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Embracing the Role of Fear in Street Photography

This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
Street Photography Indoors: Exploring Interior Settings
Supporting Your Street Photography: How to Stay Focused and Productive

When you think about making street photography, what fears arise in you? We all have them—even seasoned street photographers. Answering this question is one of the quickest ways to get to the heart of your photography, because it highlights what you care about deep down inside.

But fear is often viewed as a weakness, so it’s not always easy to admit to yourself or to others, and it can be confusing figuring out what’s behind it. Fear is an effect after all, a reaction, so when it arises, what was the cause?

Artists, by definition, are people who are in the habit of overcoming personal challenges in order to create something of their own. For those just starting out, taking those mysterious first steps with a medium can be utterly exhilarating and unbridled; completely free of fear, hesitation, or expectation, there feels to be nothing to lose. But in time, as skills are honed and a desire for reaching new ground manifests, things get more complicated, and there feels to be a lot to lose. Will the process go well? Will the effort be fruitful? Will others think your results are “good”? 

The thing about making photography is that, most of the time, the answer—at least to those latter two questions—is usually “no.” That’s because making images that are compelling is difficult and time-consuming; in order to make a picture with “punctum” (as Roland Barthes famously calls it in Camera Lucida), you have to create a lot of uninteresting and technically unsound photographs first. You have to pour your heart and soul into making images that, chances are, will be discarded in the end.

Productive and inspired street photographers are okay with that, because they understand that each failure is a stepping stone to the next success. They know that while failing might not feel good on the surface, it’s a necessary ingredient in the process, and that without it, they would never progress.

In other words, it takes courage to succeed and to fail.

By analyzing what your fears indicate and how they might creep into your process as a street photographer, you can surmount your fears and use them to your advantage, not by eviscerating them—just the opposite: by acknowledging and embracing their essential role in your process. So when you feel fear (or insecurity, or dismay, or anxiety, or any other of those related emotions) it’s up to you to get to the bottom of why, so you can act on it appropriately. 

What Is Fear?

More often than not, fear is a pessimistic emotion. It’s the assumption that things won’t go well, without even letting said events transpire first. My grandmother used to call it “borrowing trouble.” Why would we take on a problem we don’t even have yet? One reason might be because we care so much about the outcome. We decide to prepare for defeat in advance, so we aren’t so let down if it actually happens. Taking on fear (aka thinking the worst) ahead of an event is a way of creating an emotional safety net for the outcome. 

When Fear Causes Failure

Giving into fear and preparing for the worst case scenario wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it didn’t affect what came next. But the truth is just spending a little time in the headspace of assumed failure before an event can cause that event to fail. By embracing this negative perspective, you are, in effect, starting a chain reaction that may very well play out in real life.

Giving in to self-imposed discouragement is also an uncomfortable way to spend the precious moments of your life. Why choose that route, when there are so many other routes available that feel nice and contribute to productivity instead? Deciding to identify with fear is a nonsensical, albeit quite common, form of self-sabotage.

Photographing a subject on the street, whether surreptitiously or with consent, demands a certain amount of confidence. We have to believe that our street photography is worth the emotional and physical effort we are exerting or we’ll never make a compelling picture. And when we get rejected or shut down, we have to have enough confidence to continue moving forward, despite the lack of support. The alternative is to quit and keep ourselves from living up to our full potential—and that would be doing a disservice to the entire planet and all who inhabit it. 

Elks Lodge, Dothan, Alabama, 2005. Photograph by Amy Touchette.

Not long after I made this photo, I got kicked out of Elks Lodge. I wanted to get used to feeling courageous enough to photograph where I wasn't necessarily invited to, so I snuck in through the front door of this members-only establishment and started interacting with people. Once staff realized I just came in off the street, they escorted me out, but I didn't really care. My mission to test my nerves was accomplished.

Fear as a Sign of Inspiration

Fear isn’t necessarily—or just—a form of insecurity, though. If you dive deeper, fear can be an indication of other really key things to know, like where your inspiration lies. Fear is a sign that we care, so when you feel aimless and can’t figure out what, or who, or where to photograph, assessing where your fear lies can unveil your most important subjects in an instant.

Being a street photographer requires steadily confronting fears, not running away from them, so if you feel yourself resisting a certain subject, ask yourself why. It might be because you feel you have a lot at stake photographing that person, place, or thing. And you would only feel you had a lot at stake if you really cared about the subject and the outcome of photographing it. So fear can do you the giant favor of exposing where your fertile territory is and, more importantly—especially during image selection and sequencing—why it’s such teeming ground for you.

Fear as a Sign of Danger

However, fear can also be a very important signal from our heart to our head that the conditions we are photographing in are unsafe. Since street photographers deal with the public and/or public spaces, our utmost primary concern always has to be our safety. 

Part of the delight of street photography is that we never know who we might encounter and where, what state of mind a person is in, or how they feel about photography. But that’s also the unique danger of street photography. By enlisting the general public to make art (as opposed to a tube of oil paint, for example), street photographers are at a distinct risk, and seriously threatening things can go down as a result. But those occasions are much less likely to occur if we can see our fear for what it is, and sometimes it’s a sign that we need to remove ourselves from a setting or situation, possibly with a cool-headed immediacy.

This may seem like the easiest or most forthcoming way to deal with fear—to see it as a sign to run—but when you are in the business of confronting real life over and over again, as street photographers are, it can become easy to just keep steamrolling through the emotion of fear every time it comes up, instead of taking the time to assess why it exists each instant it arises.

Years ago, I spent a month alone photographing in the American South. I wanted to get into the habit once and for all of confronting my inhibitions and seizing opportunities so that I could make the kind of images and lead the kind of life I yearned for. So I drove around day after day constantly daring myself to pull over and photograph someone. And after a while it worked. By the second week of cultivating this habit, I stepped up to any hint of a challenge that presented itself like a gut reaction, without any thoughts or misgivings entering my mind, just an impulse for action. It was exhausting, but so exhilarating and empowering. 

A few days later I found myself walking alone in a remote neighborhood where loose dogs were scaling fences growling at me, and the people had a serious bottom line to them that I hadn’t encountered before. I could feel my adrenaline running (—“I got this”—); my mind was used to tolerating that feeling by then, and I started getting high on it. Luckily my body took over from my fixated mind, though, because I was not welcome there. My pace slowed and I could feel my body physically repelling the situation. This wasn’t the kind of fear I should karate chop; it was the kind that told of self-preservation. When I realized what was happening, I continued my slow pace and found the shortest way out of the neighborhood. I felt a great sense of relief when I was in a safe area again, but also dismay at what I’d gotten myself into.

I learned so much about street photography that day. There’s a fine line between being confident enough to assert your aims to photograph and being humble enough to see when those aims should be quelled. It was the first time my ego was big enough to get in the way of doing what was best, and from then on the connection between humility and wisdom was cemented in my mind.

Stripper, Pensacola, Florida, 2005. Photograph by Amy Touchette

Single women weren't allowed inside this strip club, but fortunately a male patron at the entrance volunteered to be my escort. Not surprisingly, the club had a strict no photography policy, so I asked one of the dancers to come into the women's bathroom with me. Here she is showing me her latest tattoo.

What to Do When Fear Sticks: Using the Body to Challenge the Mind

Just understanding the forms that fear takes and being able to analyze why it arises is extremely helpful when it comes to making your best street photography. It's a messenger of aspects of your photography that are essential to know in order to keep growing.

But when intellectualizing fear isn’t enough, the only other way I know to keep it from paralyzing or confusing me is to get physical. Studies by Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy have shown that spending just two minutes in certain so-called "high power" poses causes physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes reflective of powerful, confident people. Being in these poses elevates testosterone, reduces the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases risk tolerance and feelings of power in individuals—proving that the body can indeed change the mind. 

Playing sports, playing the drums, dancing in a club, going on fair rides, cleaning the apartment (true!), making and eating food, getting a massage—any physical activity that demands I give over to the sensorial experience it's providing has helped me dislodge stubborn fears that I couldn't otherwise get around. 

In essence, physical activities give your brain a break from its usual patterns of thought and the opportunity for it to make different neural pathways. So when your fears persist, get out of your head and into your body. It might very well help you react on the street in the way you desire but can't quite manifest.

Conclusion

Fear is an indispensable tool that, when analyzed, teaches us important lessons about who we are and what our photography is all about. In street photography, fear can be a sign of insecurity, inspiration, or imminent danger. By embracing fear instead of denying it or misinterpreting it, a weak, ignorant position can be transformed into a stronger, smarter one. Fear is an emotional reaction that’s conceived in the mind. When it's become engrained in you, getting out of the mind and into the body can help counter its dominance and allow for a new perspective.

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