People in public. Originally posted in Oct. 2009.


Image from Rome. The Pantheon in the background. Circa 1994 ©2009 Kirk Tuck

My wife will tell you that I spend too much time reading photo fora on the web. I've begun to see that she's right because I keep reading the same stuff in new disguises. This morning a fellow posted a photo at the Strobist Discussion group. He was amazed to find that Cabella's sporting good store might have used an off camera flash to create one of their ads. Amazing. As though we advertising photographers had never used an off camera flash or taken lights outdoors!!!

But the thing that struck me recently is how cowardly people have become about their gear. I've seen ten or fifteen posts in the last week from (mostly Americans) people who want to know how to safeguard their equipment in such dangerous places as: Paris, France and Rome, Italy and even, gasp, Copenhagen, Denmark. The thing that strikes me as funny is that each of these places has a much lower violent crime rate than just about any major city in the U.S. And each of these cities is a pedestrian city where, even in the unlikely event of a crime being perpetrated, you are surrounded by helpful people ready to jump in and help ensure social stability.

The idea that your Canon Rebel needs be locked in a hotel safe or secured to your body with a special strap containing unbreakable wires (what a good way to be decapitated should your camera get stuck in a train door......) is laughable. If you are dragging that much paranoia along on your vacation you may need to invest in other things. Therapy comes to mind. More wide ranging travel is another.

The second kind of post that seems to come up, with annoying regularity, is the idea that, to shoot in the street, you must become a stealthy ninja and your camera should be so small that it becomes all but invisible at any distance beyond five feet. The idea being, I guess, that a hulking American, complete with baggy cargo shorts, a promotional T-shirt for their favorite NFL team, white athletic socks, and day-glo Nike running shoes (never used for that purpose), topped with a baseball cap, will be able to sneak through a crowd of well dressed Europeans and will be able to position themselves in just the right way to SECRETLY take startling good photographs.

Their ideal camera is silent with an incredible zoom lens and a very small foot print. Either that or a Canon/Nikon/Sony/Olympus coupled with a bag full of lenses. Which they are deathly afraid some grandmother from Provencal will slit their throat to own.

Face it. You'll probably stick out. Face it. People will see that you have a camera in your hand. And unless you are doing your tourism in the Sudan you'll see when you look around that almost everyone else has a camera or a cellphone with a camera, or a video camera. They're everywhere. They are ubiquitous. Believe me, people in the European community also buy and use cameras.

Back in 1994 Belinda and I headed to Rome for a few weeks of vacation and photography. I brought along one camera. A Hasselblad 500c/m and a 100 mm f3.5 planar lens. That, and a few one gallon ziploc bags of tri-x 120 film. I spent most of my time walking along shooting whatever caught my attention. If a person looked interesting I'd ask them to pose. Sometimes I'd just smile, nod and shoot.

Books on travel caution newbies to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Hypervigilant if you will. I discarded all that advice out of necessity. After every twelve frames I'd have to stop and reload the 120 back on the camera. Since I was using a waist level finder I often had to stop as the light changed and take incident meter readings. No one cared. Every once in a while an older gentleman would ask about the camera. Younger people ignored it.

After a long morning and the better part of an afternoon spent poking into the nocks and crannies of Rome (and there are many) I sat down for a moment,at an outside table, at the closest food vendor with a direct view of the Pantheon. The restaurant was a McDonalds. The couple in front of me was having an animated conversation. I looked into my viewfinder, framed the shot, adjusted the exposure and fired the shutter. It was not a silent camera given the size of the moving mirror..... The couple turned to look and I smiled and nodded. They smiled back and with their tacit approval I shot several more images where they looked into the lens.

No one was fearful. There was no conflict or even a hint of animosity or aggression from either side. And this is the way it has gone for me and other street shooters for decades and decades. If someone doesn't want to be photographed they'll let you know. If you don't push it they won't either.

I like the image above. With billions and billions of images swirling around out in the attention-o-sphere there is a very small percentage that are relational. I like images that either speak directly to the viewer or show relationships.

The first (and probably only) step is to conquer your irrational fears that: A. Someone is always trying to rip you off. B. That everyone who is photographed instantly turns into a serial killer and they are aimed at you. C. You won't have people's willing complicity.

If you are calm, relaxed and see other people as, well, just other people, you'll probably do just fine. You might want to practice photographing strangers by becoming a tourist in your own town. I find that a nice weekend of street shooting in nearby San Antonio is just the right "warm up" before a trip abroad.

Get comfortable outside your comfort zone!

Bon Voyage. Kirk


ainde terio said...

Last time I was in Paris I found that people would actually pose for my camera. Even traffic police people would stop and look at me to take their picture. I was stunned. I went to a large demonstration (several thousands) at the Place de la République and could take all the pics I wanted. Nobody interfered or said anything. I just looked at people in the eye, smiled and took their pictures. Voilà!

Oh, and that demonstration was about as friendly as you could want. Practically no police in sight, no one drunk or misbeheaving. Just people wearing marked scarfes, badges, signs and balloons and having a good time.

Sean Staples said...

I recently read on a street shooters blog that shooting film was great because if someone asked him to delete the image he had taken of them he can say sorry it's film. That doesn't sound like the right idea does it?

I'm learning that it's best to just hang the camera around my neck and play tourist, nothing stealth about it.

sey said...

"If you are calm, relaxed and see other people as, well, just other people.........." Kirk, this is the whole crux of Street Photography. If you act as if you are doing something wrong, the vibes are very negative and the reactions are in accordance to those vibes.

"In an attempt to step into Daddy’s big shoes, I too tried my hand at “people street photography”. It isn’t easy, the Israeli street is suspicious and uncooperative, but look around you! The people in Seymour’s photographs share their world with us. His respect for the people he photographs is evident. It is this basic, straightforward and respectful approach that allows the people photographed to let him and us in and become a part of that personal moment in their lives. More than once I asked, “Daddy, how do you do it?” and he replied, “you have to become a part of the street until you are unnoticed”, and herein lies part of the answer. Seymour becomes part of that street and is one of the characters that he is photographing and this, I am convinced, requires a great deal of modesty, respect and, yes, love." - Tali Rosen Shoham -from her opening of my 2004 exhibition.

I have been Street Photographing for nigh on 45 years. I have only used 'biggish pro cameras, Nikons with mainly a largish 135mm. Nikkor, occasionally a 50mm. I have never acted surreptitiously nor sneakily and after thousands of images over all those years, in places such as Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, Paris, Athens, Istanbul, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have had a 'confrontation' with a potential subject and then that usually ended with a mutually friendly parting.

If one acts furtively, suspiciously and sneakily like a creep, one is treated accordingly. That kind of attitude and behaviour is most disrespectful and presumptuous.


cidereye said...

Personally I find whenever I use an older camera the charm of them pays dividends in the subjects eye on the whole. Usually use a Leica M2 these days and rarely does a day go by when in use when someone doesn't ask about the camera, true mainly older men Kirk as you said but not always.

I get far more smiles too as opposed to frowns. Mind, even when I've used a far larger Rolleicord in the past similar response from people so true not *just* down to camera size granted.

Try getting that response when shoving a gargantuan Nikon D3 with a 28-70mm in someone's face. So yeah, IMHO the camera used does have quite a bearing on peoples response. Old Henri used a camera like a Leica M not without good reason, a certain amount of stealth/discretion is a major part of the equation I say.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

What a wonderful photo again Kirk. It really speaks.

And I agree, we don't have to be (or maybe should even try becoming) invisible. It's the mind set that we are just one of them that counts.

About those dangerous European places: maybe I should wear a t-shirt saying: "Hey, I photographed people in Frankfurt - and survived!" ;-)

Jacques said...

Ah... So true ! I discovered that years ago with a Bronica SQ (not a smallish camera), and still test it with a D3x... It's has nothing to do with the camera size, nor stealth attitude (quite on the contrary). It's more about being immersed in an group, a café terrace, a piazza, camera in hand. Everybody sees you, some even ask for a camera they think to buy...
There is a difference though between those long, barrel like, lenses versus the classical short ones... Being "out" of the action, versus being "in" !

Carlo Santin said...

My wife and I are heading out shortly to the local farmer's market. I'm taking my Nikon FE and 50mm 1.8, some black and white film. I'm not really a street shooter but I'm looking forward to it. We are going to have a nice breakfast, buy some local goods, and I'll shoot whatever catches my eye. I'm very shy by nature, so this will be a little challenge for me, but a fun one.

Alexander Bardua said...

American tourists are welcome in europe. We recognize you instantly and since you cant help being what you are, we pity you anyway.

Yes, the chances of being murdered over here are quite slim, considering the fact that we dont have that many armed whackos. Normal whackos are aplenty. You might even knock on a door at night and ask for directions without being shot!

In the case of being robbed at broad daylight, something whih can happen here, too, dont expect to be "surrounded by helpful people ready to jump in and help ensure social stability" any more than at home. After all, we are only human, too.

So come over and enjoy an enourmos diversity of culture in quite a tight space. Skip McDonalds when looking for lunch and enjoay the old world in every aspect.

Brian Fancher said...

My experience is that the more I shoot, the more comfortable I become with photographing people on the street. When I began some 25 years ago, I harbored much of the fears you wrote about above. Even now, when I've been away from street shooting for a while, I have slight twinges of that old hesitancy. But those quickly go away with a few shots and some quick smiles from the people on the other side of my lens. Shoot more, and get comfortable with people. I rarely meet with disapproval or get turned down. And when I have, it has never been an unpleasant experience.

kirk tuck said...

If you pity the Americans that actually have the brains, taste and money to travel outside our country you might not be able to even fathom the vast majority that don't.... Just a warning? You're seeing our good stuff.

ohnostudio said...

I've had people pose for me in the thick of Manhattan when it was 90 degrees out - big camera, small camera, didn't matter. Great image Kirk.

Alexander Bardua I am posting the first sentence of your reply as my Quote of the day. Great one!

Alexander Bardua said...

Traveling is a state of mind and enlarges it. I am glad for everyone who leaves his native soil to truly experience something completely different. Over here in germany we have the advantage of having to travel for maybe 200-300Km and then we are in a different country. But not being able to see further than ones brim is universal.

Claire said...

Great topic, thanks for that.
Two things :
first, there ARE places where security is an issue. I have a Brazilian photog' friend. When traveling to his home country, he takes the older, devalued gear, never the newer or more expensive camera. Here in Paris (like in many big towns), as long as you don't go anywhere obviously seedy, or behave overly naive, you should be fine.
second : shooting strangers. Now THAT's a different story, and I do understand people who value steatlth in a camera. Personally I'm uncomfortable shooting people, I'm just shy and can't get over it. In rich countries it's not too much of an issue, and the nod, smile, shoot scheme probably works like a charm. Except it will change the picture you're about to take, the split second the subject is aware of photography in the making. Though images of people engaging with the camera (and possibly smiling, be it with the eyes only) are very nice, it's not what'd I'be interested in. If I did street photography (I don't and don't intend to, it doesn't fly my boat that much)I'd probably go about it PJ style, documenting a place rather than engaging in it. In this regard, a tiltable touch screen and silent shutter (à la E-M5) are valuable tools...
And then, you have the poor countries. I've shot in Senegal in 2009 and the hostility was palpable in many places (to the point of being near hazardous). I couldn't have gotten away without a long zoom and a spy technique :( In other places there is no danger, but permission for a pic will always be traded for some pocket change, which gets quickly old, and will drive every single beggar in the city on your heels. Under those circumstances, I'd rather be stealthy.

Alex said...

An excellent Russian traveling photographer Serey Danyushevsky (http://photo.designproject.com/#/en/) uses Hasselblad 501. One of the reason, he says, it looks like an "old grandpa's camera", and people in poor countries don't know its real value.

photomojomike.com said...

You speak far too much common sense to be on the Internet. ;)

Loving your photos and writing - keep them coming.