Now that you’ve got started taking street photos, every now and again you will have to deal with people who don’t like having their photo taken. It happens. So far I’ve never had a nightmare story but the chances of it happening rise every single day. With that in mind there are a few things you can do to help defuse situations and avoid them all together.
1. Don’t shoot street photography
It’s pretty obviously but just don’t shoot street photography if you really don’t like it. Personally I take great satisfaction from street photography but if you don’t enjoy it, find it stressful and don’t want to face someone who doesn’t like having their photo taken. Don’t shoot “street.” Maybe you’d prefer to shoot street portraits where you ask permission before hand? Or perhaps you’d like to shoot urban landscapes without people. Or one of the other million genres out there. That’s fine.
I just want to make it clear that you do have this option and while it does mean you won’t get any street photos, it also means you won’t have to deal with people who don’t like having their photo taken.
2. Don’t take pictures to humiliate people
In my opinion Street photography is about finding humanity in a photo. It’s about searching for the common bond in a unique place or the interesting quirk somewhere else. When you seek to take a picture to humiliate or take advantage of someone then you betray that idea. You use this powerful weapon in your hands to destroy rather than to build. It’s no wonder people react badly when they realise that has happened.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take a picture of a person crying, in pain or making a fool of themselves but intentions matter a lot and will affect how you take the image.
3. Shoot people who want to have the photo taken
Some people are clearly on display in public, they want all eyes on them and help you to notice that. This could be the street performer, the protest march or the fashionista. If you take their photo, you won’t have any issues. This can be a great way to get more comfortable taking people’s pictures on the street, start with people who clearly are asking to be photo’d and then move on to from there.
4. Be very careful with drunk people
People who are drunk and on drugs can be very volatile. You need to take extreme care here as they can be jolly one minute and then searching for a fight the next. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take their photo but be careful.
5. When Someone reacts badly, stay calm
You want to defuse a situation, most of the time acting calming and in a friendly manner will go a long way. If you act like your a spy and try to disappear off into the crowd or get aggressive back, often the situation gets worse. You confirm their fears. The best description of this would be “assertive” where you don’t get aggressive and you also do not cowering away but simply staying calm and collected.
6. Explain why you took their image
What did you find interesting about the scene? Was it their clothes? Was their a beautiful moment of light? Did you think they were beautiful? Tell them the reason and it will go a long way to put them at ease.
I really recommend saying you are a photography student (even if you are older) as people seem to feel that a student knows what their doing but isn’t going to suddenly make their image famous over night and even if you one day become a “pro” photographer, photography student still applies as you are always learning.
7. When necessarily, offer to delete the image (and do it)
If someone is still really upset then offer to delete the image you took. Obviously this is much harder if you shoot film but with a digital camera it is much easier. Showing them that you have deleted their image should go a long way to calm people down. You can promise to delete and image and not really do it (especially if your camera has two SD cards or something)
8. The law is on your side but don’t mention it
In almost every country in the world, you have the right to take someone’s image in the street (publishing that image is another matter). That means the law is on your side (hurray) but that means absolutely nothing to the person whose image you took. If you boast about that fact then you confirm that you are a sleaze bag only interested in yourself. You confirm that you don’t care about them, and you imply that you have taken advantage of them. That is what people are afraid of when someone takes their photo on the street. That They looked bad and you are going to show people how bad they looked.
Don’t be that guy.
Two Street photographers handle bad reactions differently
For two very difficult examples take a look at these videos. in the first video Chuck seems to have handled it fine until he says “thanks for the photo”. I really don’t understand why he said that as it was clearly designed to either agitate the man or have the last word. As such the confrontation continued and escalated. You may have also noticed that he pointed out that the law was on his side and the man who was photographed didn’t care at all.
In the second, it’s hard to say how well the photographer handled it as it all seemed to happen so fast. Perhaps it would have helped if he had a chance to explain why he took the image but it doesn’t look like the security guard wants to give him that chance. So in the end he has managed to defuse the situation and no one gets hurt. I think he comes off well from that.
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Also published on Medium.