I’m in this interesting genre of photography called “street photography”. It’s a funny, fulfilling, and epic genre of photography in which we have this passion and curiosity of photographing strangers.
But before I talk about specifics on how to photograph strangers, let’s tackle a bigger question: Why photograph strangers?
So for myself, I photograph strangers because it opens up my world, perspective, and fulfills my inner-curiosity in other people. I studied sociology (the “science” of people) in school, and have always found human beings to be the most fascinating things. Why? Because it’s practical; as humans we all have to live in society with other humans. So sociology tackles questions like, “How can I best live with other people? How can I “succeed” in a world with other people?” And the deepest question,
What does it mean to be human?
In modern society, we have “xenophobia” (xeno: foreign / phobia: fright). We are afraid of the foreign. We’re afraid of foreign people; we even all them “illegal aliens” (dehumanizing them, seeing them like green aliens from UFOS).
I think street photography is the opposite reaction. We have “xenophilia” (love of foreigners). We are curious in other human beings (just like children), and we aren’t clouded with judgements, biases, racism, or stereotyping.
For example, when I was a kid, I didn’t see color. My best friends when I was 11 years in Bayside, Queens (New York) was my buddies Spencer (Spanish), Aditya (Indian), Jonathan (Jewish), Christian (Brazilian), Steven Chen and Pai (both Chinese), David (Korean). We were the ultimate rainbow crew, and we never hated on one another, besides when my friends said my house smelled like kimchi, and my friend Adityas house smelled like curry.
Anyways, I also believe that photographing strangers builds empathy. We feel their pain, we feel their emotions, we see the world from their perspective. We can also feel their joy, excitement, and warmth!
Sociology was a great major, but limited. We weren’t allowed to take photos of people and communities we were studying, because of “ethical” concerns. But now, I feel like I’m onto something interesting; bringing the gap between Sociology and Photography, which is street photography or Visual Sociology.
We use visual images (photos, videos etc) to better understand people, humanity, and society!
How to Photograph Strangers
We can photograph strangers in many different ways. For example,
- Ask for permission to take their photo
Shoot their photograph without permission (candidly, without talking or interacting with them)
First start talking to your subject, then take photos of them while they’re talking (without permission).
Start talking to the stranger then about 5 minutes in, ask for permission to photograph them.
I’ve also found these tips to help:
- Tell your subject you’re nervous to photograph them. This will make your subjects more empathetic, and more willing to be photographing them.
Give your subject “tactful flattery“, compliment them on why you find them interesting or beautiful.
Try to get rejected. Approach a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to photograph them, and keep asking until you get 10 rejections/”no’s”. More assignments in STREET HUNT.
Prepare to get rejected
Practical tip: take a Stoic approach. Expect to get rejected before asking for permission. This means if you get rejected, you won’t be sad or offended.
Shooting without permission
My simple suggestion, when photographing strangers without permission: If you take photos of a stranger, and they notice you making their photo, don’t just turn around and run away. Instead, make eye contact and smile! Smiling is the ultimate “life hack” in life and photography.
Predict the worst case scenario
Another Stoic Street Photography approach: Prepare for your subject getting angry. Then how will you respond?
I generally just apologize, and move on. I’ll look at the photo on my lcd screen, and if the photo isn’t good, I’ll delete it. If the photo is good, I will just say “Sorry for offending you, but I don’t delete photos.”
To be honest, you might get into trouble photographing kids. But I do it all the time, with no problems. I just make sure TO NOT be candid. I talk with the kids, I interact with them. I crouch down and play with them. I open up my own inner child with them, and then the parents are cool. Often, I’ll offer to email the photo to the parents.
You’re doing a good thing for society!
Never forget, you’re not just a creep or a weirdo for shooting street photography. You’re a visual historian, you’re a visual-social anthropologist. You’re doing a “net positive” to society by making photos of others, even if you might “minorly annoy” them.
Photography has to do with the impermenance of life, the fleeting moment, and documenting beauty around us. As photographers, we aren’t just photographers. We are artist-philosophers whom are seeking to understand both ourselves and others through the act of making photos.
Questions to reflect on:
- What kind of mood or emotion are you trying to convey through your photos?
Are your photos more about yourself, or others?
If you didn’t own Facebook or Instagram or any other form of social media, would you still make photos? Where else would you share your photos? Who would you share your photos with?
How does it feel while you’re in the zone of making photos? How do you feel once you get home? How do you feel when you’re looking through your photos?
Ultimately, are you a positive/optimistic person and photographer, or are you a pessimist?
For myself, whenever I make a photo of anything or of a stranger, I’m blessing them. I see a person or a moment and I think,
Wow this is a beautiful moment. I want to capture this moment and share it with others, to inspire and empower others as much as this moment empowered me!
Seeing through the eyes of someone else
Photography is phenomenal. Consider, you can show others what you saw! You have the control to frame your scene in a way which you want to present your own version of reality. Isn’t that amazing???
Ultimately, I always see photography as self therapy. When I’m making photos, I’m happier. I’m more optimistic. I find more beauty and joy in the world!
Don’t just take photos of strangers. Photograph your loved ones, just like how I photograph Cindy.
Ultimately the fate we all share is death. So never let fear hold you back from making any type of photos.
Be bold, and fly higher. Make more photos and rack up those frequent fliers.
Make photos which make your heart sing. Keep on winning everyday, win that 6th ring.
Don’t worry about the gear or equipment. Make photos with whatever camera or phone you have, just make sure to shoot photos which you think are authentic and real to you. Stay glued to your own creative vision, just like super glue.
With photography, we have a lot to chew with our eyes. Much of the world is shrouded in shadows and disguised. Before you die, before your own personal demise, be the nice guy, and smile. You’re going to be alive for a while, so why not use that opportunity to make photos that make your heart sing?
Make photos, dance and love. Be the black swan, Michael Jackson with the thrilling white glove.
Your photos might scare, confuse, or provoke, but don’t choke! Never doubt yourself, and stay true, even though you’re beaten pink and blue.
The world is a fun visual zoo; your own personal visual playground. So don’t quiet or mute yourself; play your photos loud!