10 Things Sociology Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Eric Kim Street Photography Chicago
(Chicago, Eric Kim)

I studied Sociology during my undergrad at UCLA. I loved learning all of the ways that people interacted, communicated, and collected in groups. It really opened up my eyes to the world around me. However little did I know that all these things I have learned in Sociology (and trained myself to see) would apply so much to street photography.

Below are some things that I have learned about human nature and interaction – which has helped me along my street photography journey in terms of building my courage and candidly taking photos of strangers. Hope these are as helpful to you as they were helpful to me!

1.People are more similar than dissimilar

We All Scream For...
Eric Kim

I am fortunate to travel and shoot street photography all around the world. Whenever I post videos of myself shooting street photography—getting up-close and personal, people often say, “That would never work in my country.” Although different countries view street photography in different ways, my experience has shown me that people react more similarly than dissimilarly when it comes to street photography.

The key is to keep a smile on your face regardless of where you go and always thank the people for the photos you take. Sure you will always face some sort of opposition at times (people asking you to delete their photo, asking what you are doing, or even yelling at you) but most people are quite flattered to get their photos taken. 90% of the people I smile at and wave/say hi to—return the gesture.

2. People are mostly non-confrontational

Brian Soko

If you have ever watched the movie Fight Club, there is a scene when Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) tells all of the members of Fight Club that they have to get into a fight with somebody. These willing participants then go about their everyday lives trying to purposefully provoke fights by spraying people with water, making fun of them, or even harassing them.

In the movie, the participants had a very difficult time getting people to fight with them. It was that most people were pacifists and didn’t want to fight. However in order to get another random stranger to fight—these participants had to really push their buttons—and hard.

I see the same thing with street photography. I have never heard of a street photographer ever getting punched in the face or even worse—getting stabbed, shot, or dying. The worst things that has ever happened to me (and I shoot much closer compared to the average street photographer) is the following:

  • An old man grabbing my arm and questioning me what I was doing. I explained that I liked his hat and he let me go. (Paris)
  • Getting karate chopped on the back of my neck by an old Chinese man. Gave me a bit of a neck cramp but not painful. (Toronto)
  • An angry shopkeeper trying to grab my camera away from me. He pulled at my camera strap, but I talked to him and calmed him down and walked away. (Los Angeles)

Note that these three encounters are the absolute worst things that have happened to me in the last 5 years of shooting street photography (and I have probably shot at least 300,000 photographs). Therefore 3/300,000 is only .001% of people who have gotten somewhat violent when it came to shooting street photography. Also take into account that I typically shoot around 3-5 feet away from people and sometimes use a flash.

Most people when you take photos of them will at worst get upset, yell at you, and ask you to delete their photograph. Rarely do people become physical or confrontational, so shoot with confidence.

3. Shooting in groups builds courage

James Dodd

One of the things I have realized is that when you shoot street photography in a group, your courage skyrockets. During my street photography workshops, we go out on both days and shoot for around 3 hours each day. I have had workshop participants who were absolutely mortified to shoot street photographs of strangers before—but when shooting in a large group have no problem doing it at all.

So why does shooting in a large group cause you to become more confident? Well when you are shooting in a large group, other people will perceive that you are part of some photography class or group—and simply say to themselves (oh, they are just doing this for some class or project). Therefore people are not suspicious of what you are doing, and generally more willing to get photographed.

Not only that, but when you are shooting with others you have physical and emotional support. In-case someone starts yelling at you—you know that your partner or group of fellow street photographers will defend you (from hypothetically getting hit—which never happens, or getting yelled at—which happens every now and then).

Shooting in a group can be tough when you want to stay more covert and candid. However if you wish to build your courage when it comes to shooting—go in pairs or in a group. You will be shocked how much this will help your confidence.

4. Communication is mostly non-verbal

In the Shadow of Beauty
Derriel Almario

In social psychology, there is a great deal of research that goes into non-verbal communication (how we express ourselves through our facial expressions, posture, and body gestures). A study that was done by a Psychologist named Albert Mehrabian showed that 93% of communication was nonverbal. To be specific, 53% face, 38% voice, and 7% words.

Therefore when you are out shooting street photography—if you show via your body language that you are not threatening or harmful, people won’t suspect you when you are shooting on the streets. If 53% of communication is from the face—make sure to smile when you are out shooting. If 38% is from the voice, honestly thank people after taking their photographs and engage them in conversation after you take photographs of them. Tell them why you are taking a photograph of them—whether it be their face, their outfit, or the interesting way they are interacting. If 7% if words, compliment people with your words and let them know how beautiful they are and how lovely you find them to be.

5. You can resocialize yourself

Norman Estrologo

We are socialized by society that shooting strangers without their permission is rude and shouldn’t be done. But why? Who made up this rule/law? Different societies are of course more tolerant towards photography (consider North Korea absolutely against street photography, while India is one of the most street-photography friendly places). Therefore your perceptions of what is “right” or “wrong” depends where you are—and none of these rules are hard-set.

When you break these social rules, you can often expect the world to collapse around you. But it doesn’t. I remember when I first took a street photograph of someone without their permission, I expected them to yell and physically attack me. I was quite surprised to discover they actually smiled back and said “thank you” before I could do anything else. It made me realize how silly this rule against taking strangers was, and how it didn’t really exist.

Although society socializes you to be against taking photographs of strangers without their permission, you can easily resocialize yourself into thinking the opposite—that you are doing a good thing by capturing the beauty of a person through street photography. If you keep telling yourself and letting yourself know that you are doing your street photography in a positive manner for the best intentions—you will start believing the same—which will translate into your body language being much more open and honest. If you feel street photography is something that you should be guilty of doing, your body language will show you are sneaky and untrustworthy.

6. People obey authority

Charlie Kirk

The famous Stanford Prison Experiment was done in which students assumed the role of either a prison guard or prison inmate to study the power of authority. What the experimenters didn’t expect was that the students that assumed the role of power would soon dominate and even abuse their former classmates who took on a lower role. Another experiment was done by Stanley Milgram in which he had study participants on how much they would agree to authority—by zapping a fictional person in the next room—so much until the other person in the next room was assumed as dead.

Not to say that you should do anything malicious to your subjects when shooting street photography—but having a camera in your hand gives you authority and power. When I am out shooting on the streets—sometimes people stop and look at me—and pose. Sometimes I tell people, “Pretend like you don’t see me and do what you were doing before” and 99% of the time they listen to me. There have even been times in which I saw interesting people on the streets and asked them to pose for me in a certain way—and they almost always comply.

Therefore if you are out shooting street photography and ask you what you are doing, speak confidently and with authority. Tell people that you are a street photographer, and you are out there to capture everyday life—and everyday people. Carry around business cards and show that you are not some random creep going around and taking photos—but someone who is a bit more professional. Even offer to email them the photo if they are upset—which usually calms down any situation.

7. What you may expect will probably not happen

All the King's Men
Dana Barsuhn

As a sociology student, we had to do a ton of sociology experiments for my classes. One of the experiments that has had a profound effect on how I see everyday life was from a UCLA sociology professor named Terri Anderson. The experiment was that we had to stand in a crowded intersection and stand like a pole for 10 minutes and observe how other people around you would react. When I first heard of this experiment I thought it was the dumbest thing. I told myself, “Why should I do this experiment? I already know how people are going to react—they will poke me, make fun of me, push me around, and perhaps even take photos with me.”

Therefore I was so convinced I already knew what was going to happen that I planned on faking the experiment. However last-minute I decided against it—and decided to try out the experiment to see what happened.

Did you know what happened? Nobody noticed me. Not a single person. At that instant, a light switch went off in my brain that blew my mind. At first I was literally 100% positive that people would react in some sort of weird or negative way—but nobody noticed me at all.

When I first thought about shooting street photography with a flash after watching the Bruce Gilden video on YouTube, I was almost positive I would get punched in the face or stabbed. However my natural curiosity as a sociologist lead me to going out with my camera and flash and experimenting for myself.

The result shocked me. The majority of people I flashed either didn’t notice or care. Out of some of the people who did notice—were slightly amused and took it as a compliment. I even had one woman talking on a phone say to the other line: “This guy just took a photo of me—he must think I am someone famous!” People have told me that shooting with a flash abroad wouldn’t work. I have shot with a flash quite a bit in India, and people actually love the attention.

Therefore if you want to try something out that is new to you in street photography—disregard what others say. Go out and experiment for yourself.

8. Sometimes the meanest looking people are the nicest

The Cuban
Rinzi Ruiz

At times we pre-judge people based on their appearances or looks. For example, if we see a guy with tattoos all over his body, we automatically assume that guy is mean, aggressive, and might do something wrong to us. As humans we use mental shortcuts through our personal prejudices—but it is important to step out of that style of thinking.

I have found in my experience that sometimes the meanest looking people can be the nicest. I have shot a bunch of different characters from the young, old, mean, and the nice. I have found that people who look mean are actually much nicer than the average person. I hypothesize it is because people always treat them with such suspicion—that having someone treat them as an equal is something that humbles them. I have even shot people who look nice but are the crabbiest and most prickly people.

Therefore when you are out shooting—try taking photos of people you may be afraid of. Of course you don’t want to be in the middle of a gang-infested neighborhood at midnight. But don’t automatically not take a photo of someone who may look mean because you are afraid of how they will react. Remember to keep a smile on your face and treat everyone you meet with respect.

9. The community is of upmost importance

Kaushal Parikh

When it comes to my personal street photography journey, I have many communities to thank for allowing me to improve as a photographer. First of all, the Black and White Vision forum at Fredmiranda who first identified what I was shooting was street photography—and giving me helpful and honest critique along the way. Secondly, the Grit & Grain group on Flickr for telling me brutally honest critiques of my street photography—and working towards making my photography even better. Now currently all of you guys- for the constant feedback and even encouraging me to take my photography to the next level.

To become a better street photographer, it is crucial to have a community helping and supporting you. One of my visions for this blog to be exactly that—to give the tips, inspiration, technique, as well as the platform to help connect street photographers around the world.

However the tricky part is how to get helpful comments and critique of your work. If you are on Flickr or any other photo-sharing site, the most frustrating thing is to only get comments that say “nice” or “great shot”. Although they are nice to get, they don’t help us get meaningful critique and feedback. My suggestion is to start giving other people helpful critique and commentary—and they will soon reciprocate. Build a community of 5 photographers you really admire and give them your honest opinion, and ask them to give you their honest opinion back.

10. You will never learn without doing it

Alex Coghe

Street photography is a lot like swimming. You can read a hundred books on it, but until you jump into the water—you will never learn anything.

So pick up your dusty camera that has been sitting on your shelf for the last few weeks, and go out and shoot!

Share any other things you have discovered through street photography that you never expected by leaving a comment below!

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