Street Photography in Strange Territory
How to prepare for a day out with a camera in hand
Jeff Wall had the best ideas. He used to stage photographs that looked like they were street photographs. But in reality, they weren’t. The “street” photographs he took way back in the early 80s were reconstructions of what Wall envisioned street shots should be like.
Most days I look at his photos and I want to take those photos. But, I’m not Wall. My level of creativity hits a wall (no pun intended) after some time.
But, that doesn’t stop me from taking the camera out on weekends and trying out a few shots here and there whenever I can. And while they’re not staged photographs to capture my vision perfectly, I have found that there’s fun to be had in the spontaneity and unpredictability of real street photography.
For decades, photographers have tried to define street photography. According to some, as long as you’re out and about and not just photographing your friends and family, you’re doing street photography. While others are stricter about the terminology. Just taking photos isn’t enough, they have to be unmediated. Even if you were to go out and ask a complete stranger about taking their photo, it wouldn’t be a “street” photo.
For me, I don’t particularly care about mediation. At the end of the day, it’s really just about getting some good photos.
In Denver, however, mediated or unmediated, street photography can be tricky. People here are not as used to being photographed as, say, people in New York City. They’re also not used to diversity so much. The Denverites like to tout their liberalism, but in reality, I find myself surrounded by people who look at me, a Brown woman, and then freeze up, unsure of what to do or say.
I do not suppose they do so out of malicious intentions or even bigotry. I think it’s simply the awkwardness one feels around something or someone strange.
But that’s OK. It’s one of the reasons why I go out of my comfort zone sometimes and put myself out there. If I can get rid of even some of the strangeness out of these interactions, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
Street photography, however awkward it may be at times, helps me do just that.
Some days I get a “please, no”, and I walk away.
Other days — rare, but there are those days — these people who spot me taking their photos, either ignore me and on some even rarer occasions, pose for me! The featured photograph you see above is one such photo.
I didn’t sneak up in this group. When I saw this band of teenagers eating ice cream in a somewhat trendy neighborhood of Denver, I walked up to them and asked if it was OK to take a photo. It took a lot of courage because teenagers scare me. But this group of boys and a girl turned out to be super cool. They responded to me by striking poses!
And the result remains one of my favorites.
Not because it’s an exceptionally good photograph, but because these teenagers made me happy that day with their openness to me, and their instant acceptance.
Street photography requires patience
There’s usually a reward for being patient.
Whether you’re exercising patience in college, or in a relationship, or at work. Much of our success comes from patiently waiting.
Street photography is no different. Much of this has to do with patiently searching for the right backdrop and the right subjects.
Sometimes, all you can do is find a spot and wait. Wait for something special to happen, ready with your camera to capture it at a moment’s notice.
Back when I lived in New York City, I walked around, waiting for the right people in the right place.
In Denver, the city is hardly as colorful, and not nearly as big. There’s only so much walking around that you can do. So, the process of waiting is much more painstaking than I’m used to. There are times when I go near a stop sign and wait for people to cross. I’ve got some pretty cool photos this way.
Asking for permission is hard, but it can also be very rewarding
Asking for permission to take a photo is exasperating. Sometimes I know that in order to get the angle I want, I will need to be right in front of them. Which is usually how I like my photographs. But that also means that unless I say something first, I’ll end up looking hella creepy!
So I ask.
And it isn’t easy.
I’m an introvert and walking up to strangers isn’t my thing. But hey, sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do, yeah?
And sometimes I get the most intimate and cute photos by simply asking.
Be confident when asking.
Confidence is key. And never be apologetic. Because people can tell!
The moment you show weakness, people will start doubting your motive and your skills. Also, a lack of confidence rubs off on people in different ways. Sometimes your lack of confidence makes your subject lose confidence too. Other times, it empowers them. That can be bad too depending on who your subject is.
You want to maintain a balance. Street photos are tricky because your subject didn’t hire you to take their photos. They’ve never even met you! You’re a complete stranger. Depending on your behavior, they will have to instantly decide whether you’re trying to scam them or if you’re being genuine.
So, be confident when asking, but not overconfident. Try to keep things casual.
Also, and I understand this may differ from one photographer to another, kissing ass never helps! For example, if I went up to a couple and tried to say — hey, you guys are so cute! I was wondering if I could take a photo of you! — chances are, I’d freak them out rather than convincing them. But it may be so because I’m just bad at ass-kissing.
It’s much simpler for me to walk up to the people I want to photograph and say something simple, like, Can I take your photos?
Often that is enough. They’ll either say yes or no. Sometimes they ask for more information, like, why do I want to take photos. It’s at that time when some ass-kissing may be necessary, but even so, I try to keep things simple and as honest as possible.
Because let’s be honest. Sometimes you approach people not because they look cute, but because they just look… interesting. So that’s what I say.
I prepare for a [street] photoshoot
Well, any photoshoot really. Some seasoned photographers say that you should blend in with the crowd when it comes to street photography. The purpose is, of course, successfully capturing unmediated photos.
But if you’re like me and you like the photos better when your subject knows that you’re actually taking their photos, things are different.
I dress well.
That’s like my armor. When I look good, I feel confident to walk up to a random stranger and be like, hey there! Can I take a photo of you? Typically I go with what you’d call street fashion. I wear comfortable shoes so I can walk around or stand for a long time. Typically I wear all black. And the cool thing about going all black is that you can wear them up or down or just right. There’s not a whole lot of ways you can screw up an all-black attire.
The camera is important.
Back when I was in New York City, I did a street project with a Polaroid camera. In my experience, people are more likely to say “yes” when asked, if you stand out a little bit. Anyone can sport a DSLR these days, there’s no character to speak of when you’re hanging with a bulky Canon 5D. Most of the photos you see here were taken with a DSLR to keep the cost down. Film is expensive after all.
But whenever I can, I try to take out a polaroid or a 35mm film camera. Not only do I love the photos more, but I also get more of a reaction from my subjects.
I have to confess, I much prefer the mediated over the unmediated. I guess there’s just a little bit of Jeff Wall in me too! Die-hard street photographers may deny my “street” photography as such, but who cares!
As long as I get the shots I want, it doesn’t matter how people label my work.
(All photographs are copyright of the author. Please do not download, share, or reproduce.)