Engaging With Strangers in Street Photography

Photo by: Federico Alegría

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Understanding street photography is a both a complex and introspective exercise which results in particularly overwhelming definitions of it. But in cultural terms, it is somewhat easy to find a common discourse about this way of doing photographs; and it has a lot to do with documenting humanity within its context. Such behavior is easy to find in urban scenarios, but that doesn’t necessarily imply large cities alone. Digging a bit deeper, we can say that in visual terms, this can be registered or documented in a spectrum spanning from the suggested presence of humanity, to a direct approach towards it.

Therefore, a lot of street photography has to do with people in everyday, or at least commonly shared, contexts to some extent. This last thought breaks street photography’s population into two main groups, “known” and “not-known” persons. And today we’ll center around the latter, also called “strangers”. We know that approaching strangers on the streets is more difficult to achieve in some cultures than others; but that doesn’t imply that is an impossible task to perform. It only requires a bit of more patience, and social interactions to achieve in a meaningful way.

Let’s Start by Cheating

Taking photographs of street musicians and performers might not be a thrilling or meaningful experience, but is a great way for starting out into taking photos of strangers on the streets. Some people find this like a cheap shot since it is all about taking photographs under controlled or staged situations. Fine, but this is about starting out into street photography; and not about producing publishing or contest worthy material.

Some people are really shy and find shooting strangers an overwhelming act. Some others excuse themselves but saying that taking photos of strangers on the street is not ethical and so forth. The main difference between these two is that the first recognize both their shyness and their desire of making street photographs with human elements involved. And the second ones, might simply not be interested in doing it, or are too cocky to recognize their limits despite their curiosity.

Local parades and pacific riots are also great ways of exercising this act of taking photos of strangers on the streets in a very safe way. The first frames you take (and we are talking about anything you’ll do for a couple of months to even some years) will work as some sort of training for detaching from the normal fear anyone could experience while taking photos of strangers on the streets for the very first time. The amount of time that it takes for anyone to feel relatively comfortable and eased at the streets is relative, and might never become an absolute thing.

Using an Inconspicuous Camera

Small cameras are less threatening, and if you are one of those photographers that need to have a big camera in your hands, at least try using a small prime or even a pancake lens. Not every street photographer will approve this advice; but for a lot of us, it has been a helpful one. Using a small camera that draws little to none attention makes the act of taking photos of strangers on the streets a lot easier. Also shooting from the hip makes the whole thing a less obvious maneuver. Film cameras have also proven us to be felt a bit more trustworthy by people on the streets, and even a neutral strap can help you out into becoming a more stealthy photographer on the streets.

Blending In

Feeling amused by other cultures is a common thing among street photographers, and that doesn’t necessarily mean traveling far away from hometown. Cultural clashes happen all the time, especially in large cities. Blending in is a marvelous thing, although is hard to achieve, especially when one looks quite foreign to a place. Using neutral clothes helps in the act of becoming part of a social field, gathering with locals is also a nice way of blending in with the crowds, and using some slang could definitely help you out into relating with strangers in the streets.

Doing our homework is a must, and we need to be aware of some cultural aspects when trying to get closer to strangers when entering a different culture from ours. Avoid taking your camera out right away, read your context, and after feeling a bit comfortable, you can start trying to take some photographs of the people. Walk by, take some photos, and continue your path. Staying for long periods of time in one place could work if you are waiting for something specific to happen, but if that’s not the case, the best thing to do is walking.

If you like to engage with people, take a couple of shots to break the ice, and after your presence becomes less of a novelty, you can start looking for some nice candid shots. This works really nice with street vendors, or any other busy person that will stop paying you attention after a couple of minutes having you around; they’ll simply continue minding their own things.

Being Patient

When it comes to street photography, coming back home with keepers is never guaranteed; and as the more mature one becomes, this ratio becomes less and less generous. Expecting the unexpected might sound as a romantic cliche, but street photography is really like that.

And the best way for dealing with that particular nature of it, is by always being prepared. Practice is a must, but being patient is key for never becoming frustrated with it, especially after several days in a row without any good shot at all. Trust me, it happens.

Gaining people’s trust will also be enhanced by patience, since it won’t happen right away. Let people get used to your presence, even if it takes several days for them to finally accept you being around.

The Quite Obvious Approach

From Bruce Gilden to Mark Power, there are some photographers whose approaches contradict the act of being stealthy and inconspicuous. The first is very well known for his bold way of interrupting pedestrians on the streets, and the second one uses a massive large format camera for his photographs.

Personally, I find Gilden’s approach admirable and respectable; but I don’t have the guts for pulling photographs in such a direct way. And I’m sure no Gilden’s disciple will be reading such an article like this one right now; but it might inspire a couple of people into trying out his approach. Being something impossible for me to pull off doesn’t mean a disapproval of it.

And on the other hand, I’ve sort of experimented with what Mark Power is capable of doing with his massive camera. At a smaller scale, I’ve shot photographs of strangers on the streets with a TLR camera, which is anything but stealthy. When pulling it out, everyone knows that I was taking photos; but oddly, the act of being so obvious, makes people eased out. Mark Power said in an interview that after a couple of minutes (patience again) he is able to become a mere object of the street context, and people simply stop minding him. That’s the moment in which he starts worrying about pressing the shutter release, and not earlier.

Becoming the Recurrent Photographer

This one connects a lot with being patient, but is worth noticing by itself. Let people alone recognize you as The Photographer, and you’ll gain access to a privileged “social dimension” that will allow you take unreachable photos for any regular street photographer. Great street photographers like Helen Levitt, Harold Feinstein and Vivian Maier were seen by the locals as The Photographers of their hometowns, and even when people were aware of their presence, they were astonishingly accurate at capturing everyday life in a candid and almost unpolluted way.

The main difference between this and simply being patient is that being spotted or even symbolized as The Photographer is something that could accompany you for your entire life, like in the case of these three photographers which centered in documenting life around their homes. And now, with traveling being a restricted activity, we think that aiming our cameras towards our places of living is something we all should be doing rather than day-dreaming about when we would be able to roam far away back again.

Explaining What you are Doing

Engaging with strangers becomes a smooth and friendly act when we are able to explain why we are doing what we are doing. In my case, I always carry around a couple of PDF files to explain this matter. One corresponds to my portfolio, and another couple of them to some of my documentary work. I’m always honest, and I simply tell people that photography is my hobby, and that there is no commercial interest behind the photographs that I take. Later, thanks to my scholar background, I’ve been able to produce a couple of works that aim to contribute to academia to some extent.

Wish list: Although, I’ve been badly wanting to have some nice printed pocket-size booklets for a better engagement without the interference or mediation of a screen. This is something still pending for me, but I haven’t found the time for doing it properly so far…

Portrait Projects

Another way of engaging with strangers in the streets is by developing portraiture projects that require unknown people to allow themselves to be portrayed. This is quite a popular practice among many photographers, but curiously not among street photographers. This might be out of a purist way of seeing the craft or something like that. Honestly, I think that in the midst of the twenty-first century, having such drastic positions is counter-productive and quite nonsense too. If you are starting out in street photography, don’t limit yourselves to flirt with other genres once in a while.

Bio-safety note: Thanks to COVID-19, telephotos have become a nice solution for engaging with people at safe distances. This could be seen as a contradiction to the aforementioned stuff on small lenses and gear, but you should recognize that it is not the same to be asked for a photograph than to be shot from a sneaky distance with a huge 600mm bazooka lens… Or even a short one with a 70-200mm. It is simply not the same thing. Being aware makes a huge difference, and here in this bullet, we are specifically talking about directly engaging with strangers on the streets and asking them permission for us to make a portrait of them.

If you decide on doing this, don’t forget about telling people where they can find more information on the project too. Also giving out some business cards is a nice idea, or simply asking for an email to send the pictures too as well. Not everyone will be willing to participate, but overall, people are quite open to projects like this one, especially when they are explained in a proper and friendly way.

Dumbing Down

Last but not least, acting like you are some sort of distracted and goofy photographer taking photos of buildings, doves and trees is a very powerful trick for capturing strangers on the streets. Sometimes I’ve even asked my sister to pose in front of some billboard or church so I can take a proper photograph of someone without being obvious.

There is no exact recipe for taking good street photographs, nor for engaging with strangers in satisfactory ways. This is just a list of things that have worked in the past to us, our colleagues and some students when attempting to take photos of strangers on the streets. There is no 100% chance of success, and you’ll always encounter the possibility of stumbling into someone who simply doesn’t want to be photographed at all. Please, don’t be rude; and don’t pull the “it’s my legal right for doing it” card. That only makes people angry, and stigmatizes us street photographers as despicable human beings.