Street photography has always been a huge drive behind my work. In this article, I share some personal experiences, challenges, and photographs from my adventures over the past year trying to go unnoticed on the streets.
You know that moment when you’re in a public place—let’s say a line at the supermarket—and you’re honestly going about your own business. You’re running late, the person in front of you has enough food in their shopping cart to stock an emergency storm shelter, and you have a million things on your mind. But something makes you stop and look up in a particular direction to meet a pair of eyes staring at you from across the room. You awkwardly look away as quickly as possible, but look back again to make sure they felt as awkwardly as you did. Well, imagine being the person on the other side of the room, except you’re holding a camera in front of your face.
My attempts to go unnoticed as a street photographer aren’t always as graceful as I wish they were. Street photography is a beautiful art form that captures the honesty of average human life and routine. But doing so, finding those decisive moments, takes practice.
I shoot mostly on my Canon AE-1 with a 35-105mm lens. I’ve found that a zoom lens and a little bit of guts can be your biggest friends when trying to take photographs of strangers. Of course, it’s impossible to go unnoticed all of the time. My first experience of being caught went surprisingly well. I was in a market in Cleveland, Ohio and wanted to take a photograph of a butcher texting behind the counter with the LCD screen illuminating his face. I was pretty far away, but he looked up and saw me taking his picture. I simply lowered the camera from my face and smiled. He relaxed and smiled back. I then got this shot:
However, I recently had a more dramatic interaction while traveling in Toronto, Ontario. I shot a photograph of a woman sitting at a table reading a book, and she must have heard my shutter click, causing her to look up and see me standing there. Immediately, she grew tense and became aggressive toward me, demanding I delete the photograph. I apologized and calmly tried to explain that I was shooting on film, so the photograph could not be viewed or deleted immediately. She chewed my ear off a little longer and I had to walk away.
In situations like this, it is best to calmly explain your purpose for taking the photograph ( I always say I am simply a student completing an assignment—even if it is self-assigned). This will usually clear the air. However, if someone gets particularly angry, I try to remember that I have the right to photograph in a public space and a civilian cannot demand that I delete a photo (in most cases). Thus, streets, sidewalks, and mostly anything that can be seen from them, are fair game.
Some photographers feel they have a moral or ethical obligation to ask for their subject’s permission to be photographed. I find this not to be very ideal for my work, however. The instant a person knows they’re being photographed, their posture, facial expression and demeanor change. What I want to capture, what street photography captures, are raw moments where people are so caught up in whatever it is they’re doing that they don’t notice the camera. I wander the streets trying to document what is real, searching for moments that would otherwise be forgotten.