New Orleans, 2015
New Orleans, 2015

When it comes to street photography, sometimes your subject will ask you: “What are you doing?”

Do you know how to respond?

What are they really asking you?

SF, 2015
SF, 2015

A lot of people who ask you, “What are you doing?” aren’t angry at you. They’re just curious what you’re doing.

My suggestion: have a pre-scripted or pre-rehearsed answer you can quickly tell them.

For example, you can say: “I am learning photography, and I found you or this scene interesting because of [X].”

Be transparent. Don’t hide anything.

Some other things I’ve said to people when they’ve approached me (after I took their photo):

  • “I love your look.”
  • “I’m just walking around and snapping photos for fun.”
  • “Oh you can just ignore me — I’m being a tourist.”
  • “This is my first time here.”
  • “I’m doing a photography project on this neighborhood, and you looked like you belong here.”

Don’t lie

LA, 2014
LA, 2014

The biggest tip I have is to not lie.

When you lie, you shoot yourself in the foot. You feel guilty. Your lie might show through your facial or bodily language.

If you photograph someone who looks down on their luck, poor, or not in the best condition — don’t just say, “You look beautiful.” You might want to say, “It looks like you’ve been through a lot in life.”

But then again, I find older women to be beautiful. So when they ask me, “Why did you take my photo?” I will tell them: “I think you look beautiful!” and give them a huge smile — and then slightly pat them on the shoulder.

Be genuine

New Orleans, 2015
New Orleans, 2015

Above all, just be genuine. Give people the honesty, be transparent, and smile.

If people ask you to delete the photo, the decision is up to you. I usually take a look on my LCD screen, and ask myself, “Is it worth it?” 99.9% of the time it isn’t — so I will just delete it. If I think it is worth it, I will apologize, and tell them, “I’m so sorry for upsetting you. But I don’t delete photos. I’m really sorry but I hope you understand.” Then I stand my ground, without being an asshole about it.

You are going to have your own personal code of ethics in street photography. There is no “right” or “wrong” — just do what feels authentic and genuine to you.

Whenever in doubt, put yourself in the shoes of the other person. If a stranger took a photo of you, how would you feel? What would make you feel weird or nervous? What would calm you down, or make you feel better?

Conclusion

NYC, 2015
NYC, 2015

To conclude, know that sooner or later you’re going to be questioned what you’re doing. It is good to memorize an answer. This way you won’t stumble when you’re being asked.

Lastly, be genuine, open, and honest. Don’t lie. Don’t be creepy — be transparent. Show your subject the photo you took on the back of your LCD screen. Perhaps offer to email them the photo, or come back and give them a print.

Always imagine the worst-case scenario. People are going to get pissed off. Know how to calm them down — by apologizing, and trying to empathize. Offer to delete the photo if the photo isn’t great. But if you think it is a great photo (and you don’t want to delete it), apologize and hold your ground. After all, if you’re shooting in a public place — it is in your legal right to do so.

And if your heart is in the right place, don’t feel bad or guilty.

Lastly when in doubt, simply don’t do unto others as you don’t want others to do unto you. If you don’t like having your own photo taken, perhaps you shouldn’t shoot street photography. If you want to overcome this, learn to be comfortable being photographed — have your own portrait shot, or practice shooting self-portraits of yourself.

Stay open and genuine in the streets,
Eric

To learn more, check out the “Street Photography Code of Ethics” and “Street Photography 101”.