Street Photography can be a confrontational art. Not the finished product, but the creation itself. The act of snapping that candid moment can be an offensive action to the subject. When you think about it, there’s times where you wouldn’t want to be photographed! You’re not looking or feeling your best, lost in your own world, walking or just standing around. Then, you catch someone taking a candid snap of you. Depending on your mood, your disposition, you may react. Your reaction might be a simple “hey” or “what are you doing?” Another person might be more aggressive. It can become quite the sticky situation.
Doing what we do, this is bound to happen. Fortunately, this has only happened to me a few times. So what’s the best way to get out of an awkward moment when out on the street? I can only answer that question based on my personal experience, so first I have to explain my style when working on the street.
When I’m out snapping, I try to be as “respectful” towards the people I capture as much as I possibly can. I use “respectful” for lack of a better term. Candid Street Photography, as a whole, is not a two-way street. We are not asking for the subject’s permission. We are capturing them, most of the time, unawares. And sometimes, these captures are most unflattering. We can also pick the “easy” targets: the downtrodden, the homeless, etc. I shy away from these things. I don’t like to focus on those less fortunate or those in a bad situation. It’s not my bag. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, I know. I just choose to try and celebrate the mundane and put myself in the path of a happy accident that might happen. *I agonized over a shot I took a few months ago of a young man being arrested by two officers. I had a shot of the suspect, with his face visible and a pretty crazy expression on his face. I chose not to publish that. Instead I posted a shot with his back to me, but with one of the officers giving me a very, very hard look! The other shot was great, but I didn’t publish it because who knows if he was “guilty”.*
So, my style is non-confrontational, except when shooting street portraits. In those cases, I ask for permission. Otherwise, I don’t get in people’s faces. I try to be stealthy, for that’s when you truly capture the fantastic candid moments. Operating this way usually keeps you out of any awkward situations. The best ally you have is SPEED! Being quick, being prepared helps you to avoid the bulk of potentially sticky spots! However, even the most stealthy street shooter can get BUSTED! The subject spots you, makes eye contact and questions you! Or worse yet… acts!
What to do?
The best defense I’ve found is the SMILE. When you get an evil eye from a subject, the best response is to smile back at them. I believe this diffuses most situations! Even the coolest and hardest of us can smile! I can’t even remember how many dirty looks I’ve gotten, and as best as I can remember, I’ve always flashed a smile in response. In turn, their response has either been a smile back or nothing at all. Either way, the awkward moment is gone. The potential fire is extinguished. I believe the smile, as natural as possible, does this: it presents you as someone harmless and not malicious. It puts the subject at ease and they move on.
Stretch of the truth
Another ally is the white lie. Or, you could say it’s a stretching of the truth. When I take a snap and the subject confronts me verbally, that’s when this tactic had worked for me. “Hey, what are you doing?” “Why are you talking my picture?” “What’s your deal?” These are all questions that have been thrown at me when I’ve been busted by the subject. My first response is either “I’m working on a photography project.” This response is not really a lie, now is it? It is photography, right? And it’s a project! If I’m pressed further, that’s when the doctoring of the truth comes into play. At that point, I add that I’m a photography student. Now that response is not the whole truth. I’m not enrolled in any classes. But hey, I consider myself a student because I’m still learning! Yes, it’s stretching it a bit, but this is where the questioning would usually stop. I haven’t once yet been pressed further after I’ve given this response. I’ve even had encouragement from the target with replies like “good luck” or “I hope it works out.”
“You got into my shot”
Another take you could use is the “you got into my shot” response. This works when you’re framing someone against a nice background. Like some great architecture or some celebratory activities. In tourist areas, this also works. But my response is never snide. It’s almost apologetic. I’ll say, “I’m sorry I was trying to shoot that building.” This response has helped me quite a few times. And, amazingly, I’ve used it as a springboard for asking permission to take a street portrait! If the person is nice and seems accepting, I’ll ask to take their portrait. I’m still not very comfortable with asking for portraits, so this is a great risk/reward opportunity. I’ve already broken the ice, so if it feels right, I’ll ask. Low risk, high reward.
The most extreme thing that’s happened to me while I’ve been shooting was the one instance where a subject chased after me. I was shooting a “carny” working a stand at a fair. He was working a ball toss game, looking cool holding three baseballs in one hand. I took a quick snap and he flipped out! “Don’t you take my picture” he yelled and began chasing me. I smiled at him and said, “hey man, it’s ok!” He kept coming towards me. Thankfully there was a large crowd. I moved into the throng and kept maneuvering towards a larger crowd. Eventually, he gave up the chase. In this case, I just had to move quickly. It was an unexpected reaction from the carny, so I had to react just as quickly. I had to move fast. And trust me, I’m a big guy… I don’t move fast. I just reacted quickly and started moving. There was no point in confronting him or trying to diffuse the situation. He was aggravated and continued to shout at me after I replied and after I began moving away. This scene did cause me to freak out and panic a bit. I had never had this happen before! I guess you could say it was a classic fight or flight situation. I chose flight. I believe this is proof that you need to be on your toes at all times when shooting on the street. Be prepared. Be ready to react!
Go out with a friend
Also, having one or more friends with you when shooting is a great help. Sometime is less likely to confront you if you have company. This is also a plus when you’re going into any seedy areas. Obviously, it’s good to have an extra set of eyes while you’re occupied shooting.
These moments we capture are spontaneous and candid, so the reactions can be very unpredictable. Being ready is the key. Just like being prepared for the shot, we must be ready to act.