Dealing with Street Fear
Fear. That’s a feeling that many street photographers have to deal with.
Walking, looking, seeing something worth investigating, keeping. Then framing the shot, ready to click. Then the face of a person staring into the lens like a jungle cat weighing up its prey. A passerby who cut a fine figure to offset a good composition suddenly becomes your enemy. They change from slinky dark figure into a hand waving, frowning, teeth baring threat.
Fear pumps through your veins like acid. If not fear, then guilt grips your mind and turns fingers into fat greasy sausages that slide across the plastic box.
The Shape and Colour of Your Intentions
Street photography is a purposeful activity for the individual. Searching through the streets with a strong intention to find objects and subjects which resemble something of one’s goal, a particular colour, a shape that you have decided is important as a theme in a composition. A type of building. Groups of people.
It can also end up being important as a record of a city’s history. History can be a street long gone, a style that dominated structures. Think of the street photographers of bygone days, Fred Herzog, a favourite of mine, he photographed the street for real. People, cars, buildings and anything that looked interesting. Whether he knew that one day his photos would serve as a portal into street scenes hardly found today, we don’t know. They are important records of life on the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia during the 1960s.
A rainy day in Kreuzberg Berlin. Martin U waltz, Berlin photographer and workshop creator, loves these rainy shots. Umbrellas make for strong composition, rain makes for beautiful changing patterns on the street.
Hardcore Street Savvy
Another street photographer, Bruce Gilden, really in your face photography. He does what you shouldn’t do, invade people’s privacy. He says he doesn’t give a damn. He speaks straight, and gets the shot. The results are iconic photographs, he goes in fearlessly. You can only achieve that fearless pose on the street when you first think it over, come to terms with the inevitable punch in the mouth, more than once, and then tell yourself that the shot is more important than your fragile ego.
Red Bricks & Lovers
I was taking a shot of a red brick building, it was beautiful, the light and shadow clung to the large walls like daubed paint of a Monet. I checked my shots in the view finder, adjusted, looked up at my wall to find my path blocked by a large woman hurtling herself towards me. She was waving her hand at me, her red face puffed into sweaty cheeks. I knew she was about to either kill me, or rip my camera from my hand and destroy it — just to get at the photos.
“You can’t take photos of me!” was all she bellowed at me.
“I didn’t — haven’t.”
“Well, let’s have a look then,” Her hand demanding that I hand over my prize possession.
Anger is rising in me, but I know it won’t help. I ratchet down my feelings, try the quiet friendly approach.
I like to think that confrontations with strangers can be an opportunity to get to know how they tick, are they sane, angry about something else, or justified?
I felt in the wrong, guilty for being interested in my city, taking photos in public. Trying my best to record an angle, a composition and colour that might make a person stop and look at the shot. They might even say stuff like, “I’ve never noticed that before, where is that?”, and I would love to answer, “outside your house in the street, haven’t you seen it?”
Strangers and Privacy on the Street
The street photographer is a brave person in this age of internet. People have always been keen on pointing out how private a person they are, but today, we deal with the foregone conclusion that if you take a person’s photograph, their fissog will be plastered all over the internet by noon. I understand that. I think we all do, but street photographers tend to develop their taste and their sensitivity towards strangers and privacy.
Most of the time street photographers are looking at colours and compositions, fleeting moments that need fast actions and keen attention.
People are props, not portrait pieces. I don’t like taking photos of poor people. They are not my subject, people are my subject, but to take random shots of a person who’s face has been weathered by the years of outdoor living, lack of quality food, and the twisted and grubby clothes that for a newbie look like the coolest composition of everything, is just callous.
To make a studied approach with the camera, to take well thought through photographs of poverty in big cities, is another thing altogether. It’s a task that should lead to creating awareness of the problem. When it’s a “wow” moment for a photographer, he or she is doing no service to photography as a profession or pursuit.
Street photographers generally like to take photos of those little areas of everyday life that busy people simply walk past.
To find the right scene it’s important to be focused and to go out into the street with an intention. It can be any intention that makes sense visually. “Take pictures of red brick walls”, is an intention. It can lead to being verbally attacked by people who think you are spying on their illicit dating activities. Most people believe looking at brick walls is a harmless activity.
I wanted red bricked structures. I thought a few good shots, walk around and develop a feel for the possibilities, open minded attitude towards bricks and I might end up with a shot or two that would be worth keeping. The red faced woman who demanded that I hand over my camera for her inspection, had mistakenly believed that I was interested in her, and I believe possibly, her man friend sitting at a cafe table to the right of the bridge I was starting to photograph.
She led me to believe that I may have taken a shot of her and her lover having afternoon tea. It was a romantic location, a bit like the train station in the film “Brief Encounters” with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.
Finally, I showed her the last three shots I had taken of the bricks, she looked, didn’t see herself or her male friend. So I smiled and went back to my work.
She hadn’t finished, though. I then had to listen to her thoughts on how invasive it is, would be, if I were to take photos of her and her maybe lover. She didn’t quite grasp that she was revealing herself to me, wholly, now.
You’re welcome to my Opinion
I was informed of her feelings, her opinion, her thoughts on photography and her fears about being caught in the act of betrayal. (the last, my suspicion).
She wanted to find reason to shoo me away. I pretended to adjust my camera, looked around but listened to everything. Plenty of thoughts to tell a stranger with a camera, but very private visually.
I waved and started to walk away. She grunted a few times and went back to romance.
As I walked towards the park in Berlin’s Tiergarten, I looked into the viewfinder at shots of red brickwork around the station. I saw that in fact, I had caught the edge of her table, her gesticulating blurry hand poking into the frame.
Street Photography can be daunting when you think about the problems that occur in interacting with real people in the street.
We are out there on a Saturday afternoon or in the middle of the night. Looking, searching, finding and keeping. Collecting moments.
Street Photographers, and I can’t speak for all of them, spend a lot of their time on the street looking. The human mind is always trying to put things in order, understand things and categorise them. That’s how we develop a secure feeling about our environment. We need to know what’s up in the neighbourhood, especially when there’s a riot happening, or major accident. These things can cause panic and fear among local people. I think street photography is a tool of the mind, a way to go out into the city-jungle and look for incidents that might be of great interest to everybody — if only they’d look — a car accident, a street party, a man walking home at 6 a m, drunk and exhausted. The photographer filling in the gaps of thought, maybe the man hasn’t been home since yesterday morning after leaving for work.
Cities can be rough places. Fear is a constant for its dwellers, heavy traffic, running people (why are they running?), fast moving police cars, streets to be avoided at night. Most people don’t have the time to investigate and find out where these places are, they just hear about a place that is dangerous, a neighbourhood that is run-down, a gang that is doing this or that to the locals.
Street Photographers record the things that are important, even the tiniest details at the corner of a building that seems beautiful or unique. Lovers on a bench remind us of how important those momentary interactions with others are, to all of us. Somebody should snap that moment.
Some street shots are difficult to define. They are those strange moments, those odd occasions that are intriguing without explanation.
These shots can’t be planned or known about in advance, they aren’t staged life, they are life unfolding moment to moment.