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Strangers on the Street: How to Make It Go Right—and What to Do When It Doesn’t

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
First Contact: How to Gain Strangers’ Trust on the Street
How to Photograph With Awareness and Sensitivity on the Street

Part of what makes street photography challenging (as well as extremely exciting) is that its most common subject is people, and they're highly unpredictable. Not only are street photographers completely in the dark about when a compelling scene might arise, they also have no idea how people who happen to be in that scene will feel about being photographed. 

Figuring out how to handle an unruly subject like that is of preeminent concern to street photographers. And it’s the foundation upon which all peopled street photography is built, because the way we decide to handle strangers affects so much: our choice in cameras, locations, presence and behavior in the moment, not to mention the type of photograph we aspire to make.

All street photography that includes people as a subject has the potential to require engagement with strangers, the extent of which depends on the photographers’ process. In this tutorial, I will examine the various degrees of engagement street photography entails and discuss ways of making those interactions go well, as well as steps to take when they don’t.

Types of Engagement in Street Photography

Candid: Little to No Engagement

Many street photographers employ an extremely candid, hands-off process. They make pictures without the subject’s consent or knowledge, usually using a small, quiet, unobtrusive camera.

Although this type of street photographer might love people, they do whatever it takes to get in the mix of a setting without being noticed: they might take pictures from the hip in order to catch their subjects unaware; behave in a way that suggests they aren’t photographing when they actually are; have a camera hidden on their body (as Walker Evans famously did to make his subway portraits); photograph so quickly that by the time the subject realizes what happened, the photographer is already halfway down the block; or employ some other clandestine methodology to make a candid photograph.

Alternatively, the candid street photographer’s presence might appear and feel so harmless to some people that their subjects continue going about their business despite sensing they are being photographed. (For more information on this effect, see “First Contact: How to Gain Strangers’ Trust on the Street".) The legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson sometimes made this kind of street photography, as did/do Helen Levitt, Roy DeCarava, and Jeff Mermelstein.

Forthcoming: Full Engagement

On the flip side, there’s street photography that rides completely on getting the subject’s prior consent. Before a picture is made, the street photographer has spoken with the subject and perhaps has even gotten a model release. Instead of waiting for the stars to align, this type of street photographer creates his or her own take on what compels them on the street by singling out certain subjects and directing the photograph to the extent that is possible.

For these street photographers, interacting with people is necessary and therefore for most it's also enjoyable. They appreciate the challenge of gaining strangers’ trust and talking with them in order to make a picture, and they might even depend on the interaction for fulfillment or connection. Diane Arbus made a lot of street photography like this, as did August Sander, Bruce Davidson in his series Subway, and Greg Miller, who would recreate street scenes with the help of the strangers in them in his series Primo Amore.

Candid and Forthcoming: Little to Full Engagement

And then there’s the street photographer who utilizes a combination of these two extremes to make photographs. They might photograph someone without prior consent, but at a time when their subject looks into the lens, confronting the subject and, as a result, possibly provoking an interaction between photographer and subject. William Klein and Garry Winogrand sometimes employed this strategy, resulting in pictures with intense eye contact and a palpable engagement with their subjects.

Or, they might obtain their subjects’ permission beforehand, but wait for a candid moment to transpire before tripping the shutter. This method is also commonly used by documentary photographers and photojournalists, such as Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, and filmmakers Albert and David Maysles.

No matter the methodology, all street photographers who have people in their pictures must be prepared to engage with these subjects, whether they intend to or not, because their subjects can demand it. And I assume that’s what makes street photography daunting to some. 

You have to be okay with confrontation and comfortable speaking with a stranger on the fly—oftentimes to explain and/or defend your reason for photographing them. Although it might be intimidating or difficult, cultivating this ability is extremely rewarding, both photographically and personally.

Cafe Riviera Greenpoint Brooklyn 2014 Photograph by Amy Touchette
Café Riviera, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 2014. Photograph by Amy Touchette. 

For the past few years, I've been making candid street photographs with my iPhone (no engagement) and formal street portraits with my Rolleiflex (full engagement). Because I like eye contact in my candid images and ask for it from my subjects when I make formal portraits, the two sets of pictures often look a lot alike, as is the case with this photo. I made it with my iPhone while in line to buy coffee in the cafe. I held my phone at my waist and she looked right at it. It was over in less than five seconds, no words exchanged.

Engaging With Strangers When They Initiate the Interaction    

So what are some ways street photographers can make this interaction go well, whether their subject forces it or the photographer instigates it? In this article, I’ll focus on arguably the more challenging interactions: those that strangers initiate.

The scenarios in which street photographers find themselves are all so distinct, it’s a little unwieldy to discuss. But most of these interactions start with a stranger asking, “Did you just take my picture?” at which point you have two choices: to speak truthfully or to lie. 

Although I’ll admit I’ve lied to strangers, it never feels good, and in fact it can really wear on my self-esteem. I see it as a serious weakness on my part if I can’t tackle the situation with strangers head on, given I chose to become a street photographer to connect more closely with people. What kind of person has that ambition and yet can’t muster the guts to relay something so benign and actually quite lovely?

We can’t always be strong, but if at all possible and you feel it is safe, speak truthfully with your subjects when they ask what you are doing. Following are some ways I try to deflate strangers’ concerns in this situation:

1. Begin With Honest Flattery

I usually respond to the question “Did you just take my picture?” by saying yes, smiling warmly, and explaining in just a few words why I was interested in photographing them: they look beautiful, the light is nice, their dog is adorable, etc.—whatever the truth may be. Oftentimes this will be enough to satisfy strangers and close the discussion, and I can keep walking.

Sometimes when people ask this question they are just curious; it doesn’t always signal that they are upset about your photographing them, so don’t make the mistake of immediately becoming defensive.

2. Explain You Are a Photographer

If the conversation continues, letting strangers know what you do can put them at ease. I often tell people I’m a photographer who makes portraits on the street. I avoid using the term “street photographer” because a lot of people don’t know what that means, and for some it provokes distrust. Describing what you do more explicitly, using your own words, can be more effective.

Many people are flattered to have their picture taken by a photographer, so giving them this information can put your interaction on the upswing. For others who are suspicious of photographers, their distrust of you can deepen.

3. Spell Out Your Motivations

If the latter is the case, I let them know that I photograph people as a way of connecting with them, not to make them look bad or catch them in an unfair moment. Because I actually don’t photograph people to poke fun of them or when they appear down and out, this response is proven by my actions, and the situation usually cools.

I understand why strangers are skeptical of photographers’ motivations. A fair amount of photography these days makes fun of people. I don’t subscribe to that, but I know that our culture has moved in that direction—to point at and laugh at people undergoing a difficult time or having some “ridiculous” (not to be confused with “eccentric”) aspect to them.

For these street photographers, I imagine placating strangers who confront them can be tough, and rightfully so. But the fact that this kind of “mean” photography exists is one reason why strangers are so distrustful of photographers, so it’s best to address it by letting them know you are not in that camp. And if you are in that camp, you’re on your own.

4. Clarify Your Reasons for Making Candid Photography

Oftentimes when people are upset about being photographed, it’s because they feel it infringes on their right to privacy, or at the very least they think it’s impolite or rude. If the conversation continues down this path, I explain that sometimes I do ask people’s permission beforehand, but other times I don’t want to disturb the person or the moment. By putting your reasoning in terms of them—as opposed to explaining your agenda—it makes them feel that you have considered their position, that you aren’t just out to achieve your own goals. People want to feel their point of view has been taken into account, and if you can impart that, it will often allay their feelings of being steamrolled or used.

5. Respond to Discussions About Legal Rights

Some people feel that photographing strangers on the street without asking their permission is unlawful. It isn’t. When people bring this up with me, I gently tell them it’s within my legal rights to photograph anyone who is in a public space. But I follow that up by explaining that if someone says that they don’t want to be photographed, then out of my own moral obligation, I don’t photograph them—which is true. This tells people that despite the fact that I’m the one with the camera making the decisions, they are still in control; their wishes are still being respected.

Hart Street Bed-Stuy Brooklyn 2015 Photograph by Amy Touchette
Hart Street, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2015. Photograph by Amy Touchette. 

I made this photo with my iPhone on my way to run an errand in my neighborhood. A block party was taking place, and I sensed many great photo opportunities. I walked somewhat slowly down the block, photographing intermittently, smiling at people, and looking them in the eye. Some of them smiled back, others looked with distrust at me, but I didn't stop walking and I didn't engage with anyone. After reaching the end of the block, I put my camera phone back in my pocket and continued on my way to my errand. 

Not long after, a woman called out from behind me. She introduced herself and wanted to know if I had been photographing. I said I had. At that point, two more women joined her to support her query of me. There were three of them and one of me, and I wasn't sure what to expect from the conversation. I was nervous. I explained why I found the scene so compelling and they asked for my card. They were suspicious of me because I hadn't asked permission to photograph, so I had to explain why I chose to do so and they seemed to understand. 

This took place about three weeks after nine African Americans were murdered in a church by a racist in Charleston, South Carolina. "You have to understand," one of them said to me, "we just lost nine of our own." Well aware of the shooting and emotionally affected by it, I was caught off-guard that my photographing and the massacre could be discussed in the same breath. My hand was trembling and one of the women noticed. She placed her hand over mine and said, "It's okay." 

The conversation that ensued wasn't perfect, even though it ended well (we all hugged goodbye); while scrambling to address the situation, I said some things that I regretted, and I walked away feeling defeated as a result. I got the photograph, and I'm happy I was able to make a depiction of a celebratory moment among neighbors, but as far as engaging with strangers goes, I would give myself a "C".  Needless to say, I learned a lot.

6. Bring Business Cards and Postcards With Examples of Your Photography

At some point in your discussion, people might ask if you have a business card or you might feel that giving them one will help ease their concerns about being photographed. A simple business card with your name, email address, and website will suffice; giving them your phone number or address is not necessary or wise at this point, mostly for safety reasons.

I also carry postcards with my pictures on them when I photograph on the street. I have several postcards, each showing a different series of street photography. If I’m photographing a teenager, I show them one from my series that portrays adolescents; if I’m photographing an adult, I show them a postcard from a series that portrays people who are more like them. Showing people your work fills in a lot of blanks in strangers’ minds and can deflate erroneous judgments they might make about you or your intentions.

7. Keep Your Emotions in Check

At any point in your discussion with a subject, emotions could be running high. They might verbally lash out at you in a way that offends you or ruffles your feathers. Cultivate emotional intelligence by understanding you have no idea who this person is, what they’ve been through in their lives, and their current state of mind. While most people are not nasty, we have all treated strangers in ways we regret later because we were feeling emotional for whatever reason. If they go down this path, apologize for upsetting them. Let them know you did not mean to offend them. Do not respond by further articulating why photography is not a crime.

In addition, if they provoke fear in you or you become intimidated, try not to show it. Sometimes when people sense they are controlling your emotions, it makes them feel more powerful; to them it might prove they are in the right and you know it. Do not fuel this fire by betraying these kinds of emotions, should they arise in you. If possible, stay calm and unflustered. Remember the situation is temporary and will soon be over.

8. Be Sensitive to People’s Signals

If we remove ourselves from our own interior and really look at/listen to another human being, what they seek or need can be as clear as day. With a little sensitivity on our part, people are beautifully transparent. When you’re engaging with people on the street and you need to change the trajectory, remove yourself from your ego and agenda and silently analyze the person and your interaction. What do they need that they feel they aren’t getting?

For example, sometimes people who feel their point of view isn’t being heard can feel better if you simply begin your response by restating their words; doing so often makes them feel understood and respected, and until those bases are covered, there’s no possible way to move the interaction into a more positive place. Whether you get the shot or not, be a fellow human being and tell people what they want or need to hear in order to feel pacified.

9. Know When to Give Up

If at any point things start to get really tough, your tactics don’t work, or you feel it’s best to disengage for whatever reason, do so. Trust your intuition or your previous experience with strangers and let the situation go. If the person will only feel satisfied if you delete your photo, and that’s an option for you, go ahead and delete it. If you work in film, look them in the eye and promise you’ll destroy the negative.

Reaching this point can hurt, emotionally and psychologically—at least it can for me. It’s painful to think that my actions can upset someone to this extent. And if others are there to witness it, it can also be embarrassing. But I know that street photography helps to connect us much more often than it provokes discontent and distrust, so in cases like this I try to focus on the larger picture. As for being embarrassed, I combat that by literally putting one foot in front of the other, and usually within ten steps the people who may have witnessed my failed interaction are long gone, never to be seen again.

10. Get Back on the Horse

When you experience something on the street that is particularly painful, walk it out until your emotions have leveled. Enjoy the scenery, get a coffee, take some deep breaths. But then continue photographing. The best way to put a less than successful interaction behind you is to bury the memory with ones that reveal how heartening humanity can be. It's not something to take personally, even though it might feel awfully personal. Besides, nothing truly great comes about without hard work, so just chalk up any unsavory experiences you have to dues that must be paid.

Conclusion

If you’ve decided to photograph people on the street, covertly or otherwise, you have to be prepared to engage with them. Embrace the mysterious unknown of the street, but plan in advance how you want to express what you do to people who don’t know you. 

Common sense and experience will help guide you in making the right decisions as you interact with your subjects. But since all situations are unique, most of all, truly looking at people—watching their behavior and expressions and intuiting their needs—will allow you to have the sensitivity you need to react in the best way possible, no matter who you find yourself engaged with.

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