How to Overcome Your Fear in Street Photography with “Rejection Exposure Therapy”

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

This morning on the way to the gym, I was listening to the newest podcast episode of “Invisibilia” (a new NPR podcast on cognitive and behavioral science) and they had an episode titled “Fearless”.

The episode was fascinating to me— as I have always been obsessive with this idea of conquering your fear of shooting street photography.

I notice that out of all the workshops I teach, my introductory “Conquer Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography” course is always (by far) the most popular.

I know that personally when I stated to shoot street photography, overcoming my fear of shooting strangers (without their permission) was one of the most difficult things. I remember wondering to myself: how do street photographers take photos of strangers and not get punched in the face?

I watched street photography videos on YouTube (Bruce Gilden was a game-changer for me) and was shocked that it seemed that most of these street photographers didn’t get punched directly in the face after taking a photo (without permission) of a stranger nearly an arm-length away.

For many years I became obsessive with overcoming my personal fear of shooting street photography. I would try different techniques: asking for permission (before taking a photo), asking for permission (while taking a photo), and asking for permission (after taking a photo) without permission.

I would say that over the years of shooting street photography (I’ve been shooting for 8 years) I’ve mostly been able to overcome my personal fear of shooting street photography. There are tons of shots that I take now that I wouldn’t personally dare taking photos of even a few years back.

Overcoming the fear of rejection

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

I started to think to myself: what exactly is it about street photography which scares me?

Of course there is the obvious: I don’t want to get punched in the face, stabbed, or any other form of physical harm.

However there was another fear I had that I didn’t instantly realize— it was the fear of rejection (not the rejection itself).

What do I mean by this? Let me illustrate a story:

I was in high school, and wanted to ask out this very attractive and popular girl to prom. Except I was hideously afraid of being rejected. I imagined that I would approach her in the hallway (in between classes) and ask her something like, “Hey, I was wondering— would you want to go to prom with me?” I’d imagine her saying something like, “You? Go to the prom with me? Are you kidding? [Starts laughing] You’re such a loser, why would I go with you?”

I had this reoccurring fear for a long time— until one day I had the realization: I would prefer getting rejected rather than never trying.

Therefore one day I mustered up the courage and asked her to the prom. She then told me something like, “Oh Eric, you’re such a nice guy (worst line to hear as a guy)- but unfortunately I already have a date. See you around!”

Of course it felt pretty shitty to get rejected, but strangely enough— I felt more relief than anything. I had another huge realization: the rejection itself wasn’t as bad as I imagined it.

This story always comes to my mind and has directed how I live my life. Whenever I have a crazy idea that I want to try out, I always think to myself, “What is the worst that can happen? The worst is that someone will say no.” Actually there is one thing which is worse than having someone say no— which is not having the courage of even trying.

Trying to get rejected

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

I remember reading something in a business book (about selling) that being a salesman just comes down to statistics. For every 100 people you tell about your product, only 1 people will buy it (or something like that). So the book taught you: Don’t take the rejections personally, remember— it is just a numbers game.

I think one of the takeaways I had from the book was that instead of trying to get 1 sale (and trying 100 times)— it was better to think of solving the problem this way: try to purposefully get rejected 100 times, and then eventually someone will say “yes.”

So getting back to the topic at hand— how can we link this to street photography?

Well, I think most of the fears that we have in street photography isn’t the actual rejection from our subject, it is the fear of getting rejected.

Therefore one of the best ways to overcome your fears of shooting street photography is trying to purposefully get rejected.

So how can we do this?

Well, I have recently devised a street photography assignment at my workshops titled: “The 10 ‘No’ Challenge”. The concept? You have to go out to a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to take their photo, and you purposefully try to get 10 rejections as quickly as possible.

This is a direct way that I have students face their fears head-on. In as short as 30 minutes, most of them have a sudden sea-change; they realize that most of their fears of shooting street photography was all inside of their head (instead of being based in reality). Then most of the students come out of my workshops (still having some fears of shooting street photography) but at least 100 times more confident overall.

This is kind of similar to what I believe is called “exposure therapy” — which is used by psychologists to treat phobias that people have of heights, dogs, snakes, etc. You purposefully have people face their fears head-on (in increasing doses, starting from small, and increasing in intensity) and then soon the people re-program their mental wiring to not be afraid of a certain stimulus anymore.

Asking for permission vs shooting candidly

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

So some of my might be thinking, “But I don’t like to ask for permission when shooting street photography— I want to shoot candidly without permission and not have any fear.”

But to go back to the “exposure therapy” point— you want to start off not too intense. You want to start off with a low-exposure to the stimulus (the fear of taking photos of strangers) by first asking for permission. You need to first start off with training wheels before you can ride a bicycle.

So after the first assignment of trying to get 10 no’s as quickly as possible, then you work on shooting candidly without permission.

Also as a side-note to the “10 no” experiment— you purposefully approach the 10 “scariest looking” mofo’s out there (or other grouchy people you think will say “no”). Funny enough— it is often the scariest or unfriendliest people who are actually the friendliest (and vice-versa).

Trying to pick a fight

Downtown LA, 2014


If you ever watched the movie “Fight Club” — there is a scene in which Tyler Durden gives the members an assignment: try to pick a fight with a stranger.

Funny enough, the members actually have a really hard time having someone else fight them. Most people are pacifists and don’t resort directly to violence.

Now I’m not saying try to pick a fight in street photography (and get your face bashed in)— but if you’re afraid of shooting street photography, you’d be surprised how much you have to push someone before having them become physically violent towards you.

But we’re not going to push it that far— we are just going to try to be a little annoying.

So there is another assignment you can try (can be used after the “10 no” assignment) which is: take photos of a stranger until they get annoyed and walk away.

You can do this assignment in several different ways:

1) You can find a stranger sitting down at a cafe or at a stoplight (not moving) and just start taking photos of them without permission until they walk away.

2) You can ask for permission, and if a stranger says “ok” to being photographed— keep taking their photograph until they look a bit annoyed and tell you that they need to go.

3) Take a bunch of photos of a stranger (once again not moving like in #1) and when they give you a weird “what the fuck?” look— just wave at them, smile, and say “Oh, I’m just taking photos of you looking relaxed and cool. Just pretend like I’m not here” (and continue photographing).

I give these assignments for several reasons:

  1. Surprisingly most people will just ignore you (they might assume you are photographing someone else, or just a weird/annoying tourist).
  2. Most people are more patient than you might think. I once photographed a stranger (who told me he was in a hurry) for around 10 minutes, and he loved every minute of it. Most street photographers (when they ask for permission) make the common mistake of only taking 1 photo and letting the subjects walk away (fearing that they are annoying/wasting the time of their subject).
  3. Some people like to be photographed. Most street photographers who are afraid to take photos of a stranger generally don’t like to be photographed themselves. Therefore they make the wrong assumption: because I don’t like to be photographed, of course everyone else wouldn’t like to be photographed. This is false— as many people out there (like me, a huge narcissist) loves to be photographed.

Shooting street photography of strangers without permission, asking for permissions, etc forces us to challenge our own assumptions.

Get rejected everyday

Portland, 2014


The guy in the “Invisibilia” story on the “Fear” episode had an assignment: he would purposefully tried to get rejected at least once everyday.

He would ask ludicrous things— like asking strangers for money, for asking friends to drive him out of town, or for asking people to walk them to where he needed to go.

He got a lot of “no’s” — but surprisingly got a lot of “yes’s”. Sometimes when he would ask cashiers if they could give him a discount, many of them would randomly say “yes” — and give it to him.

So if you have a hard time facing the fear of rejection— try to purposefully get rejected at least once everyday. This doesn’t have to be photography-related. Ask a friend for a favor to introduce you to someone important. Ask a stranger on the street for a moment of their time for some request. If you’re short 25 cents, ask someone in a cafe if they could spare a quarter. Try to ask ridiculous things, and be happy and excited and say “Thank you” when people reject you (it is hilarious to see their facial expressions).

Be unusually friendly

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

Another great way to build your confidence is to just say hello to strangers, wave, and smile at them.

I have a self-imposed habit: whenever ordering a coffee, talking with a cashier, or talking with a waiter I always ask them for their name. I do this because I think the problem is that we look at a lot of service people and simply treat them like robots or machines. By saying “hello”, smiling, and asking for their name humanizes them— and brings them a lot of joy. I remember once I asked someone for their name and how their day was going (they looked pretty down and shitty)— and suddenly their frown literally turned upside down and told me, “Oh my God— thank you so much for asking. You’re literally the first person to ask me all day for my name or how I was doing. Thank you.”

Now you might be a little suspicious— you might think things like, “Oh— but that’s just being fake or feigning interest in someone when you’re not really.”

But I disagree. Try to genuinely be interested in the lives of others. Isn’t that why you are drawn and interested in street photography? Aren’t you interested in the human condition— how people think, feel, and experience the world? I think that is what makes us street photographers unique from other human beings out there— we actually give a shit how other people think, feel, and interact in the world.

Don’t know what to say to a stranger? Just ask how their day is going. If they give you the typical, “Fine, and you?” quote— be authentic and say something like, “Actually my day is coming along pretty horribly— I barely got any work done, am tired as hell, and could really use a coffee right now to re-inspire me.” When you make yourself vulnerable to a stranger — they will trust you more, also make themselves more vulnerable to you, and generally open up more.

Fear = thinking x time

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

There is a saying that if you are at a bar and you see an attractive person at the other corner — you have exactly 3 seconds to approach them and say “hello” and/or offer to buy them a drink. If you let time pass beyond those 3 seconds, you won’t have the courage to approach them and say hello.

At the end of the “Invisibilia” episode— apparently there is a “formula” to fear. The secret sauce is below:

Fear = thinking x time

1) Thinking: If we think about the repercussions of our actions too much (like taking a photo of a stranger without their permission) we won’t do so. So sometimes when you’re shooting street photography, it is good to be slightly mentally autistic and don’t pay too much attention to social “norms” or “etiquette.” I personally think of myself like a pigeon— whenever I see something shiny I am attracted to it, and just take a photograph of it.

2) Time: The longer you ruminate whether you should take a shot or not, the less likely you are to take it. For example, whenever I see a great scene or person I want to photograph, and I think to myself, “Should I, shouldn’t I?” I generally don’t take the shot. As time goes on, I begin to talk myself out of taking the photograph. So whenever you see a potentially great photograph you want to take, don’t hesitate— and don’t fall to “paralysis by analysis.” Just go for the shot.

Actionable assignments

As in business, here are some “actionable” assignments you can currently work on to overcome your fear of rejection (or of street photography in general):

  1. Go out, ask permission for strangers to take their photograph, and try to get 10 people to reject you as quickly as humanly possible. Look for people who you perceive to be “scary” and expect to say no.
  2. For an entire day, wave, smile, and say “hello” to every stranger that passes you in the street.
  3. Ask at least one person in the service industry (retail store, cafe, restaurant) how their day is going, and what their name is.
  4. Ask at least one unreasonable favor from a stranger or a friend (in trying to get rejected).
  5. Take photos of a stranger until they get annoyed and walk away. When they do, smile and say “thank you.”

If you want other street photography assignments to get you inspired, read this article: 15 Street Photography Assignments to Re-Energize and Re-Inspire You.