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On the Fear of Photographing in Public

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The joy of photographing on the street comes from close and engaging photos. Displaying the human nature and emotions in a way that the audience can relive these moments requires the photographer to be close and engaging as well. Unfortunately for a lot of us, it is not easy to stand out from the masses and overcome artificial social boundaries.

This causes an irrational fear of photographing in public and makes life as a street photographer very hard. In the following article I will describe the sources of this obstruction that is limiting our full potential.

#1: Not being familiar with the camera

One of my biggest fears early on was not being able to control the camera the “right” way. Even long ago before doing actual street photography, I had concerns about being outed as an amateur by other people. Thus, I photographed in lonely places and at times when there were fewer people out and about.

I guess we all know the feeling of walking into a new environment but at the same having the urge to appear knowledgeable and not wanting to blow our disguise. Because after all, if you don’t know every button of your camera by heart you have no right to photograph in public right?

But what’s the deal about not being an electrical engineer and knowing all the functions of your camera inside and out? For street photography, only a few functions are relevant and even the fully automatic mode may be appropriate for this kind of genre. Looking like an amateur can even be an advantage because we want to dismiss anything that makes us look like the next professional paparazzi.

Don’t be afraid to test your camera out in the field and get familiar with it in the field. You don’t have to be able to recite the manual to justify taking pictures in public. Acquire all the knowledge you need and then you will learn how to control the camera through practice.

#2: Standing out

Humans are social beings that form groups to survive. This strategy has been working great for us, but as street photographers assimilation may not work out for us. Especially in the West, we are inoculated from birth with the fact that strangers pose more harm than good. As a result, we may be worried about getting in contact with people on the street we don’t know. To avoid attracting any attention, we try to fit in.

Since our goal is to create extraordinary pictures we won’t get them if we photograph like anyone else. Fitting in only leads to ordinary images that may be good, but not outstanding. Therefore as street photographers, we have to unlearn the negative implications of engaging with different people. Instead of having a negative mindset, we should be more inclined to make our own decisions.

It is not a bad thing to not do what everyone else does. In fact what does it even mean to attract attention? Are there any negative outcomes that come with it automatically? Or does it even make any real difference?

#3: False perception

While being out on the street for the first weeks I had the feeling that everyone was staring at me like I was a lunatic just because of my camera. Truth is, most people are just curious and don’t judge you in a negative way. The second question is: do you really grab a lot more attention than usual?

Do you notice all the eye-contacts or looks you are receiving while grocery shopping? Probably not, because you absolutely don’t care and just mind your own business. So why should a little camera make such a big difference?

The difference lies in our own perception. As we are on the hunt for great pictures, we observe our surrounding very thoroughly, thus noticing every little detail and people who might take a quick glance at our camera.

If you compared both numbers of people who “stare” at you with or without a camera, there probably isn’t too big of a difference. The disparity comes from our self-perception and self-consciousness that distorts reality.

#4: Worrying about other people’s thoughts

One thing that often concerns us is what other people are thinking about us. We put a lot of emphasize on making a good appearance. As there is no second chance for a first impression, we also have the anxiety to please total strangers.

As weird as this seems, this is also our human nature that is instilled by society and our upbringing. Like most social norms, these totally have a place but can be a hindrance for street photographers, and furthermore they are based mostly on false perception.

Maybe you are afraid of taking pictures in public because you are concerned what other people are thinking about you. “What a weirdo” might be a sentence that arises in their minds that you absolutely don’t want to provoke.

Once again our own self-consciousness is playing tricks on you. In reality, every person is more concerned about what others might think about themselves than having strong opinions on other people. This means that if you are out photographing most people will be more focused on themselves and not you. Maybe they are questioning if you photographed them, or they’re thinking about other self-centered thoughts. But they are not forming strong and lasting opinions about the photographer that is just taking pictures in public.

If everyone is more worried about what other might think about them, there is no one left to actually develop bad thoughts.

Apart from the nonsense that a total stranger’s opinion should be of our concern, hopefully you realize that most people are like you and more worried about themselves than others.

#5: Feeling of guilt

Another reason why you might have doubts and anxiety of photographing on the street is that you might feel guilty taking a total stranger’s photo. You might think that you “stole” something from them that you have no right to own.

I don’t feel “guilty” taking pictures of the human life on the street. In my opinion this kind of documentary photography has an important function in art, culture, and history. It represents the zeitgeist of a certain time at a certain place. True candid pictures aren’t distorted like most other artificial media that try to sell a certain story.

Without this genre, we wouldn’t have iconic photos like this one that survived for more than 70 years and still excites viewers. Long after every protagonist and the photographer are gone, the pictures will still be present. Conserving such moments isn’t something we should feel ashamed of, but take proud in saving and showing them to future generations.

An example is “V-J Day in Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt

In terms of ethics, I have the attitude that I wouldn’t upload anything in which I would feel uncomfortable being the subject, or when I would be worried that someone find themselves in the images. Thus, I don’t have the fear that my pictures might actually be discovered.

Take pride in being a street photographer and create images that stay relevant for many future generations.


About the author: Sebastian Jacobitz is a 27-year-old hobby Street Photographer from Berlin, capturing the everyday life in the city. The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, visit his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

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