Learn From the Masters: Lesson #6 Provoke Your Subjects

Copyright: William Klein
Copyright: William Klein

“Rather than catching people unaware, they show the face they want to show. Unposed, caught unaware, they might reveal ambiguous expressions, brows creased in vague internal contemplation, illegible, perhaps meaningless. Why not allow the subject the possibility of revealing his attitude toward life, his neighbor, even the photographer?” – William Klein

There is a general scorn in street photography against “posed” photos (or photos that aren’t shot candidly). A lot of people follow the Henri Cartier-Bresson school of street photography in which the photographer shouldn’t interact with his/her subjects, and to be an unattached observer.

However there is more than one approach to street photography. On the other extreme of Henri Cartier-Bresson (who covered his silver Leica with black tape to be more discrete) is William Klein; a street photographer who gave a middle-finger to all of the “rules” in photography, and acted like a director on the streets. He would provoke his subjects, and interact with them.

Even for his most famous “kid with gun” photograph, he told the kid: “Look tough.” At that moment, the kid with the toy gun pointed the gun to Klein’s face with a look of hate, anger, and intensity.

I often take this approach in street photography (similar to Klein). While I do enjoy shooting a lot of candid street photographs, I also like to engage and provoke my subjects. Sometimes I will tell them to just look into the lens and not smile. Other times I will ask them to explicitly do things for me (look the other direction, cross your arms, take a puff of your cigarette, look down).

But once you engage your subjects and ask them to do something for you, doesn’t it make the photograph less legitimate? Doesn’t the photograph become less about the subject, and more about you?

Every photograph we take is a self-portrait of ourselves. We decide how to filter reality. We decide what to put into the frame and what to exclude. So don’t have any personal qualms about showing your own version of reality through your photography. Embrace it.

“Can you do that again for me?”


Sometimes you see things happen in the street; certain gestures, facial expressions, or actions by your subjects. A tip? I approach the subject and ask them: “Oh, I just saw you blowing your nose. Can you blow your nose again for me?” This is what I did in the photograph above.

Believe it or not, most people are quite happy to repeat certain gestures for you.

Another thing you can do: if you see an interesting scene approach the subject and tell them: “Excuse me, I think you look really cool smoking on this corner here. Do you mind if I take a few photographs, and you just pretend like I’m not here?’ The majority of people will laugh, and comply, and literally ignore you.

If your subjects don’t ignore you, simply linger around. The longer you wait, the more people begin to ignore you, and just continue their business. Once they drop their guard, start shooting.

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