In my experience, there are two kinds of street photographer: The Coward and The Photojournalist. Which are you?
The coward is omnipresent in street photography circles. Everyone who goes out for the first time is one–afraid of confrontation, worried they’re going to get called out and get into a fight. Punched in the nose? Yep, probably. Maybe attacked. Killed. (Not true, but that’s what they believe.) And so, obviously, they work without confidence. Sneaking around. A bit off. They can’t help it, they don’t feel comfortable working overtly, confidently.
These inexperienced street photographers are not doing any favors to the photojournalism or documentary photography world. They’re being perceived by the public as suspect. They’re working what they think is on the sly, but they’re coming off as creepy. Afraid. Worried. Hiding. Something’s wrong. They’re lurking and trying to get away with something.
It’s completely natural to be fearful. Most inexperienced street photographers are afraid to photograph strangers and why wouldn’t they be?
“Hey, go out in public and start photographing complete strangers, see how that works out.” Say that in a tough Brooklyn accent, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.
Then there’s the other type of street photographer.
The photojournalist is a documentary photographer, either working for a publication or on a personal project. Think of Bruce Weber’s or Walker Evans’ series on subway riders. They’re out there working in public, sometimes surreptitiously, but never sneakily. They’re confident. They look like they belong there. They often wear press passes and photo vests. There’s no doubt what they’re doing and they know their right to be doing it.
They own the street. They walk with the camera to their eye. If you ask them what they’re shooting for they’ll tell you.
If you ask the coward, they won’t know, they’ll stammer. They won’t give you any assurance that they’re not up to nefarious things.
Street photography has grown in popularity in the past 20 years with the ease of digital photography. Which means more people are getting into it, and they have to start somewhere, usually at the coward level. Of course.
Which doesn’t work well for the photojournalist, who people, after having seen so many cowards lurking with cameras and sneaking around, assume they’re also creeps. Deviants. Pervs. “Must be up to no good.” It’s an easily mistaken assumption.
So, we need to get rid of the fearful. The worried. The sneaking.
We need to work confidently. We do that when we know why we’re working on something. What we’re making photographs for.
People often ask me what I’m shooting photos for. I say I’m either on a editorial shoot for a magazine if I am, a freelance shoot going to sell them to anyone who will buy them, or on a “documentary shoot for a project to show America to Americans named after Roy Stryker, who was the administrator who hired Dorothea Lange and the other FSA (Farm Security Administrator) photographers to document America after the Great Depression, after which they say, “Okay, fine.” Because I have an answer, a purpose for the photographs.
They just want assurance. That I have a plan. That I’m the real deal. Which I am.
So, work with confidence which you get by having a purpose. It can be:
“I’m a tourist and just photographing the cool things in this city.”
“I’m working on an assignment to photograph people in public who look distinctive and amazing.”
“I’m working on a photo project on this wonderful town and the coolest people I find.”
Not having a goal for the photos or knowing why you’re making them doesn’t instill confidence in people. They need to know you’re supposed to be there.
The coward is causing problems for street photography. Who wants to be photographed by someone acting fearful, sneaking around, looking nefarious, up to no good? No one.
Be a photojournalist. Own where you are and what you’re working on.
Be a professional making documentary photographs with a purpose. Know what that purpose is, practice saying it to have it ready for anyone who asks.
No more sneaking around. Either work from the hip or the camera to your eye. Own your place working the scene. You can be discreet, but you can’t look it. You have to go unnoticed.
Be ready to talk to anyone who wants to know where their photo will end up. Offer them copies. Be a pro.
We need more photojournalists.
We don’t need any more cowards.
With more photojournalists we get more documentary photographs that tell the truth about who we are as a society today. What we have been through so we don’t lose where we’ve come from. It’s important and vital to document our history.