Before I knew who Bruce Gilden was, I was introduced to street photography by someone who positively embodied his in-your-face approach to photographing strangers.
On our photo walk, for instance, this guy had zero qualms about getting within arm’s length of his subjects and snapping. He would brazenly approach people, make idle smalltalk, pose them, and ultimately get some shots that I thought impossible a few moments before. It was as if some desperate historian in the future sent back in time a street photography Terminator. And I thought to myself, if this is what I have to do to be a street photographer then I’m going to be pretty lousy at it!
Then I started taking pictures of strangers on my own. The allure of street photography was more than enough to get me out there in the streets of Mumbai and to begin photographing strangers. What I quickly confirmed for myself was that yeah, I’m no street photography Terminator. To the contrary, in certain situations I was either hesitant or refused to shoot strangers at all. I realized then that I needed help to confront my fear in order to get the shots that I wanted. The very idea that I was afraid or at least suffered some anxiety felt like an incredible Achilles’ heel to be walking on as a street photographer.
I consulted Google and watched many of our well-known street photographers to hear what they had to say on the subject. By-and-large, the advice I received was obvious and unhelpful. “Be confident” was the number one phrase I heard over and over again. “You’re doing nothing wrong” was another popular inspirational assurance, one which seemed to be a stepping stone to the be-confident school of thought. And don’t forget “to smile.” Check, check and check. I’m now also qualified to be a flight attendant who has to wake up a sleeping passenger to tell him to bring his seat forward and buckle-up for landing!
Fine. All right, buddy. But you still haven’t told me anything that I didn’t already know. I’d also like to”be rich” but acting like it isn’t necessarily going to afford me that new Leica Whatever camera with that super Whatever Lens.
Besides not skulking like a creep in the bushes with a telephoto lens – a purported comedic anecdote that seems to get a lot of circulation because we as street photographers are supposed to model ourselves as the antithesis to the lone-wolf and possibly perverted weirdo – there was little of substance out there that I could find in regards to overcoming my fear of photographing strangers in my street photography. The aha moment came to me much later. In fact, not long before writing this piece.
Maybe I should try to help myself first before trying to help others?
Aha! Makes perfect sense in hindsight. I think the mistake that a few popular street photographers make when talking about overcoming fear is that they are catering to what they think people need to hear. However well-intended, perhaps some of our street photographer gurus are afraid to admit the fear that they initially experienced as beginners? Or maybe they are so far advanced in their personal journeys that when discussing 101 street photography subjects like this they simply fail to create a bond of empathy with their readers when offering advice which is at best good but not really instructive. Worst case, maybe talking about fear is just another blog-filler on an otherwise uneventful day.
I got to thinking about the subject seriously and as it pertains to myself after a correspondence with Bob Patterson of “Street Photography Magazine.” He’d mentioned that fear was one of the most popular subjects of discussion for his magazine’s readership. As it so happened, I was just beginning my #3StrangersAday photo project, an endeavor in which I sought to make three images of strangers everyday for the entirety of 2017. Although the inspiration for my project was to get me outside and take more pictures of people more than I already had been, I knew along the way that a few people interested in my project would ask me whether or not I was nervous or flat-out scared of taking pictures of strangers in a foreign land. My plan was to write about this subject sometime in the future to address this topic specifically. Well, no time like the present, right?
The Street Photographer Anxiety Index (SPAI)
When I begin new projects, I tend to be that little kid who doesn’t know how to swim but then promptly nose-dives into the deep end of the pool. With a lofty goal of creating a somewhat scientific rating system to measure fear of photographing strangers as a street photographer, I set to work developing the Street Photographer Anxiety Index, or SPAI. I pronounce the acronym as “spy” to pay homage to the fact that sometimes I do feel like a spy when I’m out looking for candid moments or street portraits.
The SPAI rating system is based on a scale of 1 to 10, where the top and bottom ratings represent theoretical extremes of the anxiety spectrum. Realistically speaking, most photographers starting out shooting street are likely somewhere between the ratings of 8 to 3. Basically, the higher the rating the less likely you are to photograph strangers. The lower the rating, the more comfortable you are photographing strangers.
I created SPAI and licensed it under a Creative Commons Share Alike license so that street photographers could make use of the rating system in order to constructively improve their ratings by lowering their anxiety. Because you can’t do that unless you have a way of empirically measuring anxiety, in my opinion. At least, I think you can improve much quicker if you know your specific starting point and then know exactly where you want to be, which for me in the SPAI system is a rating of 2, that of the consummate pro.
For example, looking back I probably started out in street photography somewhere close to a SPAI rating of 6. I’m currently sitting at a 3 and working hard to moving that number down to the “pro” 2 slot. In hindsight, I could have likely improved my rating a lot faster had I charted my progress.
I’ve included a few key benchmark traits in each rating category to help me understand where I am and what situations I need to master in order to advance. I hope that street photographers find these details and SPAI helpful. If not, the Creative Commons license allows street photographers to modify and adapt the system to their own specifications. I realize that what works for me may not work for everyone.
There’s a scene in Spy Game where Robert Redford’s character explains to Brad Pitt’s Tom Bishop, that in order to advance in the game, that Bishop must go up to a specific apartment room in the building, knock on the door and befriend the resident, and then convince that person to come out to the balcony and have tea – all told in five minutes flat! – so that Redford’s character outside below could confirm that Bishop had completed the task.
I think of street photography and photographing strangers along these lines. Likein Spy Game, there’s only a small window of time to capture a moment or it could be lost forever. So while photographing strangers may never be easy on any given day, those of us who master our fear and get the shots because shooting strangers is a reflexive instinct instead of an uncontrollable anxiety, the celebratory cup of tea at the end of the day when we’re processing those shots in Photoshop or Lightroom is just the proverbial icing on the cake.
You can read more about the Street Photographer Anxiety Index on my blog.