Do They Care If You Shoot?

The one comment that people always make, when I tell them I’m a street photographer, is, “I don’t think I could ever work up the nerve to photograph people like that.” Often, that statement is followed up with, “Don’t they ever get mad at you?” Since I first started taking candid photos in the street during high school, I’ve answered the same way: with a resounding, “No, not really.” In fact, I average maybe one angry person every year or two, and invariably, they aren’t people I was shooting in the first place. More often, they’re either people who want attention, those hiding something (like an illegal status or activity), hustlers trying to get me to tip them in case I did snap a photo (over my dead body will I do that).

Over the years, I can remember two people who objected that I actually had photos of. In both cases, they weren’t what I was shooting. In one, the angry man was in the periphery of a chess match I was shooting and got in the shot. He demanded I delete my photo. He’s still waiting. In the other, a security refused to move out of the way of a photo, not because photos weren’t allowed, but because it would have required his actual movement. Our exchange went something like this:

SG: “Did you just take my picture?”
Me: “No!”
SG: “Okay, okay. I was just asking. I don’t want my photo taken.”
Me: “I won’t.”

I didn’t lie; I did not take his photo. I took a shot of the sculpture he stood in front of. If you don’t want me to snap you, move your ass! I will politely wait, but not if you’re oblivious to the world around you. Do I have an obligation to tell you I’m taking your photo in a public space? Nope. Will I tell you? Nope. Do I feel guilty? Nope.

See, here’s the thing: I’m not actually looking at the people I photograph. I don’t do portraits. I rarely shoot close-ups. I am photographing connections, relationships, color patterns, light and darkness, shapes. I am NOT, however, taking a photo of Margaret or Barbara or David. I will shoot Maria, but I’m married to her. And certainly, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of dirty looks over the years.

Here’s one example, in a photo taken at precisely 3:15:32 P.M. on 18 March 2017.

Note the furrowed brow and the direct gaze? Not happy, huh? So, now, here’s the photo I took at exactly 3:15:33 on 18 March 2017:

No, she does not suffer from a tragic loss of short-term memory that caused her to immediately forget I’d just taken her photo. For one thing, she had no way of telling whether I did or not, since my camera makes no noise. But I could show you dozens of similar shots taken with a dozen different cameras, including my big Nikons and my old Minolta, and you’d see the same thing: normal people looking normal. The actual reason she looked directly at me is because she’s a reasonable human being, and people look at each other. They look with curiosity, with interest, with boredom, with dislike or anger or vitriol or lust or a million different emotions. The good street photographer will capture some of those looks and hope they reveal a small piece of reality. (By the way, as an editorial aside, I LOVE the outfit she’s wearing. And the bike. She rocked both.)

In effect, she looked at me in the 1st frame (the second I’d taken) because I was looking at her. Period. She looked away because I was no longer interesting to her. I was taking a photo. Big deal. Here’s a shocker: Most people like that (some will secretly pose) and there is a code that city dwellers and those in residential areas use to signal they don’t want you to shoot. In the cities, where folks are moving around and have shit to do, they will look away from your camera and remain that way until they pass. Cool. I don’t take the shot. In residential areas, they do precisely the opposite: they will stare at you as you approach, signaling their wariness. If it’s cool to take the shot, they go about their normal business. Some will talk to you, either to gauge your intention or just because people are friendly if you are.

When M and I are out shooting, most of the reactions we get are positive, and we get 10 smiles for every sourpuss that snarks by. So I suppose that’s the last lesson, really. People will reflect you, in general, or at least the energy you put out. Maybe I don’t get negative reactions because I’m not trying to do harm. I don’t jam the camera in faces; I’m not confrontational, but neither am I stealthy. I’m in the open, taking photos. I’ll aim at you, snap, and I’m off, because I’ve already stopped looking at you by the time I press the shutter. If you’re smiling or laughing, I’ll smile and laugh back, and that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Life happens out there on the street. Get you some.


15 thoughts on “Do They Care If You Shoot?

  1. The other day a man came up and took a photo of me while I was leaning on a wall in chicago. No phone in my hand or anything – just leaning. He got right up close and snap, snap.I was embarressed – not used to being seen – you know. I laughed. Out loud. My hand to my mouth. He smiled, snap, snap and that was that. He walked on. And now I still remember it because I wished I could have chatted to him about his day shooting out on the streets. It would have been nice to talk. It would have been nice to see how he saw me. To find out who he was.

    I always read what you are writing. Take care. c

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah. It takes a little while to realise, when you first start out candid street snapping, that most people really couldn’t care less, and even more are completely oblivious to your existence. Cameras are too much of an ordinary thing. So people look, as you say, because they’re nosey, but their interest in you evaporates almost instantly.


  3. I mentioned before that the nervy thing was an issue – still is a bit – but this is primarily to do with walking in the street with an expensive camera rather than any ”Hey you, get that Mother…ing outta my face!!” which has never happened.
    I was asked to stop shooting and delete the images inside a supermarket once, and yet all I wanted was to shoot the colorful arrays of fruit and veg. I should have asked permission as it was a private space. My bad!

    I really want to pluck up the courage to wander the streets of Jo’burg proper and do some serious street work. But I fear my efforts might end in unpleasantness.
    So, for now, such forays, when they take us close to the city, will have to be from the inside of a car.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand your concern, and when it comes to the camera, I have the same one. We don’t go in certain parts of the city because I’m worried about being robbed, rather than someone getting mad. People get mad, but they’re almost always drunk or mentally ill, and always seeking attention. Unless you know the area personally, it’s hard to feel safe. Most of the areas I’ve shot in, I’ve tried walking around in first, just to get the vibe. If you aren’t going to be safe with the camera, you won’t feel comfortable without one either.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember over twenty years ago living in NYC and taking pictures of people everywhere, even their kids. NO ONE CARED! I didn’t need to ask. Not too long ago I had a man chase me down on the street in his car because I took a photo of his house!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Taking to the Streets | Adriana's Aperture

  6. I probably get no points for this—but I dislike having my photo taken.
    I don’t mind being part of a background as a stage prop or street desecration, but as a principal, no. Brrrr.

    And because I don’t like it done to me I don’t do it to them.
    So mostly my shots lack that vital spark that people can provide: win/win (or not) and to each his own. But sometimes if I can catch people totally unawares, being people, being human … I love it~!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maria will tell you that I hate having my photo taken. (Actually, I mostly hate that people can see how I actually look in photos.) However, I have overcome that by developing professional levels of hypocrisy! Ha! I suspect you’re mostly a nicer person than I am and not want to intrude on people. I often just think of it as being at work and forget to even notice people’s reactions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Professional disassociation, I like it~!

        But with the modern camera you can be a truly awesome distance away and still get frame-filling closeups without anyone being the wiser, all you need is a steady enough hand (or well sited tripod). Maria’s Canon has a wonderful zoom, just ideal.

        “All in a day’s work” … I think most folks can relate to that.


        • Hi, Argus, It is true that you can some portraits in the street with a long range lens. But, it has two consequences. First, you are rising the stakes as people could find it more intrusive, and it is more difficult to explain. Second, it changes in most cases the perception of the pictures that you produce as it crops out the immediate environment of the subject.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi HP: my imagery is ‘see and snap’.

            Contrary to what folks might think, I actually do love people; and I’d like to catch them being people. So if I’m an impossible distance away they know I’m getting a shot of the street—not of them; but with that great zoom … wrong.
            But it’s what seem to be an almost invisible great zoom, the lens extends only a bit and doesn’t look at all like a telephoto.

            I agree that it changes the whole shot. What I need is an invisible camera (and the nerve to use it). I guess really I don’t like intruding …

            Liked by 1 person

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