Shifting the “Stranger Danger” Paradigm
Today, I thought I’d talk to you about one of the biggest challenges street photographers tell us they face when they head out to shoot the street: The fear of approaching strangers. We’ve all felt it. For some of us, it’s a mild nervousness before walking up to someone, while for others it’s an extreme, hands-shaking, heart-beating-out-of-your-chest anxiety. And why shouldn’t we? Even as children, most of our parents engrained the notion in us that strangers mean danger. While that may be good advice for children, it would seem the “scary factor” sticks with us long into adulthood.
In any case, when we feel nervous, our subjects will inevitably read that in our demeanor. As a result, they’ll feel nervous too and be less likely to allow us to take their photo. So, what’s a street photographer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years from both personal experience and from talking to other photographers for Street Photography Magazine:
5 Tips for Overcoming Fear in Street Photography
#1 Assume the best of others
Overcoming your nerves is easier said than done, but it can start by changing the way you think about people you meet on the street. In an interview we did with Amy Touchette for this month’s issue of the magazine (keep an eye out for it this Sunday 🤩 and check out our podcast episode with her), she made a good point. We often go straight down the negative thinking road right away when we consider approaching a stranger – and usually for no good reason. Be honest. How many street photographers do you personally know who have been assaulted or yelled at simply for asking a stranger for their photo? For most people, the answer is a big fat goose egg. Even if you’ve had a bad experience, collaborative portraits can be a good way to overcome any residual fear. Why? Most people say yes.
The truth of the matter is this: Asking someone for their portrait is a complement and most people are flattered and happy to oblige. So, stop assuming the worst. Go in with the assumption that your potential subject will be happy to be photographed, and you may just notice a big difference in people’s reactions to you.
#2 Earn trust by being trusting and trustworthy.
This is another big one I learned by listening to Amy talk about street photography. She spoke about how a subject that allows you to take their portrait shows a tremendous amount of trust in you as a photographer. They control how they present themselves in the photo obviously, but they have no control over what you’ll do with the photo. It’s a huge demonstration of trust in the photographer. Amy says the key to earning that kind of trust is to be trustworthy – always honest in your intentions – and trusting, which means being open to telling your subject something about yourself. Definitely some good food for thought.
#3 Be prepared to accept rejection
When doing collaborative portraits, someone may occasionally decline your request to photograph them. Know that this can happen. Be ready to say, “Ok, thanks anyway,” and let the amazing portrait you imagined go. It’s not the end of the world and there are plenty more fish in the sea, as the sayings go. Plus, if you respect others, you’ll diffuse potential confrontations and you’ll feel good about what you do as a street photographer. Both points will make others feel at ease in your company.
#4 Don’t wing it
This advice comes from an excellent article Bob wrote titled, “Street Portraiture for the Faint of Heart.” Before you head out to the streets to shoot, know your purpose, and prepare a short line to tell people who you are and what you are doing. Something as simple as “Hi, I’m Bob, a local photographer doing a project about XYZ and I couldn’t help but notice your hat (or smile, or tattoos, or whatever). Is it ok if I make a couple photos of you?” will often be highly effective. Just make sure you speak from your heart and tell the truth. Simply being friendly, looking people in the eyes, and smiling will go a long way.
#5 Look for ways to practice
In my experience, interacting with strangers in general is a great way to overcome your fear of talking to someone new. Whenever I’m in line at a grocery store or my local coffee shop, I try to start up a conversation with someone. Usually, I offer a complement like this: “I love your shoes, where did you get them?” but even a comment on the weather or the long line can work. I don’t pressure people to talk though. It’s like tossing a ball. Some people pick it up and toss it back, others let it lie. If the person is interested in conversing, you’ll know. I find this is an excellent way to get to know your community, meet new people, and get rid of the idea that most people are scary and confrontational. Once you get used to talking to people in random public settings like this, it won’t be as scary to approach them while doing street photography.
Workshops and classes are another good way to force yourself into practicing. Choose a class that focuses on street portraiture if you want to overcome your fear of people. This was my experience when I took an online class with Harvey Stein during the pandemic. Here’s a few photos and some notes on my experience I made while completing an assignment for the class:
Mrs. Dora Brasher was nervous. As was I, only I was nervous for two reasons. The reason we shared was an irate, shirtless man on the phone yelling expletives not too far away in the park where we were walking. My second reason was that of the two “persons of interest” I had picked in the park for potential portraits, they both decided to come from their east and west points and converge on me (waiting right in the middle) at the same exact time – two women and a dog, one man and his bike, myself and my camera all crowded onto a tiny footbridge. However, as we all said our greetings, it was Miss Dora that started a conversation with me and so she was chosen. We had exchanged glances because of the crazy man, and she told me her brother was in the hospital right now because he works at a store and told a man he wouldn’t accept his (clearly fake) third-party check. The man was enraged and beat him up. “You have to be careful,” she said as she looked from me to the young girl with her to the dog. Maybe it wasn’t the best time, but I asked rather abruptly, “Would you ladies mind helping me with a photography project I’m working on?” Perhaps she was still worried about the crazy guy, so she wanted to look me up on social media first. After sharing a few personal details, I won her over and our photoshoot began.
It was nice to share a few moments with a stranger and as always, it’s surprising how much personal information people share if you are a good listener and not shy about asking questions. I learned they were grandmother and granddaughter and to my surprise the granddaughter, Kaylie, was only 12. They were accompanied by “Nana’s” rescue dog Sam – a big, friendly German Shepherd. I was touched that they spent this one-on-one time together, especially since Miss Dora has 11 grandkids.
Did I capture Dora and Kaylie’s bond in our brief time together? It’s hard to say. Probably only a tiny, manufactured hint of it. But the good thing about chatting with folks is that even if the pictures aren’t phenomenal, you’ll remember a friend you had for a few minutes at the park every time you look at them.
One thing I noticed is how important observation and good listening skills are – sometimes people reveal intimate details in small talk with a stranger and if I can pick up on those I might be able to make a more honest portrait. My technical skills could most certainly use some work, but I think that will come with practice, and experiences like these tell me that the ability to make a connection with someone is probably the most important bit.
Of course, collaborative portraits aren’t for everyone and if it’s not your style, I’d highly recommend you read this article by Dina Litovsky called “An Introvert’s Guide to Street Photography – Photographing Strangers, Part 1.” Dina offers some alternative strategies that might work well for you.
To sum it up, assume the best about people (kick your worst case scenarios to the curb), be respectful and trustworthy, prepare ahead of time, and practice! It won’t happen overnight, but if you put these five tips into practice, the fear you feel on the street is sure to start fading.
What are your best tips for overcoming anxiety when practicing street photography? Hit reply to let me know. I always enjoy hearing from y’all.