Tokyo, 2012
Tokyo, 2012

“The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

I genuinely feel that one of the worst diseases in the modern world is having a sense of “irrational fear.” We have been born with DNA which wires our brains to be “risk averse” — meaning that we prefer to avoid risks rather than to gain rewards.

What do we have to really fear?

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For example, if you go to a casino, losing $100 feels twice as painful as winning $100.

But honestly, today we have nothing to fear. In the past, we feared death, starvation, and poverty. While poverty still affects millions of people around the world, if you are reading this (and have access to an internet connection)— I highly doubt you will starve to death.

Even in America, there are many people who are starving and hungry, but very few people die from not having enough food. In-fact, more people die from overeating unhealthy foods (both the rich and the poor).

Avoid regrets

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Anyways, I have thought about street photography and fear for a very long time. I have missed thousands of potentially good photos because fear held me back.

I genuinely do believe that street photography is 80% courage, confidence, and not having the fear to make a photo.

If you have fear before taking a photo, congratulations— you are a normal human being. You are afraid that a person will yell at you, call the cops on you, or even worse— physically attack you and (possibly) kill you.

I have been fortunate that the last 10 years of shooting street photography, I have (yet) been punched in the face, and certainly haven’t been killed yet. I have gotten into a few scuffles here and there, but honestly— I have gotten into worse physical altercations on the playground as a child than as an adult shooting street photography.

Humans are mirrors

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Humans are mirrors— meaning that the self that you show to others is the self they will show to you.

For example, if you show fear or timidity to your subjects, they will also feel fear and feel uncomfortable around you.

However if you approach your subjects and photograph them confidently and like you’re not doing anything wrong, they won’t feel offended or upset by it.

You’re doing nothing wrong

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Dogs can literally smell fear (the adrenaline and the sweat glands that comes out of your pores when you are afraid). However if you show a dog (or wolf) that you aren’t afraid of it, you are better off scaring it off by yelling at it (rather than looking meek and trying to run away).

If you ever approach someone who gets angry at you in street photography, don’t act meek like you did something wrong. I don’t advocate yelling back at the person, but be firm— stand your ground, assert that you did nothing wrong, apologize, and just keep moving on.

Legally (in most countries, especially the states) it is 100% legal to take photos of strangers without their permission in public places. If you happen to take a photo of a stranger, they get angry, and you simply walk away— legally the stranger isn’t allowed to grab you. That is technically assault on their end.

Don’t argue

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Another practical tip when you potentially get into an argument when shooting street photography: don’t argue. It is irrational to think that other humans are rational.

It doesn’t matter if you walk around with “street photography laws” in your pocket. If you wave a piece of paper with your “rights” on it— if a person is pissed off, this will piss them off even more.

I have tried to “convince” the other person that shooting photos of strangers in public places are legal, but have never been successful. You cannot “rationalize” a situation when the other person is fuming and blinded by anger.

Rather, apologize for upsetting the person, but don’t say that you did anything wrong. Let the person vent their energy at you (kind of how boxers tire out their opponents via ‘rope a dope’). Don’t say anything excessive to defend yourself.

In most cases, the photo you took of a stranger isn’t very good. I personally take about one good street photograph a month that I am proud of. So statistically speaking, it is very unlikely that a photo you shoot of a random stranger is any good.

So when you get into a heated argument, take a look at your LCD screen and consider whether the photo is “worth it.” If it isn’t, simply offer to delete the photo. If you think, however, it is your “Pulitzer prize” winning photo— then apologize and tell your subject that you don’t delete photos.

I have shot many photos of strangers on film (which pissed them off). In these cases the people threaten and yell at me and tell me to take out the film. I am proud to say that I have never taken out any film— because I am not willing to ruin other potentially good shots on the roll. And nobody can “force” you to take the film out of your camera, not even the cops.

Imagine the worst-case scenario

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Another thing that has personally helped me overcome my fear of shooting street photography is imagining the absolute worst-case scenario.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is getting punched in the face. I used to box my friends a lot in high school, and while getting punched in the face isn’t pleasant, it honestly isn’t that big of a deal.

I would also argue that physical pain is a lot less painful than mental pain. I’ve felt more pain from the guilt of upsetting a friend, than getting knocked slightly unconscious from a boxing glove.

I think every street photographer needs to learn how to take a punch if he/she wants to overcome their fear of shooting street photography.

Don’t be stupid

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Of course, it is good to have “balls of steel” in street photography— but it is also important to not be stupid.

For example, it is not a good idea to be “fearless” if you are a white tourist walking around a favela in Brazil. Furthermore, not a good idea as an Asian walking around Compton late at night with an expensive-looking camera.

Generally everyone has a different appetite for risk. I generally stay out of shady neighborhoods, and if I happen to shoot in a neighborhood I am not comfortable in, I ask for permission.

Also as a general rule, if you see a photo that you want to take of a stranger (yet the guy has a face-tattoo or might look gang-affiliated), I always ask for permission. After all, if you ask a gang-member for permission to take their photo, they won’t suddenly stab you for just asking for permission. Also realize that even gang-members have a strong sense of honor and respect; it is only the psychopaths in horror movies that do random acts of violence.

Be comfortable on the other end

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Another tip I recommend to become more fearless in street photography is to be comfortable being photographed.

Ask yourself this question: “Do you like having your own photo taken?”

If the answer is, “no” — then you have a problem.

Why?

You assume that everyone else doesn’t like having their photo taken (which isn’t true).

I, for example, am an attention-whore. I love being the center of the spotlight at the party. I love having my photos taken. Therefore realize that everyone in the world doesn’t have the same preferences as you.

If you want to be comfortable photographing other people, you need to learn how to be comfortable being photographed as well. As an assignment, I recommend trying to shoot self-portraits of yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I not like about having my photo taken?” Is it because you don’t like the way you look in general, or you don’t think people know how to photograph you well?

Therefore when you are shooting street photography consider the following question: do certain strangers not like having their photo taken because they are insecure about their self-image? Or because they have never had a flattering photo shot of them before?

Sebastiao Salgado has a point that he doesn’t want to take a portrait of anybody else without making them look “honorable.” And what is your goal as a street photographer— do you want to make people look excessively ugly and disfigured? Or do you want to make them look beautiful? Ask yourself these ethical questions— and it can help overcome some psychological barriers when it comes to shooting street photography.

Candid is not always better

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Another common misconception is that street photography is always better when it is shot candidly.

I disagree.

A lot of street photographs can be much more interesting when you interact with your subject, and draw out a certain personality out of them.

William Klein did this a lot— he was like a director on the streets. He would often talk with his subjects and provoke them to make more interesting gestures in his images. For example, in his famous “Kid with gun” photo, he pointed the camera at a kid with a gun and told him: “Look tough.” Had Klein never provoked the kid that way, we would have never gotten that image.

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In-fact, I think it is much more difficult to make an interesting street photograph that is shot with permission or with consent.

Why?

Generally when you ask for permission, people will do the typical “peace sign” or will just look plain boring. However candid photos generally look more natural, because they don’t look “posey.”

But can you make a candid photo of someone with permission?

This technique is trying to get people to “drop their guard” and to catch the “unguarded moment”.

Let’s say you ask permission of someone to take their photograph. Assume they say yes. Now it is your job to talk to them, engage them, and make photos of them when they are not self-conscious of the camera. Generally I will ask people, “What is your life story?” or I will ask them, “What is your dream?” When people start thinking how to respond and start talking, they forget about you, and that is the moment you can make interesting “candid” images (with permission)

Are you afraid of being rejected?

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There is a classic assignment for newbie salespeople: you need to get 100 rejections.

The interesting thing is that most salespeople have a difficult time getting 100 rejections (when cold calling, knocking on doors, or trying to sell products to friends or family).

Most salespeople starting off fear failure. They fear rejection.

But in reality, when you get rejected, it isn’t nearly as bad as you imagine it.

One of the assignments I give at my workshops is the “10 no challenge.” The idea is that in street photography, we often over-estimate how bad people are going to reject us (than the real-life rejection). In my experience, when most people say “no” to being photographed, they are quite nice about it. They will say that they are in a rush, that they don’t look good that day, or just say “no” politely.

So try it out— go out on the streets and literally try to get 10 people to say “no” to being photographed. You will find it is much more difficult than it seems.

Push past your comfort zone

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Let’s say you are comfortable photographing people at 5 meters away. Try to close that gap— get comfortable shooting at 3 meters, then 2 meters, then 1.2 meters, then .7 meters.

Treat getting closer to your subjects as a way to build your confidence.

A lot of Americans are afraid of shooting strangers at a close distance because of this socialized concept of “personal space.” Interestingly enough, if you go to Asia— you will find out that “personal space” is a lot closer. I generally find Asians more comfortable standing close to a stranger (than a white American).

Realize that all these socialized “rules” aren’t really rules at all— they are flexible concepts that are superimposed on you as a child.

In-fact, there are no “rules” in society which are hard. With enough training, we can “de-socialize” ourselves to these B.S. rules that society forces upon us.

I learned this trick from my buddy Satoki Nagata called the “.7 meter challenge” — the idea is that for a month, you pre-focus your lens to .7 meters (about one arm length away), and you are only allowed to shoot at that distance for a month. Of course, generally taking photos of strangers at that close of a distance requires you to ask for permission.

So you start off by asking for permission, and once you are comfortable shooting at .7 meters, you can now take a step back with great ease.

Perhaps you can even make it a challenge to stand closer to your friends and family when talking with them. Granted you might make other people feel uncomfortable— but try pushing your own personal boundaries and comfort levels.

Life is boring if we are content with the status-quo.

If you are a bodybuilder, would you want to only bench press 100 pounds for the rest of your life? Hell no— you want to slowly (but surely) make progress in your life, until you hit your biological limit.

Similarly in photography— don’t let fear hold you back. See how far you can keep pushing forward your confidence, and also achieve your personal maximum courage in your street photography.

Become fearless

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The more fearless you get in your street photography, it will help you in all ways of your life.

You will be more courageous in your personal life, your business life, your family life, and your photographic life.

Take risks, have fun, and push your limits. Never settle; achieve your personal potential.

Conquer your fears

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