Street Portraits: Giving and Taking
When you have a chance, it’d be great to hear how, early in your career, you became more efficent and comfortable approaching strangers and photographing them. How’d you build up the courage? What are some “never do this…” hints? Do you think there’s a difference approach for women than men, both as the photographer and the subject?
I keep reading that people find it hard to approach and photograph strangers, perhaps that difficulty and fear has faded with time for me. It’s still there to some degree, but it’s become less debilitating and more part of the thrill and excitement.
I might have an advantage, having spent 12 years as a comedian I’ve learned to take a breath, put on my armour and step out. In some ways it’s an act – I’m not a confident, extroverted photographer, I just play one on TV. That’s not to say I’m faking it or being insincere, I’m just being confident in the face of my fears. In short, just take a breath and do it.
Having said that there are ways to ensure you have more success than failure, and over time that cumulative success will give you the confidence you need. I’ve written about these issues before – particularily cultural issues, so I’ll keep this one short and refer you to other articles at the end of this post.
Giving, Not (Just) Taking
Many good people with a conscience find taking pictures of strangers very difficult. In part this may be due to the feeling that they’re taking and not giving back. So make each exchange, where possible, an act of giving FIRST. If your photography feels predatory, it probably is. But you can intentionally imbalance the scales in favour of an experience that is one of giving.
Give them your time.
Give them your name, and ask for theirs.
Give them your respect and kindness.
Give them your smile.
Give them the chance to say no.
Give them the chance to see their image.
You need to know right up front that I am an idealist, and I’m OK with that. I don’t do this stuff because it works, but because it’s right. But it also “works”. From a strictly pragmatic approach it gives you a chance to create portraits of people that are more intimate and vulnerable than if you were sneaking around corners with your big lens.
Of course there are times when you’ll want a candid photograph – but you’re usually not right in their face in those scenarios. Still, don’t hide, don’t lurk. Just shoot the images you want, but then approach your subject, show them the images, introduce yourself, and ask if you could take some portraits. Give them your business card, spend some time, shake some hands, then move along.
Making your photography an act of giving, a relational exchange, will make you and your subjects more comfortable and will result in better images.