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?”
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.
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.