Shooting portraits of strangers in an unknown land is probably one of the most difficult of challenges that a photographer can face. Notwithstanding the inherent challenges of having to work in an alien environment, one also has to tackle the problem of shooting absolute strangers and making good photos in the process. A 100 stranger portraits is a tough but effective way to overcome your fears and establish your skills in this genre.
Knowing your rights
Normally, shooting images out in the streets shouldn’t be a problem as long as you stand on a public property and do not become an obstruction to law and order.Having said that, new laws are being brought into force and their interpretations remain a subject of debate.
Law enforcement officers sometime step over the line as well as do photographers who take it for granted that they can use any methods whatsoever as long as they are on public property. This sort of behavior are recipes for friction and that is exactly what happens from time to time.
Knowing your rights as a photographer, in the state / country you are in, is the first step towards successfully making some images without stepping into trouble. At no point should you do anything that can bring you in the path of law and order.
In some countries photographing law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces is banned, even if you are standing on public property. Photographing government buildings or establishments that are sensitive, in the sense that they are strategically important, are also prohibited from being photographed.
Sometimes though it is not just about the law but also about acceptable social behavior.
The right approach
I have seen some of the most intrusive methods ever adopted by photographers in the name of shooting portraits of strangers out on the streets. Using their camera flashes right on a subject’s face or pointing a camera at someone even though one is objecting to it can hardly be considered decent methods of making images. Approaches such as this pollute the whole genre and bring a bad name to genuine street photographers. It makes life difficult for the other photographers.
Subways are an interesting place to make images, but in some countries you are forbidden from using a camera inside a subway. The same thing goes for photographing inside a museum or a gallery holding paintings and or rare artifacts.
Taking images of women, especially in certain Middle Eastern as well as in Asian nations is a taboo too. You can get into a lot of trouble if you are spotted making images of women, especially if they are wearing a burqa (a form of dress where everything from head to toe is covered,except for a small slit opening at the eyes for the person to be able to see), even if you are standing on public property and not trying to be otherwise a nuisance.
Taking images of kids, on the other hand is surprisingly easy in Asian countries. Except in some patches of places where social practices forbid taking images of infants and kids under a certain age (for any reason) everywhere else it is rather easy. All you have to do is approach the parent(s), smile, appreciate that they have a nice kid and ask if you could take a picture. You can offer to send them a copy of the picture and ask for their contact details in return. It is nowhere near this simple in western countries.
The techniques that you adopt should always be reasonable and not assertive and certainly never ever intrusive. As soon as you step into the personal space of an individual, whether it is a grown up or a kid you are no longer a street photographer but a paparazzi.
A method that I started out using, when fine tuning my street photography skills, something that I still use today, is to shoot from the waist. Shooting from the waist allows me to remain completely unnoticed. This isn’t a method that is natural and thus requires a lot of practice before it can be perfected.
Initially, a majority of your images will be either tilted or the focus would be way off or the subject will be cropped. Ideally, you should be using a single lens while practicing this method, preferably a prime. You are bound to get better by each passing day.
Another method you can use and I have found this to be quite effective as well, involves a bit of acting. Let’s say, I am aiming my camera at a stranger. The person at the other end of a lens cannot guess the trajectory in which the lens is pointing. This is particularly true for people who don’t shoot with DSLR cameras and especially when you are using a wide angle lens.
Having made the images pretend that the person (you were actually photographing) just ruined a perfectly good image you were trying to make! You hold your position, looking at something imaginary at a distance and as soon as the person is past you aim at that imaginary something. This works 10 out of 10 times for me! You would arise less suspicion. In the best case scenario people would apologize for being in your shot!
At times all you need to do is approach a person you wish to photograph and ask. You would be surprised how often you will get a smile followed by a nod. You will need to find someone on the streets who has an interesting personality / aura about them. Just approach them and tell them who you are, what you do and why you are interested to photograph the him/her. It works more times than not.
Having said all that be prepared for the odd rude no or the dismissive look at times. That’s just part and parcel of the whole job of street photography. If you are scared of rejection, and in general are skeptical about the whole thing about pointing your camera towards a stranger, then unfortunately, the genre of street photography is not for you.