When I first started taking candid photographs in the street, I tried to be as invisible as possible. I believed that if I could catch people unawares, I might be able to capture something true about their lives.
I was influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his attempt to capture the essence of a situation in one image. Agnes Sire has quoted him about his practice: “ ‘one must approach the subject with the stealth of a wolf and velvet gloves; no hurrying.’ He would say that ‘a fisherman would never throw a stone where he wants to catch a fish in the river. You have to do the exact same thing with photography.’ ”
I tried finding that “Decisive Moment” but found that the more I worked anonymously on the street, the more empty it seemed.
I was always on the outside acting more as a voyeur than as an engaged party. I was trying to be, again in Cartier-Bresson’s word: “a photo thief.”
This began to change when I took a photo workshop in Mexico with the renowned street photographer Harvey Stein. I watched the way Harvey would approach a stranger, initiate a conversation either by words or gestures, and only then attempt a photo.
This methodology seemed at first to be very intrusive. It interrupted the normal flow of life and drew attention toward the photographer.
As I am not gregarious by nature, it was very difficult for me to approach somebody on the street to try out Harvey’s process.
We were in the small town of Taxco waiting for the evening’s Semana Santa processions when I gave it a try. People were lined up around the town’s zócalo resting on the only public benches to be found. I finally got my nerve up to approach a rather fierce looking older man in a straw cowboy hat and asked if I could take his picture. To my surprise, he not only agreed to be a subject but seemed to enjoy the attention.
The images I captured surprised me. Not only was the camera focused intently and closely on this gentleman’s face but he was looking intently back at me. Reviewing my exposures, it occurred to me that one of the secrets of finding the dignity of this man’s life was to be open enough for him to see into mine.
I should not have been surprised. This sort of environmental portrait is really a type of non verbal conversation between strangers looking earnestly at one another. This is a very different meeting than talking to an unknown somebody at cocktail party and having a conversation that will soon be forgotten. This was really being seen. While there may be apprehension shown in the subject’s eyes, what typically comes through is curiosity about the other rather than fear of the unknown. It also makes, I believe, a truer and more humane portrait.
It has gotten much easier for me to approach a total stranger and ask to take his picture. I’m very seldom told no. I work with small, hand held cameras usually with a 35 or 24 mm lens with available light. This seems to be less threatening than approaching someone with a flash and an enormous zoom lens. I speak quietly and proceed only after getting an okay from the subject, when that is possible. I have been chased away a few times and yelled at a few more but my skin has gotten thicker and my portfolio of environmental portraits much larger.