Street Photography : Feelings of Fear and Risk when You Take Shots of Strangers on the Street

It’s not how a photographer looks at the world that is important. It’s their intimate relations with it. — Antoine D’Agata

As a street photographer I think about “why?”, very often.

It’s in our nature, we always want more. So, when I ask why do I take photos on the street, I already know the answer, but I want more answers.

It’s as if I’m piling up a lot of information about my actions to confirm that I’m Okay, I have a right to do this.

To take photos of people who never asked to have a photo taken, and my desire to take the risk of being caught out and snapped-at by an angry stranger. It feels risky, all the time.

Maybe, if I’m unlucky I might experience a Bruce Gilden moment, and get a punch in the mouth. He’s had a few.

Street photography is a battle with your own fears. The fear of offending a person, in some way or another.

Taking shots is about dealing with feelings of fear and risk when you take street shots of strangers on the street. That’s a fact, but it doesn’t answer our questions about why we need to do this thing.

I think we need to experience the fear, or at least wind ourselves up into a state of positive tension that creates a powerful feeling of anticipation.

If your mind is positively tense, knowing that you could see something soon, a composition on a street corner that offers, something like, the perfect shot, then it’s a good feeling. We capture moments that seem important in the moment.

Street Photography; a man walks along a street, a shutter in the background
Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenod on Unsplash

Many street photographs are shot at a distance. And they are good. I sometimes feel like I’m hiding out, hunkered down, holding my camera to look as if it’s unimportant, my body language casual. I’m waiting. And I don’t want the eyes on me, I want the luxury of my eyes roving everywhere. My choices and picks from what’s happening on the street. The moment will come.

But I’m still not getting up close. Why’s that?

I worry that if I encounter a conflict with another person, then I’ll be wrong, and they’ll be right. They can tell me straight, “don’t photograph me!”. That’s that. I have to comply.

So my cowardly feet shuffle back a few metres, and the tension drops with each lost metre between myself and my subjects. I convince myself that I find the architecture so important, I’ll take a shot of a building and the people will act as props — or tiny ant like objects passing by.

So, I end up with a decent shot. But it’s what I call a sneaky shot. And I know that later, when I post process, I’ll be so tempted to get up close by cropping the photo, and making the person in it more important.

That’s okay. But it isn’t getting up close in reality. And I think that’s the why of the matter.

It’s the heart of all photography. We want to get up close and deal with reality, face up to it, and capture the moment.

Group of people walking on the street, black and white photo
Photo by Craig Ren on Unsplash

We hope to capture emotions. The smile of happiness on the street, or the sad face that stands in a crowd. Human experience.

Up close gives us a better shot all round. The lens is designed to get close enough to pick up details. From a distance those detailed nuances would be lost in the noise of too many light waves.

Two Men and a Dog in Berlin

If we pluck up courage and go out to do street photography with a sharp mind, and a professional attitude, then we are ready for the world.

To step out of our comfort zones — the one that tells us to play it safe — and meet things head on. If we point our camera and discover that we have pissed somebody off, then we can always talk to them. Disarm them by throwing absolute understanding at them. “Sorry, it looked like a great shot — you’re very photogenic. I won’t take the shot.” Simple. And it works.

But I guarantee you, that if you get up close and take shots with your 50 mm, or a 35 mm, then mostly, you won’t encounter the problems that you thought would exist. They are all in your mind.

Fear exists in our minds only, the real world has better things to do that get involved with the street photographer on the corner.

Ostkreuz Bahnhof in Berlin, Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2022
Evening Light — Dusk

Street photography served as a solution for a problem.

I had to get out of the house. The amount of time that I spend sitting at my computer, writing, researching and reading, stiffened my muscles and a caused tunnel vision.

I Picked up a camera and walked out the door, in the wind and rain of autumn, or the sunshine of a new day, it worked out to be just the ticket for freshening up my thoughts.

Street photography also led down a new avenue of thoughts about what makes me happy. Personal satisfaction with our actions is as important as food.

We take photos because we need to reflect. This is how we understand ourselves, and others.

Street photography offers a different challenge than studio photography. We have to be light on our toes, and quick thinking and fast with our fingers.

If you are having a quiet day, and don’t feel like mixing it up on the street, then tell yourself that you’ll do some shots of architecture.

As you do these shots, you’ll see faces behind the cafe windows, people sitting on trains, reading and talking. Human emotions. It creates desire in you, you’ll want to take a little risk and snap a few quick shots.

It’ll give you the chance to test your courage out. To step forwards and be close when you push the shutter button. It’ll make you realise that not everybody is out to stop you taking photos — they actually don’t care, or they don’t mind.

When I’m out and about with my camera, I sometimes see another street photographer. I walk a little slower, and hope that they’ll take a shot of me.

I wear a smart looking stingy hat, a pressed Ben Sherman shirt and trouser, I probably look a little “Mod”, in style. A tasty looking bloke strolling along the boulevards of Berlin. I’d take the shot.

Sean P. Durham. Self Portrait while playing the guitar. Berlin, 2022
Self Portrait while playing the guitar. Berlin, 2022

I don’t mind. It won’t change my life. I won’t get negative publicity because of it, and the newshounds won’t be encamped outside my door in the morning. A nice shot, no big deal. Take and be happy.

Scooter ridden by Mods
Photo by Alan Findlay on Unsplash

I think many people on the street have this attitude. If you are polite and respectful of people’s face space, and the action of taking a shot lasts for a snap of a moment in time, people will just smile and walk on, or not notice. That’s candid street photography.

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