What follows is how I do it… I say, use what I’m telling you and make up your own way of doing things. I love taking street portraits. I find it extremely rewarding and engaging and weird and fun and…
It’s a privilege
I wholeheartedly believe this. It IS a privilege. Complete strangers let you into their lives for a few minutes and give you permission to make a portrait of them like that on the street. Treat it as such… I am honored every time it happens and I am compelled to make great photographs because of it. Which brings me to my second point:
Be sincere… don’t be a creep
Be sincere about this. More than any other type of photography, street portraits need sincerity, earnestness and genuine human interactions to make it work. It’s a learned process. Be careful where you are, of your surroundings, of the culture you are in. Don’t be a creep… it’s creepy and people will not collaborate with you. They will smell it off of you.
Approach people with a smile
That’s part of being sincere. When creating street portraits, you have to break down the barrier that exist between you and your subject very fast. Being a friendly, sociable, gregarious person will help you break the space between that much faster… but by no means is it exclusively for my type of people. I have moments when I get very shy and hesitant about approaching someone. Guess what happens then? If I don’t open myself to them and don’t project the necessary confidence, my request to make a portrait with them will fail almost always.
Go for people you find intriguing
This is huge on increasing your success rate. Find people you have a connection with… even if they haven’t seen you or met your eye yet. It happens to me all the time. I see someone crossing the street and I want to know who they are, how they came to be here, where they are going… Sometimes, it’s just the way they dress that’s just too cool, sometimes it’s those glasses. The best thing to do when you approach them is to 1.) Smile (see above) and 2.) Compliment them on something that made you go up to them.
Have a goal
“Why are you doing this?” “What will you do with the photos?” “Are you posting them somewhere?” These two asked me 20 questions before letting me make the portrait.
I have heard many different iterations of these questions. The first few times, it took me by surprise… it shouldn’t have… because of course I needed an explanation why I wanted to take their photo. At first, it was because I felt compelled to do so. I had no plan and it made it harder for me. Now, I have a plan and I get much much more positive responses. Currently, I am working on a long personal project of documenting El Cajon Blvd, in San Diego. It has a lot of different cultures pulsing through the heart of this street, a long history with ups and downs since its creation and it is on the verge of gentrification. When I tell that to people, it works almost every time.
It’s weird… embrace the weirdness
Why are you taking pictures of strangers in the first place? I know I have a project I am working on, but it’s still an odd thing to ask a stranger. My advice, drink in the weird. Take it in; it’ll make you a better photographer. Going against your instincts makes you come out of your shell. It keeps you operating at a minimal comfort level and THAT keeps you sharp. I’ve learned to look for that uncomfortable moment to make it into a great picture… because even if they accept, it is awkward. If you feel it too, you CONNECT. You are now on equal grounds with her. Very often, as photographers, we hold the power in the relationship when we are behind the camera, especially with traditional studio portraits or weddings. When doing street portraits, you have to shift that perspective and the power dynamics involved… become your subject’s equal. Embrace the weirdness of the moment.
“Make” v. ”take”
Eric Kim said it and I couldn’t agree more. I’ll paraphrase: Don’t take a picture, make a picture. In fact, don’t even make a picture, make a portrait. I say it all the time but “Words matter.” Take a picture and you are taking something from them. Make that picture and you are doing this together. The same logic applies to using “portrait” instead of “picture.”
Clean up your composition
You’ll notice that none of what we discussed is about the act of making the portrait and it is all about BEFORE the precious moment when you click the shutter. I could have told you: “be a decent human being” and that would have been that but I care about this stuff and it’s good to piece it out in actionable items. If you are here, you know how to take a picture. Find a clean background, pose or don’t pose your subject, don’t cut off hands or limbs in weird places and you’re good to go.
That’s it. Just go be your best self on the streets. I promise you, you’ll be happy you did.