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Photography

First Contact: How to Gain Strangers’ Trust on the Street

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
Choosing a Camera for the Street: 7 Tips to Help You Find the Equipment You Need
Strangers on the Street: How to Make It Go Right—and What to Do When It Doesn’t

Whether consciously or not, the first thing people do when they encounter someone they don't know is make a judgment about them based on how they look. With so much life constantly whizzing by, rarely is there time or opportunity for something deeper. Outward appearances—and the associations we have of those appearances—are often all there is to go on within the busy confines of reality.

All photographers, but especially street photographers, need to be clear and deliberate about what their outer shell conveys in such brief surface interactions. You can take steps to break down the barriers that keep you from having successful exchanges with people you don’t know (wordless or otherwise), and we'll explore some of those steps in this tutorial.

People express loud and clear when they’re not happy about being photographed, and it’s the street photographer’s mission to encounter that reaction as little as possible, using the most succinct and productive methods available, with the ultimate goal of connecting with reality and making an interesting picture. 

Reflect Your Personal Style

As I’ve advocated in a previous article, dressing in a way that reflects your personal style—rather than trying to camouflage yourself—is a great place to start when it comes to portraying who you are to others. Not for fashion reasons, of course, but because, whether you intend to photograph people surreptitiously or with their consent, nothing looks more suspicious than someone who’s pretending to be something they aren't.

How you forge an air about you that spawns strangers’ trust is unique to you, but for all of us it starts by unapologetically portraying who we genuinely are. Seize this opportunity to get your interaction off to an authentic and forthcoming start by dressing in a way that you find comfortable and honest.

Hart Street, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NYC, 2015. Photograph by Amy Touchette. I live in this neighborhood. I made this portrait on my way home from the cleaners with my iPhone. This beautiful lady was such a sight—matching her surroundings as she did—I noticed her from the other side of the street; plus I have a real soft spot for elders, thanks to my extra special grandparents. I photographed her without asking her permission beforehand, because I wanted to portray her candidly. But while I was photographing her (I took three or four frames very quickly), I told her how lovely she looked. And that prompted acceptance and this beautiful smile—but no words in reply. It was a very short interaction, less than 15 seconds.

Modify Your Appearance to Put People at Ease

Although you want to dress like yourself, there are times when thoughtfully modifying your outward appearance to suggest you’re trustworthy can be very helpful, if not key, when photographing people who know nothing about you.

Wearing full photojournalist garb, for example, or carrying more than one camera around your neck, can put people off even if your intentions are good, because all they see is what you are after—their picture. So while you might have more than one camera on you, perhaps you have only one out for all to see. And while you might love all the compartments in those amazing photography vests, you find another way to stay organized in order to soften the initial impression you make.

When I spent a month on my own photographing people I didn’t know in the American South, I bought a cheap wedding band and wore it on my left hand. I wanted to give the signal I was married because I thought parents would be more agreeable to a married woman photographing their children; people watching me interact with their spouse could rest assured I did not have improper intentions; and men, who could misunderstand my motives for talking to them, would see I was not available. And I was glad I did. I could tell the ring had the effects I desired in several situations, largely because I’d never worn one before.

It may seem disingenuous to wear a fake ring—and contrary to all I’ve said about being yourself when photographing strangers—but, in truth, I was in a long-term monogamous relationship; I just wasn’t married. So by wearing a ring, I was telling people something correct about who I was, with just one little white lie thrown in there—that I never actually walked down the aisle.

Analyze Your Thoughts About Modifying Your Appearance

For me, my genuine interest in meeting and going deeper with people in the South trumped any guilt I had about dishonestly portraying my marital status. I knew I could be trusted with children; I knew I was there to interact with people and photograph them, not to get involved with them intimately; and I knew I didn’t intend to use any access this fake wedding band could procure to judge people, or make fun of them, or photograph them in an unfair moment. The way I saw it, wearing a ring was a way for me to tell strangers something honest about me during that short window of time in which impressions are made and doors are either opened or closed.

Modifying your appearance to provoke an atmosphere that’s more open to photography in this and other ways is a personal judgment for you to make. Asking yourself where your moral limits are in feigning your identity or motivations is an important question to answer. Where you draw the line tells you a lot about your relationship to street photography and what it is you're really after when making photographs of strangers. This is crucial to understand in order to get the most out of the experience of street photography—and to create a cohesive body of work.

Waffle House, Dothan, Alabama, 2005. Photograph by Amy Touchette. I made this photograph while traveling in the South. I would often go to diners or small, family-run restaurants at night in hopes of photographing everyday people. This man started talking to me before I made his portrait. He saw my Leica around my neck, so he knew what I was interested in. Soon after, he made it clear I could take his picture without me even asking, so I did. We talked for a half hour or so over coffee. It was one of my favorite experiences on that trip, because he was so open. He was ready to talk and all I really wanted to do was listen. 

Be Aware of Your Presence

When it comes to cultivating an environment that’s amenable to photography, our individual presence—the way we carry ourselves—actually has as much, if not more, impact on strangers than our physical appearance. Because, while we initially judge people on the way they look on the outside, those surface judgments can change quickly by heartier, more substantial indications like behavior, personality, and intentions.

For example, deceptive moves like wearing a fake wedding band would have been all for naught if I could not follow up that initial impression with behavior and body language that continued to suggest I was trustworthy.

Moving slowly while around strangers—not aggressively—helps put them at ease, as does smiling (so long as it’s not incessantly), photographing intermittently, and giving people physical space. Being calm and showing respect by being polite also both go a very long way, and having a sense of humor can be indispensable as a way of breaking the ice. You want to be charming, but not heavy-handedly so.

Above all, just like fire needs air, you want people to feel they have room to make up their mind about you. Having that sort of easeful demeanor tells people that you aren’t bum-rushing them; that you don’t have an unyielding agenda. If the people you're photographing feel like you respect their boundaries, and it's possible for them to say no when they need to, it becomes much easier for them to say yes. Stick to your intentions, but if someone does say no, use discretion and don't be afraid to let the situation go. In the long run, you'll yield more and better pictures because both you and your subjects will be at ease.

All of this can be communicated through comportment or words, depending on your preference or what the situation necessitates. Perhaps there’s a language barrier, so verbally expressing yourself isn’t an option. Perhaps you’re shy and prefer to exchange glances with people instead of talking to them. Perhaps you want to interact with some people you encounter and others you just want to candidly document. And then, of course, there’s your subjects’ reaction to you, in which case they will call the shots by either starting conversation or remaining silent.

So long as you carry yourself as someone who believes in what you are doing and who thinks street photography is a valuable and worthwhile undertaking, you can convey a sense of trust to many people quite quickly without saying a word.

Doc Let Beach, Vietnam, 2007. Photograph by Amy Touchette. I don't speak Vietnamese, so while I was photographing in this country, I had to resort to other means of communication. Fortunately, Vietnamese people are incredibly friendly, happy people on the whole, this teenager included. While walking in the town of Doc Let Beach, I noticed this pool hall and saw that it was open to the public. I walked over with my Leica around my neck and made eye contact with this young man, so he, too, knew what I was after without me having to say so. We didn't exchange any words, but we definitely had an exchange of another sort—perhaps a more heartfelt one since we didn't have a language in common. I watched the pool game for ten minutes or so and then kept walking. 

Create Causes That Produce the Effects You Desire

When you’re out on the street, you have to be what it is you're looking for in order to produce what you are after. You can’t expect to attract what you want from the world without first putting out a signal for it to come hither. And you do that by becoming or embodying that which you seek—even if you have to force it within yourself or manifest it from thin air until it comes more naturally. 

In other words, if you want to be trusted, you have to be trusting of others as well. If you want others to be genuine with you, you have to be genuine with others. If you want your subjects to be engaged, you have to be engaging. If you want people to look you in the eye, you have to look people in the eye too. Deliberately creating causes doesn’t mean you will always get the effects you desire, but you will definitely produce what you want much more often, and you plant the seed for it to happen more frequently in your future.

I love this approach, not just because it works, but because it proves that everything we want, but don’t yet have, lies within us. It’s very empowering. And it happens to be a great way to achieve goals or break unwanted habits in our non-photographic life as well.

Conclusion

On the street, you are your own sole ambassador. Strangers make split-second judgments about your trustworthiness based on your physical appearance, in tandem with your presence and behavior. What you portray to them on the exterior is often directly connected to how you think and feel internally. Assessing the signals you convey, and thoughtfully making decisions about whether or how to modify those signals, is indispensable in succeeding and enjoying the very personal endeavor that is street photography.


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