Walking around SXSW with a CL and the 56mm f1.4 Sigma. With a few from the 18-50mm f2.8 Sigma. Thoughts on fitting in with the crowd.

Man on a phone.

If years of reading about  "street"  photography on the web have taught me anything (which is debatable) it is that most photographers are frightened and/or uncomfortable photographing strangers who are out in public. If the subject of one's photographic interest is outside of the photographer's own demographic (age, race, economic strata, etc.) it seems to become even more difficult. This would account for many, many millions of street photographs that only show strangers' backs. 

I find that the best documentarians are the ones who shoot the most and who have reconciled themselves to the idea that most of their resistance is self-propelled. Self-inflicted. Or that the photographers make the error of trying to be "outside" of the flow of humanity which they are trying to photograph. They want to stand to one side and shoot images with a long lens. Conflict avoidance taking precedence over access. Being sneaky...

I enjoy crowds of people. Especially when they are out enjoying themselves. When I headed downtown to photograph a bit of Sixth Street SXSW life a few weeks ago I had no qualms whatsoever about diving into the crowds of musicians and music lovers and making images because I saw myself as part of the crowd and not as an external gawker. 

Part of this is a lifetime of experience but some of it is just being comfortable with things that are different. When I was growing up. I spent my second and third grade years ( in the 1960s) in Adana, Turkey. At the time it was the third or fourth largest city on the country. We lived smack in the middle of downtown. We bought candy and sodas from the street vendors, hung out with Turkish kids, got lost in neighborhoods that our parents considered to be dicey. We kids picked up the Turkish language and often visited friends as guests in their schools. When I attended my friend Susan's school from time to time I stuck out like a sore thumb with different clothes, a different haircut and a different complexion. And when I opened my mouth to talk I cinched the idea of "different."

But... I watched what my Turkish friends did and how they played and acted and I adapted to them, and over the course of time learned to fit right in. A smile and a willingness to fit in worked wonders. It's the same now when I'm in downtown Austin. Or San Antonio. Or NYC.  When I am approached by a homeless person I may decide not to give them money but I always stop and listen to their questions and acknowledge them as people. When I meet with my banker downtown I try to fit into his environment as well. When I photograph doctors in my studio I try to find the commonalities of interest we share and make our time photographing a collaboration rather than procedure. And when I walk  through a crowd of young music fans hanging out on Sixth Street I try not to remember that I'm 66 years old, live in Austin's most affluent neighborhood and am a quintessential middle class guy. When I am in the crowd I try to embrace my curiosity and give more energy to my desire to fit in by not worrying that I might be the one who is....different. 

If someone shouts at me I don't turn around and scurry away, I walk over to them and talk to them. I show a willingness to engage on whatever level they want to engage. 

One fear I hear a lot from photographers is that they are leery of carrying around thousands of dollars worth of camera gear in crowded, urban environments. They are afraid they will become targets for thieves who will separate them from their Nikons or Leicas or Sonys and leave them feeling victimized. I find this odd since most people these days (and I would conjecture this is true of thieves as well) are over wanting cameras or wanting to carrying them around. A thief might want your wallet; most likely your cash, but I can't think they'd covet an older Leica CL or something like that. But when people spend lots of money on stuff they start to worry about it. It's like turning on an electro-magnet. I guess the more one worries about their gear the more paranoid one gets and that anxiety and chaos is what probably attracts potential predators. It's a toxic reaction to low odds when you consider you'll probably end up buying a new camera next year anyway. 

I remember sitting in a restaurant in Rome across the street from the Borghese Gardens a while back. I had two of the then brand new Mamiya 6 cameras with me. My waiter asked me about the cameras. He was quite knowledgable about them even though they had not, at that point, been introduced into the EU market. He asked if he could hold one of the cameras. I asked if he wanted to take it outside and snap a few images to see how it worked, and to me, more importantly, how the shutter sounded. He was surprised but he took me up on the offer. My lunch companion, a fellow photographer from the U.S. was shocked. "What if he steals your camera?" 

I laughed. The waiter seemed perfectly legit. And why would he risk losing his job over the camera? 

The waiter of course returned minutes later and thanked me for letting him try out the camera. We struck up a conversation and he invited us to dinner at his favorite restaurant. My fellow photographer was nervous and declined but I was thrilled and met the waiter and his wife at their apartment and we walked together through Rome's back streets to the restaurant. It's was a restaurant I've never found in the guide books and it's not on any list of popular restaurants but it was Frederico Fellini's favorite in all of Rome. The walls were covered with signed portraits of Fellini as well as his favorite actors. We had a wonderful dinner. 

Turns out his wife wrote, designed and had published children's books in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. She gave me a handful to take back home to baby Ben. Turns out the "waiter" studied photography at the Royal Academy in London and was a wonderful large format photographer. He also inherited a family farm in Tuscany where he did photographic workshops. 

How sad if I had allowed fear and paranoia to rob me of a wonderful chance meeting and a new and very talented friend. But all I ever hear from tourists is the overwhelming fear that if they take a nice camera with them to XXXX they will be pick-pocketed, robbed, bushwhacked and leave without their precious stuff. I'm sure everyone has a story about someone they know who has been robbed or lost stuff to larceny when traveling. But I'm equally willing to believe that their own abject paranoia attracted their misfortune in the first place. 

It's no different in crowds in your own town. If you treat everyone as you expect to be treated (assuming you expect to be treated well enough...) you never really attract trouble. Sure, you are always playing the odds. But I'd rather trade off a camera instead of avoiding a life time of fun and interesting experiences. I'm betting you would as well. 

Another man on a phone. 

I don't "hide" my camera at waist level. I don't often prefocus. I pull the camera up to my eye and telegraph my intention to take a photograph. It's the only way I'm really comfortable working. If a person doesn't want to be photographed they'll let you know. Otherwise you smile and continue. And maybe even nod a "thank you" as you pass by. 

Cameras are super valuable targets? Naw. See the sign just above.
Don't buy anything you'd be afraid to take out of the house.

I couldn't decide what expression I liked best on the woman above with the magenta hair. So, instead of "grabbing" a shot and scampering away I stopped and waited and shot and waited and shot again and if someone turned at looked at me I smiled and kept on photographing. That's how I work. 

I like the black and white photo best....

Okay. So I come across a guy getting his hair cut out in the middle of a three lane street in the most popular part of the entertainment district. Should I pretend he doesn't like attention or that he'll leap up from his seat and take umbrage on the photographer? Or should I acknowledge the bizarre nature of the situation and just go with it? That's a rhetorical question....

It goes both ways. I get photographed too.

I get more keepers when I get closer. To get closer you can't fear your fellow 
participants on the street. You acknowledge and document them. You join in the 
shared energy of the moment. 

the fact that everyone is snapping away with the phones has made people less conscious of being photographed. They just roll with it. When someone asks what I'm going to use the photograph for I tell them I might put it up on my blog or on Instagram. And that's the truth. Sometimes, if they are interested, 
I hand a business card with just my Instagram contact on it. Works for them. Works for me. 

 No one brings a ten foot, live snake with them to the bar district unless they want attention. The idea that one would fear snapping the photo is funny. People might be better off if they don't take themselves so seriously. Really. 


Ronman said...

We're fortunate to have traveled to most regions of the world. Two commonalities continue to be very apparent. The first is human nature reigns global. The second is how assimilating into the local population and demonstrating genuine interest removes all barriers to being welcomed and appreciated. Photos are then welcomed.

Stephen said...

See? This is why you have to keep the blog going. This is the photography blog for people who like photography, but are even more interested in a thoughtful person's...um...thoughts.

Biro said...

Ditto to what Stephen wrote above. Many photographers need to read this installment.

Rich said...

enjoyed your post Kirk, esp the story of getting to know the guy in Rome. I spent my 1st 10 yrs growing up in Lebanon. Wonderful childhood in their golden age. Alas, like the whole world, things have gone to hell there )-;
Recently i did a 2nd honeymoon w/ my "Island girl" wife in the Philippines. I don't really post my shots, except on DPR. Yesterday i posted 4 sets on the m4/3 forum: 'G9 Swan Song', 2) 'Low light', 3) 'Palawan from above' & [the one you'd like?] 4) 'Palawan folk'

Craig Yuill said...

Kirk - I admit to being uncomfortable with taking pictures of strangers. For some reason I seem to attract those in the crowd that have great big chips on their shoulders. I can do without that. One thing that mitigates confrontation for me is to use a small camera, such as a Nikon 1 V1 or J5, which are non threatening. I come across as a tourist getting some snaps. I leave my DSLR and big lenses for my wildlife and bird photography.

David said...

OK, the one above the haircut picture made me laugh.

Gordon Lewis said...

As a long time street shooter myself, I agree with everything you wrote. People who are in crowds at public events have too many other things competing for their attention--including the attention seekers you mentioned--to be worried about random photographers who are relaxed and enjoying the day with everyone else.

I also agree that fear of camera theft exceeds the average risk. The exception is places such as San Francisco's tourist areas that are notoriously thick with thieves who intentionally target expensive camera equipment. Even a TV news crew in San Francisco has been robbed of their gear, ironically while covering a story on camera thefts. In the absence of organized crime activity however, the risk is low. That said, I honestly don't care if some people are uncomfortable with taking photos in public spaces. There's no law that says they have to be, just as I have little interest in photographing rocks, clouds, streams, and mountains. Different strokes for different folks.

Oldwino said...

Nice set of photos, makes me feel like I was there.
Also wise words for the photographer.
Incidentally, I like the color version of the girl with the magenta hair; no one colors their hair magenta without wanting attention.

Greg Heins said...

The Rome story is absolutely wonderful. And the advice is good also. One of the nice aspects, to me, of walking around cities with a Fuji GFX and a monopod is "Seriously? You want to steal this? Do you have any idea how heavy this f*#ker is? How far do you think you're going to go?" Not to mention the print quality, which is the next thing I bring up.

TMJ said...

Asahi Pentax actually made an Asahi Pentax Mirror Adapter for 35mm Film cameras, so it looked as if you were photographing straight ahead, rather than at right angles.

Even at the time, back in the 70s, it seemed somewhat 'dodgy'...............

Phil Stiles said...

A nice post, Kirk. I recall being in Toledo, Spain travelling with my mother, when a young man asked if we would like to see a castle. Mom was a little reluctant, but I said "sure" and off we went. Apparently, a wealthy family from Madrid owned a castle as their second home, and our host was able to give us a tour as the owners were not around. It was fascinating. Later, my mother confided that she was worried that he'd "hit me over the head" and steal my cameras. On the other hand, I'd be much more circumspect in Morocco. Your little story of the Italian waiter really resonated with me.
I really enjoy the street scene when there's a festival or similar event. There are so many cameras that no one really cares if you're photographing.
Last year the CL had some discounted sales, rumors were that there was a CL2 in the works. So I held off on that possible purchase. Now you say, no CL2. Oh, well. I've gone Fuji. A Noctilux for $13K or a Fuji 1.0 for $1,500? An easy choice for me.