    I do both, but I favor B&W most of the time. Sometimes the image speaks to me more with the color intact, so I keep it. Most of the time, though, I find color to be distracting.

  • http://facebook.com/ralwegians Ralwegians: Faces of Raleigh

    Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia

  • guu

    Same could be said about landscape photography – why one is so fascinated with it?
    Or fashion photography – why one is so fascinated with it?
    ….

  • madmax

    Who is solely shooting street photos? Serious question too.

  • http://www.photography-dw.de/ Daniel Walldorf

    Absolutely. Business cards mean professionalism ;)

  • madmax

    Business cards is the proof you are doing this for the money. So, you are promoting your work here and is OK. Your gear?

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Black and white images are pretty awesome.

  • Rabi Abonour

    While you generally can’t use street images for ads, as Ralwegians said they can be used editorially. You can publish a book of street photographs without releases.

  • Rabi Abonour

    If you take a photo of a person on the street and then refuse to email it to him or her for free you’re a complete jerk.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Obviously the only reason to make an image is to sell it for stock. The personal satisfaction of doing so is only surpassed by the massive fame and fortune you’ll accrue.

  • Rabi Abonour

    This sort of lack of empathy makes all photographers look bad. Just because you have the right to make someone comfortable doesn’t mean you should.

  • Laurent Fournier

    Thanks for sharing. I really don’t think I will ever have the guts to try it, though….