On the back of my mind whilst using my camera on the street is a balancing act between giving and taking.
I have strong feelings about not using the people around me. I feel that if I’m often gaining something from a person, but not even making a gesture of giving something back – I am probably using that person.
It is worth mentioning that I very much dislike the argument that street photography is exploitative. As Ansel Adams put it – you don’t take the photograph, you make it. If the argument that street photography is exploitative is based on meaningless semantics and loaded words like “take” and “shoot”, well, I don’t think much of it.
That said, it needs to be considered that if you
take make street photographs, you are getting something out of the community in which you’re photographing.
So what does giving back entail? Well, you don’t have to be a major philanthropist. Maybe money is scarce, or you don’t have any time to spare for volunteer work, or something like that. But I think that if you
shoot within a certain community, you should at the very least try to be a part of that community.
- If a pensioner starts a conversation with you, take an interest.
- If someone asks you about why you’re taking pictures, take time to explain properly. If they’re not confronting you, ask them about their hobbies.
- If someone asks you to take their picture, do so and print it or e-mail it for them.
- Get an instant camera (you can find Instax 100 cheap online now, and the film isn’t too expensive to use occasionally) and offer/give out photographs. This is a particular favourite of mine in a small town, you only have to do it occasionally and your kindness will be remembered next time you’re seen with a camera.
- If someone displays displeasure at being in your photograph, apologise, remember their face, and respect their wishes next time you see them (this is important in a small town).
So my main tips would be:
1. Take an interest in your community and the individuals in it. Treat people as family or friends. You don’t have to do it for everyone – I should know, having lived in southern England for nearly a year now, that not everyone wants that – but maybe the ones who take an interest in you.
2. Be generous with your materials – give out photographs to anyone who wants them. You never know when someone might vouch for you in a sticky situation, people will remember your kindness and that you’re not making photographs for immoral purposes next time they see you on the street. I recently discovered that an instant camera is a fantastic opportunity to give away photographs that people will love and remember.
3. Be generous with your time – If a stranger (or regularly-seen local) stops me for a chat, I don’t mind spending ten minutes or even half my lunch break talking, because I know that I have helped my community become a little more tighter-knit than before – there is one less stranger out on the street. Being friends with a stranger is difficult, for sure, but it may help you take better pictures in the future, and it will help you feel less isolated from your community and even help you get a better feel for the subjects of your photographs. It might even be important to the person who just reached out to you.
4. Be the best you can be – not everyone is going to like that you’re carrying a camera around on the street. Even less people are going to like that you’re including strangers in your photographs “without their permission” (although many people will exaggerate this – I personally have found <=0.5% – or 1 or less in 200 – to be the magic number for confrontations). But that doesn’t stop you being as friendly as possible. Smile at people. Ask how they’re doing, or just say hi. Do small favours for people, and remember that what’s good for your community is probably also good for you.
5. Embrace being the village idiot – it’s all well and good in the city, but you need to put some of your pride aside in a small community (where there is less – if any – anonymity) so that you can 1) continue to take photographs and 2) not develop a chip on your shoulder and become “edgy” about “doing whatever you want to do”. To make this balance, sacrifice just some of your self-consciousness and pride: make pictures and be a good character – doing both to the best of your abilities.
You might argue that by making photographs of your community you are doing them a service – portraying them in a good light, communicating their way of life to the world, allowing them to become part of your art, whatever. I find that the best policy is not to flatter yourself.
To summarise: Try to make the world a nicer place to live in – after all, what else would you want your pictures to reflect?