My social phobia kicked in when I was about 14 years old. An unfortunate combination of puberty, badly spoken English and sudden weight gain (an émigré from the Soviet Union discovering pizza! soft drinks! hot pockets!!) will do that to you. Most public encounters were an excruciating ordeal. One time, I fainted in front of my classmates during a presentation. I never went to prom.
When, 15 years later, I decided to become a documentary photographer, social anxiety remained the biggest hurdle. How do you photograph people if you are afraid of them?
My first street images were mostly sleeping people and side shots taken with trembling hands. I thought they were poetic. Bruce Gilden, infamous street photographer and my mentor, thought otherwise. He immediately recognized them as evasive and timid. I can't quite recall if he used the word "trash" or I imagined it in my hazy moment of defeat, but I do remember I cried. Defensively, I whipped out the social phobia card expecting sympathy. What I got was possibly the best advice of my career. "Who cares?"
"You either get over it or get out of the game." Bruce never minced words.
For the next few weeks, I was hysterical and despondent, working on the epitaph to my nascent photographic career. If only, like many skittish introverts, I liked to shoot landscapes. But the only reason I got into photography was to satisfy my intense curiosity about human behavior. The camera was my passport to participation in social life that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Giving up would have been tremendously anti-climactic.
I decided I had no choice but to get over it.
That took me about a decade.
Photographing people who are unaware of being photographed is a tricky undertaking. The challenge is to avoid those covert side angles without being so obvious as to alert the subject. If latter happens, the situation switches from candid to evasive/confused/angry or, my least favorite, posed (if you ever meet me on the street and want to avoid having your picture taken, give me a thumbs up and a smile). The kind of photos I wanted to make — both unposed and in-your-face — required me to position myself squarely in the person's view. Initially, just the thought of such a setup made me feel queasy. However, the key to success lies in finding the right recipes for every conundrum. In my case, the specific recipe turned out to be half a Xanax and two shots of bourbon.
Setting out to photograph in the Meatpacking District, I came prepared. The beginning of the night was usually spent pacing, observing, gathering up my courage and waiting for the anti-anxiety pill to kick in. That first picture was always the hardest. A jolt of hand-shaking adrenaline flooded through the body, disorienting and then refocusing the mind. Fortified by a drink from my flask, I continued to photograph strangers as excitement replaced any lingering fear. By the end of each night, my social anxiety flattened into a distant memory.
Over the course of three summers shooting in Meatpacking, I concocted a few rules for making candid images without being noticed. If you have any ethical issues with sneaky street photography, you should probably stop reading here.
Rule #1. Never make eye contact. The moment you lock eyes with your subject, it's game over. I acquired X-Men level peripheral vision allowing me to pinpoint the needed moment.
Rule #2. Deflect attention. I don't shoot with a telephoto, so I am often just a few feet away from the subject. There is no way for them to miss my gargantuan camera that's the size of a small baby or a large watermelon. So not only do I avoid eye contact, I also make sure to look focused on something entirely different. Like that super interesting building number above the subject's head. Or an incredibly fascinating trash can to their right. A person’s instinctual response is to follow my gaze, turning their head for just enough time to snap the image.
Rule #3. Stand your ground. This is a hard one but works remarkably well. If I want to photograph a scene versus a fleeting moment — a couple cozying up on their date, women adjusting their makeup, a heated encounter by a hot dog stand — much more time is needed than Rules #1 and #2 allow. So, I just stand there, shooting, looking away, looking at my camera... for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually, people get on with their lives, becoming either bored of me or convinced they are not the subject of the photo (since no one has that much hutzpah). The moment they fall back into their groove, I take the shot.
Rule #4.Smoke and Mirrors. I often hone in people whose attention is entirely absorbed by something, or someone else. They are so distracted that I could be standing two feet away and be miraculously invisible. In the Meatpacking, such opportunities abounded.
If any of this made you slightly uncomfortable, that's fair. Street photography is not for those with a sensitive moral compass. After all, you ARE taking images of people without their consent. American writer and intellectual Susan Sontag famously labeled most documentary photography as predatory and voyeuristic. But that's a rabbit hole I am not jumping into, at least not now.
A photographer will choose their preferred method. Some are a bit sneaky — see Walker Evans's hidden lens in the coat to shoot subway riders or Philip-Lorca diCorcia's remote triggered lights on street corners. Others, like Bruce Gilden, are unapologetically inches away from the person's face with a flash. Somehow, the end result makes people much more uncomfortable with Gilden's work than, say, that of Saul Leiter who used a zoom lens. The in-your-face approach is arguably more “honest" even if it looks more intrusive.
But what, you might ask, are the legalities of taking — and publishing —portraits of strangers? Is it legal to photograph children? People visible inside their homes? Stay tuned for part 2.
Photographing Strangers, part 2 - The legal and the ethical guide.
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