I teach a lot of street photography workshops for a living. I’m always wondering, “How can I best empower my students, help them build their confidence, and ultimately make better images?”
Honestly, the most important way for a photographer to make better images is to build their social skills.
Social skills permeate all aspects of street photography.
For example, having the confidence to make a photograph of a person, and having the social skills to interact with that person (if you piss them off), or if you want to ask for permission for a “street portrait.”
Furthermore, I feel that street photographers need skills to talk to other photographers. We need to have the social skills to ask for comments and critique from other photographers we admire, in order to grow.
If you want to have your own exhibition or gallery show, unfortunately it is less about your artistic skills as a photographer and more about how good you are at “networking” and “politicking” (social skills). The same goes with academia, business, and all sorts of human life.
How to build your social skills
One of the best ways to build your social skills is to treat everyone like your friend, treating them with empathy, love, and respect. Often times we look at strangers like NPCs (non playable characters in a video game, when you can’t interact with them).
We forget that others are human beings too. They have their life goals, their own ambitions, and anxieties. We forget that others have first names, probably hate their jobs, and have dreams and passions.
I also think a lot of arguments in life and the streets happen from misunderstanding. I’ve once took a photo of a lady who got really passed off. I thought I did it in a non threatening way; upon talking to her for around 30 minutes I discovered she was paranoid because she literally had stalkers who were ruining her life. If I just told her to screw off and asserted my “photography rights” I would have never discovered her perspective.
Speaking of which, always try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Do this when judging your own images, when interacting with others, in order to get inside their head. The more you can see the perspective of the other, the more you can empathize with them, and expand your own world view.
If you live in the West, unfortunately you need to be good at “small talk” to “be successful” and integrate well with others.
For me, I think it’s about trying to find some sort of common ground with another stranger as quickly as possible.
For example, whenever I ride an Uber I’ll ask the driver for his “life story.” Most people are excited to share their life story. And then I’ll find out other commonalities I have with them, and connect with them on a deeper basis.
Also when I’m interacting with strangers in the streets, I’ll look for other cues to interact with them. I’ll see their clothing, and either compliment them on their outfit and try to explain why I like it. I (unfortunately) know too much about clothing brands, so I like to analyze how people dress themselves in order to express themselves.
Body language is key
You don’t always need to talk to strangers in the streets. You can be the “stealth” street photographer. But know that having social skills can really help to have body language which suggests that you are not taking a photo of them.
For example, if you know how to show body language and eye contact to be fully-engaged in a conversation (facing the person, nodding your head) then when you’re out in the streets point your body away from your subjects, and don’t make eye contact.
I also feel that the more confidence I have in approaching strangers and asking them to take a portrait (with permission), I’m more comfortable shooting candid photos without permission (social skills help me be less anxious around strangers).
Train your social skills daily
While I’m a lot more confident now than I was ten years ago, I still get nervous and anxious. And that’s what makes street photography so challenging and exciting.
Landscape photography is boring to me, because it doesn’t challenge me socially or mentally. Landscape photography is difficult for different reasons (having the tenacity to wake up at 3am), but not my cup of tea.
Also I don’t think that social skills are inborn. Sure some of us are naturally more extroverted and introverted, but to interact with strangers is a skill that comes over time.
As an extrovert, I’m comfortable with friends and family and I’ll chat my head off. But I’m still nervous and suspicious around strangers, and I really need to push myself out of my comfort zone to make myself naked in front of them.
As a rule, the more you open your soul to others, the more they open their souls to you.
Treat others like yourself
Don’t be afraid of strangers. They’re your potential friends that you haven’t encountered yet. If they’re older, treat them as they were your parents. If they’re younger, treat them like your younger brother, sister, or cousin.
Always make love, compassion, and positivity your mission statement. Then you will have all the confidence and courage in the world to make the art you were born to make.
April 28, 2016
To learn how to interact with people on the streets, check out my “Chicago Street Portrait GoPro POV” videos on YouTube.