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.