#58 Undercover Knowledge

The street photographers anxiety-syndrom

A lot of street photographers have anxiety or fear to shoot strangers. So why do they still want it and how do they handle it? Read on to understand and overcome it.


Douglas Adams

Why this anxiety?

By photographing strangers on the street we are invading their private space whereby we may have pessimistic expectations on their reaction. Being it to have our photographic skills questioned, to not be liked, to be socially rejected or even worse, confronted with that.

Cavemen can tell you a thing or two about social rejections and what the importance of social acceptance was. Their behaviour was a matter of survival. And that is still hard-wired into our brains.
Studies show that social rejection has the same effect on us as physical pain (source). It is more than understandable that we want to avoid that. But are all street photographers masochists? I doubt that. I rather rink that they have found pain relievers (see tipps at the end of the article), found out that most people don’t give a shit (see next chapter) or found ways to turn that fear into something positive. You, too, must already have found something positive, because why would you even yearn for street photography when it makes you nervous?

  1. You love that art, no matter what. You may just need a little push.
  2. In my assessment, this fear is superimposable with your empathy, your personal code of ethics and your social norms. Turn that empathy into your comfort zone, where you, too, would not mind being photographed in.
  3. Fear triggers the same mechanisms as excitement. Think of popcorn in horror movies, the adrenalin rush in extreme sports. Now think of street photography. We’re settled, so let’s move on

How to overcome this anxiety

Let me start by saying that we will never get rid of it completely, since it is hard wired to our brains. But we can manage it.
We already did the first thing. Understanding where our fear comes from helps us lowering it. Now, say hi to your inner cavemen and get out for some excitement.

If you are bugged by your anxiety, gain control over it one step after another. It’s all about confronting that feeling. The cool thing is that we do it mainly by photographing, followed by a reflection of our experiences.

So, what’s are the worst thing that can happen?

  • Getting arrested”
    Know your rights and stay within your legal frame. Period.
  • I think that they question my skills and quality as a photographer
    Do they really or do you think so because not every shot is a winner? Chances are that you are reading this article, because you are just starting with street photography. Train your photographic muscle and your confidence will grow along. In the meantime, remind yourself, that even for pros, “99,9% of street photography is failure” (Alex Webb).
  • Getting into an argument in the public space where everyone will start looking at me
    More important than knowing your rights are your soft skills. They can help you to turn that into a positive experience.

Before going into that, let’s reflect how often you’ve found yourself in such situations and how often you did not. The more I read from other photographers how often they had such problems (close to zero), the more I realized that it’s really not a big deal.
But let numbers speak for themselves. I’ve gone through my archive (up until endo fo 2019) and counted all persons that I’ve photographed in the streets and that could have seen me taking their photo.

Country / CityPersons snappedNumber of encounters
London1480, but one security guy
Rest of Europe2090

How’s your experience and personal count? If you want to help others to get a bigger picture of this, i’ll be happy to add your figures here, too.
Drop me a message at Instagram, Mail or in the comment section at the bottom. Thanks!

With zero encounters to date, who am I to give advise for such encounters?
At first, there are some tricks below and in other articles (e.g. Street Photography Cookbook, Zone-Focusing) that helped me avoid dreadful encounters.
Second, those tipps upped my confidence to handle such encounters and I’ve prepared myself advise that I’ve collected over time in workshops, meetings and other articles.

Assuming that these tipps are exactly what you’re looking for, here we go.

Tipps that help you

Overcome uneasiness

  • Team up.
    Remember the paragraph about cavemens being conly comfortable within a group? Go out with a friend or like-minded persons. I guess there are plenty of photowalks within an acceptable radius. (If not, try social media to find people to build a local community.)
    The benefits are obvious. You have a good time with peers, you feel more confident in a group, you can observe how they do street photography and how people in their surroundings react to them.
  • You have photographic muscles. Warm them up.
    Start your walk with some snapshots to just get rolling, get more confident with every shot. For me, hearing the shutter a few times, brings me into the right mood.
    If you want to use zone-focusing later on, shoot some lampposts to get used to the distance.
  • Get in front of the camera.
    That empathy thing again, but in a dissonant way. Maybe you feel uneasy in front of the camera and project that feeling to every potential subject. Let a friend take portraits of you, even better, let a professional take photos of you and learn to be cool with being photographed.

Guard yourself

Take the following tipps as a shield to get going, not for an everlasting ninja-stealth-mode. The reason is, that if you hide and aren’t relaxed, people will sense that. If you act in an open, earnest way and showcase that you’re proud of your photography, people will reward that with an openess towards you. What goes around comes around is the old saying, mirror neurons the more modern explanation.

That being said, apply these tipps to your liking in order to reach that next level of comfort and easiness. With practice, you’ll shine more day by day.

  • To get started, fhe Fisherman Technique helps a lot because you tend to have more background. This not only makes you stand farther away from strangers and let both be in a comfort zone. It also comes with a nice twist: they may not feel to a subject of the scene but think you trying to get a shot of the background. You are not disturbing them, they may think they are disturbing your image and won’t bother you.
  • Don’t make eye contact
    Neither before nor after the shot. As I’ve covered in another article, human vision is a continuos process that inevitably responds “to exogenous stimuli including socially relevant cues such as someone else’s gaze”, i.e. your gaze (source).
    Just look at something the person you’ve shot when you lower your camera. Alternatively, keep on clicking even after the person has left your frame to pretend that you wanted to shoot the background and captured the subject by accident.
  • A more advanced technique is zone-focusing with a special trick.
  • Look like a tourist.
    Have you ever noticed that you photograph with more easiness in foreign countries when you are a tourist? Do you still take notice of the tourist around you in your home-town? If you can affirm one of these questions, it might help you do be a tourist in your area.
    • New things tend to inspire us and keep our brain busy instead of doing this anxiety thing. Discover new places within your radius, try new techniques at sightseeings.
    • Look around and take a lot of snapshots. You’ll merge with all the other tourists and be under the radar of other people.
    • Fun-Tipp: Have a map of your home-town visible in your pocket.
  • Observation through your viewfinder
    This exercise is just for a few minutes, because it’s the most boring one. Just observe through your viewfinder/your display how the people in your frame react to you. If someone approaches you, you can always show that you did not take their photograph but was still waiting for something.
  • Take silhouette shots with strong backlight
    Individuals are not recognizable in these shots AND you have the chance for great visual scenes. I’ve written a brief description of how to plan such images in another article.

    Street Photo - Tate Cat Walk

Prepare for encounters

Someone catched you taking a photo and asks you what you are doing. You are not a criminal. So you are not caught, but recognized. Soft skills are the way to handle the situation.

Be honest in what you are doing: “Hey, i’m a photographer and…

  • … you inspired me, because …”
  • … you look cool, so I want to portrait you. Shall we do another one, when your posing?”
  • … documenting life in the city. Do you want to see some of my work? I would love to have you as a part of it.”

The better you can show this person that you had absolutely positive intentions to take that picture, the more likely they will get to acknowledge your actions.

Your smartphone can be a great assisstant, here. Open up your homepage or Instagram-Account. If there’s proof that you do not showcase people in a bad way, discredit or make fun of them, that’s your joker. In the best case, you’ve also got to know a new follower.
Business cards are another proof that your rather professional than a weirdo. Propose to send the final images to them. Within that mail you can also ask for a model release.

But it turned into an argument, nonetheless. I would always chose to be charming instead to fight for my right, but it sure helps you to handle in a relaxed manner by knowing your legal frame. Try to end the discussion by offering to delete the image on spot.

Provoke encounters

The hardest but potentially most rewarding approach is to connect with the people proactively.

  • Connect on eye level, smile and show your camera
    The person will nod (great!), shake its head or ignore you. Don’t mind the latter ones. They cannot judge you as a photographer, it’s more likely that they are just not in the mood to get photographed.
  • Hi, my name is ..
    I’m a street photographer and you look cool. Can I make a portrait of you?”
    Sounds impossible? Watch this.
    The worst thing that can happen here is a plain “No”, but you avoid the overrated and yet feared confrontation like “What are you doing? Did you just take my picture?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.