In the first article on street portraits, I talked about why I find street portraits (i.e. portraits of strangers in the street) so fascinating, while in the second article, I discussed the unexpected that could happen when people pose for you, and what makes an image interesting.
In this last part on street portraits, I want to describe the actual experience of asking people for permission.
I have mentioned this earlier, but people’s approach to being photographed varies greatly by culture. In India, as a westerner one is constantly being asked to pose – so it is no big deal to ask a local to take their picture. You find also in other parts of Asia as well, notably China. I can’t comment on other western nations, but Europeans overall are more guarded, and Germans even more so. Germans may very well tell you off in no uncertain terms if you try to photograph them, or indeed if they notice you trying to photograph someone else; or they would turn their back to the camera or hide behind their hand. However, I have found that, if I ask people’s permission, they react less defensively; they don’t feel sneaked up upon and they have a choice in the matter, so overall they react more reasonably; at the very least they are polite whatever there reactions are.
Accosting a stranger and asking for a photo is, to me at least (and I’m sure to many others) a leap of faith and somewhat intimidating. You do feel like you’re trespassing onto someone’s private space, and of course you never know how the person will react. So sometimes you have decide what is scarier: asking a person for permission, or photographing them secretly and risk getting caught.
Although I have been doing this now for a couple of years, I still experience a sense of trepidation before asking someone, a fear of the unknown. I shouldn’t: in general, people are very polite when rejecting a request; I have so far only gotten one unkind reaction.
Eric Kim notes in his Street Portrait Manual that sometimes the scariest-looking people can be the nicest ones. I have yet to ask any really scary ones, but I found that people who may look intimidating due to their tattoos or piercings are usually extrovert enough to be willing to pose for a picture (as always there are exceptions to every rule, as I mentioned in last week’s article). Women are understandably less eager to be photographed, and trying to ask a person hurrying down a street is mostly futile – people hanging out in a given place are more likely to have time for a photo.
The easiest environment to get people to pose for you is at events where people are enjoying themselves, and where everyone is clicking pics anyway. For example, I have had good results at Berlin’s Carnival of Culture as well as various Christopher Street Day parades.
I seldom ask groups of people to pose: generally I find groups to behave in a silly way when posing, and the result often looks forcibly “jolly.”
Some people obviously want to know why you want to take their picture. I usually say that I like to photograph interesting people, which of course is true; or I specifically mention why they interest me – their tattoos for example. However, quite often these people know why you want to capture them and they don’t need to ask. It’s surprising how few people actually do want to know.
Depending on the situation, I strike up a conversation before or during the shooting. This depends on whether there is some obvious topic to talk about (which often enough turns around the reason why I find that person interesting). I also have to feel that my counterpart is interested in having a conversation. Sometimes (especially abroad), it may just be the other way round, and you find yourself the topic of the conversation. I don’t usually do small talk – either there is a topic available or there isn’t. If here isn’t, that’s fine too, I found. However, whenever I did enter into an exchange with the other person, I usually find the experience enriching.
So in summary, although the experience of asking strangers to pose for you may sound intimidating, it’s not as scary as one might think, and largely a rewarding experience, both in the quality of the photo you (may) get, and in the interactions that I experience with my counterpart.
In other words, it’s all very exciting.
For more of my street portraits, check out my Flickr album on Street Portraits.