(Above video: New street portrait POV video I recorded in Chicago. Chicago Street Portraits, Volume #5)
I have always been drawn to people, especially those who I find are interesting “characters.” I tend to gravitate towards people who have interesting facial expressions, to those with outstanding outfits, or accessories.
Although the majority of the street photography I do is done candidly, I have been drawn towards doing more posed street portraits of people I find interesting. Why? I find it gives me more time to interact with them, learn more about their lives, and also to take more photos of them (with their cooperation).
So once I get my subjects’ attention– how do I direct them and what is some of the psychology that goes behind it? I will share some candid thoughts (pun intended) about my process in terms of directing my subjects when taking portraits of them.
Why get my subjects to pose?
Street photography is generally understood as taking candid photos. However in my opinion, I don’t think that they have to be candid. Some of the most memorable street photographs taken in history (think Diane Arbus, William Klein, and even Henri Cartier-Bresson) have been posed.
I still do believe that candid photos tend to be more interesting than posed photos– but I think with enough luck and determination you can still get interesting posed photos of people on the street.
How to approach your subjects
Approaching someone to ask them to take their portrait is very much like approaching the opposite gender at a bar. For you guys out there, the biggest issue we have is worrying about rejection. It is not so much the rejection that we are scared of (once we get rejected it isn’t so bad)– but the thought of getting rejected. Ladies, you can face the same issues (but I think men generally tend to approach women more often in bars).
I think the most important thing about approaching someone is showing confidence (once again, very similar to approaching the opposite gender in a bar–or some other social situation). By showing that you are confident, the other person feels more comfortable around you– and are generally more likely to open up. If you are nervous, hesitate, and fiddle with your fingers– the other person might become suspicious of you.
Nowadays I don’t approach women in bars (I am in a committed relationship with my girlfriend Cindy, like a good boy) but I still do get the fear of approaching random strangers to ask to take their photo.
The best way I have found to overcome the initial hesitation to approach a strainer to take their photograph is to simply not think too much. Once we start thinking too much, we start spelling out all of these imaginary scenarios in our minds. We see the other person looking disgusted or bothered by our request, and shooing us off– while onlookers also give us strange looks and stares. Perhaps we are concerned about being laughed at, rejected, or being seen as a “weirdo” by others. By not thinking too much, we don’t fall into these imaginary hypothetical scenarios (as nobody is able to tell the future with 100% certainty).
Another strategy I have is to think about the worst-case possible scenario. The worst case scenario for asking someone to take their picture is that they will just say “no.” I doubt anyone will punch you in the face for asking to take their picture (especially with permission). So ask yourself: do you feel comfortable with someone saying “no” if you ask to take their picture?
In-fact, it might be a good strategy to try to get someone to take no when asking to take their portrait. This is something that Satoki Nagata shared in the last street photography workshop I taught with him in Chicago. When he first started his training in feeling more comfortable approaching strangers, he first approached people who looked nice and would say “yes” to being photographed (families, nice old-looking people, friendly-looking couples, etc).
Then the next step Satoki took was to purposefully look for mean or disgruntled looking people, to get them to say “no” when asking to take their portrait. Funny enough, he found that the people who looked most hesitant to get their photos taken said “yes” about the same percentage as people who looked nice.
Takeaway point: Don’t judge people by their outward appearances. Expect the worst when asking to take people’s photo (having them reject you) but hope for the best (that they will say “yes”). And trust me, getting rejected isn’t so bad– it is often the fear of rejection that paralyzes us the most.
Case Example: Approaching Two Girls in Red
Once I approach a subject, I first start to break the ice by telling them why I want to take a photo of them– and what about them specifically I find interesting.
For example, on my road trip from Philly to Michigan– I was eating a hamburger at a popular pub in Pittsburgh. While I was enjoying the juicy meat and salty potato chips, I saw two young African-American girls (probably mid 20’s) sitting a few seats across from me. One of them had a bright red afro, and the other had straight-red hair, with some golden necklaces dangling from her neck.
The restaurant was packed, and I was a bit nervous in thinking of how others would perceive me. I also was really enjoying my hamburger, but was also nervous that once the two girls’ order would come out–they would be too preoccupied eating (and wouldn’t be so receptive in terms of having me take their portrait). I then put down my burger, took a large sip of my water and then the fear struck. What if I get rejected, or if they think I am a weirdo?
I then told myself: Why the hell do I care? I am a weirdo. I really will regret not asking to take their photo, and don’t mind so much if I get rejected– I’ll just go back to eating my delicious burger.
So I stood up, and approach them and first started talking to the girl with the red afro. I told her, “Oh my gosh, I was eating my burger from across the room and I saw your red afro– which is awesome. I have never seen a red afro. How long have you had it?” She then responded by telling me that she just got it done, and was glad that I noticed. I then told her, “I know this might sound really weird, but I am a photographer based out of Michigan and am currently doing a road trip and taking photos of interesting people I meet along the way. Do you mind if I took a quick photo of you?” She smiled, shrugged her shoulders, looked at the girl sitting across from her (also with red hair)– and said okay. She also mentioned– that the girl sitting with her was her sister. I said, “Perfect, I will take a photo of her next too!” Her sister said, “Oh okay, no problem.”
I then looked around the pub, and wanted to find a nice simple background. Since she had red hair, I wanted to find a nice green color to contrast it. I then looked around the restaurant, and found a simple patch of green about 10 meters away. I then told her, “I know this is kind of a hassle, but do you mind if we walk over there [pointing to the green wall] because your red hair would go amazingly well with the green wall.” Note that I explained to her why I wanted to move, and she had no problem.
Directing Your Subjects
So now I built some sort of mutual trust between me and my subject. Now comes the even more difficult issue: how can I take an interesting photo of her without looking so posed?
The first most important tip I learned is to not have your subject smile. This is something I learned from Martin Parr. He gets his subjects to look straight into his lens, with a deadpan look. If you want to see more of his working process, I highly recommend getting the “Hot Spots: Martin Parr in the American South.” In the film, Parr tells his subjects to not smile– as he wants the photo to be a “serious” and “dignified” portrait. He later explains in the film that all the snapshots we take of our families we are smiling– which isn’t natural (when we walk on the streets and act natural, we rarely smile). So to get someone not to smile often looks more authentic.
So the first thing I will tell my subjects is not to smile, as it will be a “serious portrait.” Interestingly enough, the second that they drop their pre-arranged smile, a rush of authenticity of their personality quickly emerges. They look a bit bored, despondent– but much more authentic than them smiling.
Then I ask them to look straight into the lens (while pointing to the lens of my camera). There is a saying, “Windows are the eyes to the soul” and I find the most captivating portraits to be the ones in which the subjects are looking straight at you, the viewer. This creates more of a connection with the viewer.
I also try to get their hands in the photo, so I will often comment on an accessory or even their hair (so they can make an interesting hand gesture which doesn’t seem so posed). For example, with the girl with the red afro– when she was standing in front of the green wall, I asked her how she was able to get her afro to get so big. She then mentioned how she would pick at her hair, and then started to pick at her hair (an interesting hand gesture). At that moment, I took two photos in quick secession. I also wanted to see her do a funny photo, so I asked her to just grab her hair and act as if she was crazy. She laughed, and played along and I took two quick shots.
You can also do this with people wearing interesting glasses. You can try it out to anybody: tell them that you like their glasses, and ask them where they got it. The first thing people almost always do is say, “Oh these?” and start touching their glasses and even proceed to take them off. The moment they do that, it is a great gesture that you can photograph. The same also goes with people with interesting necklaces. Ask them about their necklaces, and they will start toying with it with their fingers. This is a great gesture to photograph.
Ethics of Posing People?
One of the objections I hear is how “ethical” it is to pose people. After all, won’t it be fake and not show their “true” self?
Well first of all, I think that whenever you take a photo or a portrait of someone– you show more of yourself than the person you are photographing.
Richard Avedon (one of the greatest portrait photographers who ever lived) has explained this in countless interviews– in which his subjects felt exploited in terms of having Avedon capture them in moments in which they felt “vulnerable.” They stated that the photos of them weren’t who they truly were– and rather a false image of themselves.
Avedon responds by telling them that they are absolutely right. He explained that the photos he took were from what he wanted out of the photo, and showed more of his own personality and way of seeing the world (than that of the subject).
I don’t think it is physically possible to show someone’s “true personality” through just a single portrait. After all, how can we show the full gamut of our life experiences and emotions in just 125th of a second? We can’t simultaneously cry, laugh, and share memories from our past in a photo. A photo is just a subjective slice from reality.
So when it comes to street photography, I don’t have any false pretense that the photos I capture show some sort of “objective reality.” Rather, they show how I see the world– and what in particular I find interesting in other people (which is more of a reflection of myself).
Even when posing people to take their portraits, I am exploring myself through photographing them. What I find interesting about them probably isn’t what they find interesting or unique about themselves. They might think their earrings show an interesting part of their personality, while I might be drawn to their eyes. Once again, it is all subjective.
I also think that street photography shouldn’t strive to be as objective, as let’s say– documentary or news reportage photography. In documentary or reportage photography, photographers have more of an ethical obligation to show some sort of “facts” or “objective reality” to the rest of the world. Street photography is more about our personal exploration of the world, and how we see things through our lens. So I would argue, of course you don’t want to exploit your subjects– but know that there is little (or no) objectivity in the photos you take.
To sum up, I think that getting people to pose for you and taking their portraits is a great way to build your confidence– and also connect with your subjects. I think one of the problems of street photography is that it is quite shallow in a lot of regards. We can just take quick snapshots of what we find interesting, without stepping outside of our comfort zones to really get to know our subjects. While I do think this type of photography is okay– personally it makes me want more. I want to get closer to the subjects I photograph, and by talking and interacting with them is one way to do it.
I also disagree with the statement that street photography has to be candid. William Klein’s famous photo of the kid pointing the gun straight to our face was in-fact, a posed photo. He told the kid, “look tough” and at that moment– the kid looked enraged and played it up for the camera. I don’t think anyone would say that is not a street photograph.
So don’t worry so much about what street photography is and what street photography isn’t. I think it is a stupid debate. Just aim to take interesting photos of society and the world around us. Whether the images are posed or not, it doesn’t matter so much. Just make them meaningful and memorable.
What are your thoughts about posing your subjects and directing them. Do you think street photography has to be candid, or not? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
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