How to Photograph With Awareness and Sensitivity on the Street

Few things are more important as a street photographer than being clear on the context, or circumstances, in which you are photographing. You have decided to use reality as your canvas, and that’s a huge responsibility. Those are real, living and breathing people and places out there, and being sensitive to their perspective while you are pursuing your photography goals is paramount. 
With this knowledge in hand, you’ll be clearer on the dynamic you have set up as a photographer, better able to have conversations with bystanders and subjects in terms they will understand, and much more likely to get the photographs you are after. 
Here are some important things to keep in mind when you photograph the public:
Remember that making street photography is an unusual inclination. Most people have no idea that the genre of street photography exists, and most people do not understand why someone would want to photograph people they do not know. Realize that you are the unusual one, just by wanting to make street photography. 
There are countless observations to make about a particular place you are photographing. Here are just a few: 
  • What types of people inhabit it? Is it a mix of ethnicities or mostly one in particular? What is the social and economic situation in the area? 
  • Is it a well-populated setting or a rather remote one? Do people interact a lot with one another, or do they keep to themselves? 
  • What is the mood of the people or place? What time of day is it, and what might people be up to as a result? Are they on their way to work? Enjoying free time with friends? Getting out of school? 

A photographer in action on the streets of Ha Long Bay Vietnam 2007 Photograph by Amy Touchette
A photographer in action on the "streets" of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, 2007. Photograph by Amy Touchette.

Always keep in mind that your evaluation of a setting or a person is based on your own entirely subjective perspective. As a result, your judgments might very well not be true. 
No matter how much research or thought you’ve put into photographing a certain person or area, there’s always a whole lot you don’t know—and can’t know, for all kinds of reasons. It is this very presence of mystery that probably attracted you to photographing real life to begin with. Be open to listening, and learning, and adapting on a continuous basis as you photograph.    
Understanding the context in which you photograph involves as much self-reflection as it does reflecting on others. How do you, personally, fit into the mix of the scenario you are photographing? Are you similar to the people you are photographing, vastly different, or somewhere in between? 
You are automatically an outsider because you have a camera in your hand and earnest ambitions for how to use it, but being an outsider is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it can work in your favor. 
Think about your presence and what you infuse into the situation. Should you modify your appearance and/or your behavior to make the situation more agreeable to photographing? And if so, how? Those are questions only you can answer. 

Photographer Stephanie Keith at Yankassa June 2015 Photograph by Zali Muhammed
Photographer Stephanie Keith at Yankassa, June 2015. Photograph by Zali Muhammed. 

Photographer Stephanie Keith discusses how she modified her behavior to ease into a setting, but also embraced being an outsider, and how that process ended up cultivating an important connection: 
"I was photographing a story about Iftar, the community meal that is taken after the day long fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I had a contact at a mosque in the Bronx called Yankassa, and after some back and forth emails, was invited to have a look and photograph some. This mosque primarily serves the local Ghanian population in the Bronx. When it was almost time for the meal, they asked me to go to the women’s section where this photo was taken. I always wear a hijab when I go to a mosque out of respect for their culture. I had put the hijab on myself, but some of the girls were giggling that it looked odd, and I have to agree it did. I thought it would be a nice ice-breaker if they would help me put it on in a suitable fashion. They were more than happy to help, and it was actually a bonding experience between me and three of the other girls in the women’s section. I noticed that everyone was much more comfortable around me after, so I asked one of them to snap my picture with my phone."
Unfortunately people have grown more suspicious of photographers who use cameras in public spaces, due to the overabundance of surveillance, the increasing desire to protect one’s personal privacy, and the somewhat popular opinion that photographing people without asking beforehand infringes on their First Amendment rights.
Remember that you do have a legal right to photograph in any public space, as long as that space has not been roped off for an established reason. But ideally you want to photograph willing or at least indifferent participants, so do what you can to make the setting and people amenable to the medium of photography, keeping in mind it might very well be an uphill battle—but one you can possibly win with perseverance and your genuine good nature.
I, personally, prefer to photograph in areas where access isn’t a huge obstacle, since there's so much to be inspired by in places that are readily accessible (that said, the process of gaining access—i.e. trust—often reaps incredible rewards). 
But I get tempted to defy just like anyone else. Just seeing the sign “No photography allowed” will put the bug in me, and there can be many good and righteous reasons for jumping the fence. 
Just make sure that, should you decide to do so, you are prepared. Think about your approach, your methodologies, and your reasons for being there. Think about your emotional and physical safety and the consequences of getting caught, and whether the risks are worth it. Fear can be a gauge for inspiration, but it can also be a clear sign to stand back. (We will talk more about the role of fear in upcoming articles.) Analyze your motivations when you want to photograph where it is prohibited. 
I wrote about one of the rare times I did photograph in a place where it was banned in “When Photographing Is Forbidden: Making Portraits in the McCarren Park Pool Locker Room” and, as you might glean from the text and the comments, breaking the rules also means having a thick skin. It’s a worthwhile muscle to exercise, but an important consideration to factor in as you decide whether to put yourself on the line.
. . . because when you're actually photographing, it's more about feeling than thinking. You’ve analyzed your setting and made observations and judgments about it. You’ve thought about how you do and do not fit in, about the current place photography has in the world, and about your thoughts on breaking the rules. And you’ve used all that analysis to formulate an awareness of your subjects and a way to approach them. 
But as Joel Meyerowitz says, “Photography is about being exquisitely present,” and that requires letting in a sense of ease. When it comes time for photographing, relax and enjoy yourself. Trust that you will handle things the best way you know how.

Williamsburg Brooklyn 2011 Photograph by Amy Touchette
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2011. Photograph by Amy Touchette.

Street photography is an art—a wild, beautiful mess of improvisational art—and this part of the process is also. Obviously there is no fool-proof way to be fully in tune with the circumstances under which you are photographing. But by at least trying to be, you pay public space the amount of respect it’s due, and you are as thoughtful, and open, and effective as possible in your interactions, whether verbal or wordless.


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