The number one thing that people tell me who want to shoot street documentary photographs but don’t is that they are timid about photographing strangers, and worried about the reaction they’ll get. Concerned that the person who is their subject will get irate, angry, confrontational.
The thing is, that really never happens. People are doing their thing. You just have to go over and get the shot, whatever it takes, without hesitating, and own it like you belong there and so of course you’re making photographs. That’s easier for me because I’ve had years of experience as a photojournalist so I was given license to photograph people in public. After all, I was on assignment.
I’ve never lost that feeling. Now, I don’t even stop and think, I don’t hesitate, I just shoot. Before the shot is gone. If I were to think about it, I would probably overthink it. That’s why I say just jump, don’t shoot.
I was having dinner at a Youngstown Ohio bar, sitting out on the patio where there was an amazing guitar player and singer performing. I found this guy’s shirt hilarious, and just stepped up with my Nikon with the 28mm, I had preset the exposure, and I just walked up and photographed him and the folks sitting with him. I didn’t even notice that the two seated folks were looking at camera, watching me. It really didn’t matter. I took one exposure and sat back down at my table and carried on with my meal.
No one said anything. There was no confrontation. And the night went on. I always have an answer ready for folks if they ask why I’m shooting photographs. “I’m documenting America for a photo project named after Roy Stryker, the FSA administrator who hired Dorothea Lange who shot the famous photo, Migrant Mother.” Or, I’m a tourist and I just want to show my family this cool place.” Or, if they had said anything, I would have complimented his funny shirt.
Trust that more people will just let you do what you do. There are millions of people shooting snaps with their phones all the time. Picking up a bigger camera is a bit different, but if you’re confident, quick (I was ready to shoot immediately when I got in front of the folks above, you can’t be standing there trying to find focus and exposure), and ready with an answer for what the photo is for, you’ll have no trouble.
Get out and document this amazing world of characters.