Anxiety In Street Photography Can Be A Terrible Feeling To Live With
NOTE: This is a Guest Blog post written by Dan Ginn exclusively for www.streethunters.net.
Anxiety can be a terrible feeling to live with. It can be so constant in your life that it follows you even more than your own shadow. Over thinking situations combined with creating fear within moments that haven’t even happened, can be all too damaging to a person’s all-round wellbeing. I constantly live my life battling my own anxiety, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in not so healthy ways. I find myself in a constant fight to find peace and contentment. Anxiety affects me in all walks of life; work, friendships, relationships right through to making day to day decisions. With this in mind, it is not a surprise it also creates conflict within my art, even in times when I am trying my best to use it as inspiration to do something creative.
The streets are riddled with anxiety
I love street photography, and when my photographic journey comes to an end, it is the sub-genre I want to look back on and say “this is what I excelled at the most”. I feel that sense of freedom and tranquillity, especially in the moments when I find, and then take, the shot. The problem with street photography is that aside from war photography, it is the sub-genre that poises the most risk, or at least that is what my mind tells me.
I do not like confrontation. I move quickly to play things down or make light of a situation. Confrontation requires a certain level of maturity, something my anxiety has not always enabled me to develop to a level that I am comfortable with. I especially do not like confrontation in moments when I am doing something that I love. It is meant to be a time where I lock myself away from the world and delve into the more positive aspects of my personality. Street photography is a very intimate yet also very disconnected art form. You are documenting people’s lives and moments, but are often doing so without their consent. To do this, or at least to do this well, you have to be on the verge of being in someone else’s personal space, something that can often lead to disagreements and altercations, both of which are poor ingredients for my anxiety.
To be clear, this isn’t just about the fear of being punched in the face by person who wouldn’t look out of place in a line-up of MMA fighters. Even a gentle old lady in a chair saying “why are you taking my picture?”, would put me into a frenzy of worry. The thought of making a person feel uncomfortable is difficult for me to stomach. Each time I put my camera to my eye I always feel like they spot me instantly, giving me those eyes that say “what do you want?”.
The main consequence of this is that the quality of my work suffers and I often end a day’s shoot feeling unsatisfied. Most of my street work is taken at a distance, from behind or from the side. Yes, I can still create a good quality image, but it leads to my work either all looking the same or lacking in emotion.
Take this image for example. Whilst I feel it has a lovely balance to it, and the couple in the image are framed around the circle seating, I think it would paint so much more of a story if you saw them from the front. The face offers so much in the form of storytelling. It delivers a connection between one person and another. You have never heard someone say “you best turn around and show me the back of your head whilst I am talking to you”. That’s because the face, more so the eyes, offer connectivity, something I believe is vital within photography. Whilst yes, in terms of variety, there is nothing wrong with some images being from behind or from afar, it seems all my images are like that and it makes my work stale and lacking in depth.
Moving forward and overcoming hurdles
The image just discussed kept playing over in my mind – “Why did I not just approach them from the front and take the shot?” I kept asking myself. I knew then it was time to make a change.
So, what steps must I take to overcome these issues? Do I take up martial arts in case I get a short tempered individual come my way? Maybe I could ask Mi5 what skills I need to be a spy and go unnoticed? Or maybe, and more realistically, I should implement a few simple steps to help me move forward.
The first challenge I set myself was to start taking street portraits. Not pre-organised shoots like I usually do, but rather asking random people on the street to stop what they are doing and requesting that I can take their photo. My reasoning behind this was that people live busy lives – always have somewhere to be and always have something to do. If I would be able to stop someone in their tracks, overcome that initial looks of confusion they have on their face, interact with them and then seal with deal with a portrait, that would give my confidence a much needed boost. No, it is not as candid as authentic street photography, but it would allow me to learn how people perceive having their photo taken and how they react to it.
“At first I was like – why do you want to take my photo? Then, all of a sudden you charmed me and the next thing I knew I was stood in front of your camera”.
The results from this challenge have been extremely positive. Out of all the people I have asked, 90% of the time they have said yes. The feeling is exhilarating. Having that human contact and being able to document it in just a few moments is as wonderful as is it awakening. Once I have taken the shot I am bouncing, my anxiety is non-existent and I feel I can take a shot of what I want when I want (still with respect, of course).
I remember the first street portrait I took, it was of a French girl underneath a bridge. She was clearly on her work break, having a cigarette and going through her phone. I must have walked past her 3 or 4 times before I told myself “just go and ask her”! At first she seemed confused, giving me a look of “is this guy a weirdo?”. But after a few moments of interaction she agreed to having her photo taken. Before I left we exchanged a few words, that is when she said to me “At first I was like – why do you want to take my photo? Then, all of a sudden you charmed me and the next thing I knew I was stood in front of your camera”. I knew from that point I had the skills within me to not allow my anxiety to take control.
Going small can lead to bigger and better things
Most of my time I am carrying around a full frame DSLR with a 24-70 lens attached to it, hardly discreet. I wanted something less intimidating, something I could have with me all day every day and not be too intrusive when pointed in someone’s direction. Now, I am fully aware that new gear does not make you a better photographer, that comes with both practice and experience. That said, the camera I chose I feel is perfect for the genre of street photography, which will then allow me to focus more on the technical and aesthetic aspect of the craft with more peace of mind. For those of you that would like to know, I went for the Fuji X-T10 and I haven’t regretted it since!
Change comes from within
Finally, and most importantly, I am going to change my own mindset. Every barrier I have before me, has been created only by me. I know I do not want to offend anyone, I have no bad intentions when practising my art. I have learnt from the street portraits that I have the interpersonal skills to communicate effectively with people, and there is no reason that can’t be transferred to any kind of difficult confrontation. I want to document life and tell a story that only the uniqueness of the streets can tell, it is where I belong and where I am most happy. I am going to hold onto that thought to help me thrive and push through my barriers.
The only other option would be to continue in the bubble of mediocrity, never truly pushing the boundaries and failing to excel to the best of my ability. If I did that I would look back on my photographic journey and say “that was the sub-genre I never excelled at because I didn’t overcome my hurdles”, and the thought of that, far more than a minor altercation in the street, gives me a terrible dose of anxiety and fear!
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Thank you Kent.
I relate totally to your anxieties. I find that pushing myself a bit at a time and getting plenty of street time helps
Glad you were able to find this useful Becky.
Brilliantly written article!
Thank you Ashleigh!
Awesome post. Just what I needed. I “suffer” to the same problem. Every time i take a shot of a person i feel guilty, especially when they give me that strange look in return.
Glad to hear you were able to find use for it JK. Keep shooting.
This is great stuff. Thank you !
Thank you Joris, you’re welcome.
Appropriate post, because your history is like mine too. I’ve fear to get away from 3 meters in front of subject and take a picture. I’ll try to do some portraits like you to gain this experience.
Thanks for sharing,
Glad you can take something from this Arnaldo. Please, let me know how you get on with the street portraits.