Yesterday as part of my Street Photography course, we went to Camden Town to shoot around the market. I gave the students an assignment to engage with total strangers and to take their portrait. They had to ask each person if it were OK to take their portrait and to take it using either a 35mm certainly no longer then a 50mm lens, (or equal to). This may sound a daunting project, but it is a very good one to gain confidence as a Street Photographer, even as a portrait photographer.
Whilst I was walking around the market I spoted a trader wearing a ‘No Photography” sign, I immediately wanted to photograph her as I found it amusing and in fact to me it shouted ” photograph me”. I went up to her and said that “the sign is just making me want to take your photograph”, to which she laughed. I then went on to ask why she was wearing it. “I’m just sick of people with long lenses sneakily taking my photograph without asking.” It transpired that she doesn’t really mind having her photograph taken, if asked. She went onto say, “I just don’t understand why anyone would want to photograph me.” “Because you look good” says me, and went onto to ask her if I could photograph her, to which she agreed. A few of my students came back with ‘sneaky grab shots’.
So lets have a look at Street Photography and Personal Space.
Street Photography involves getting close to people — often very close. To do this type of shooting successfully you have to be in the scene, part of it, not a distant observer. This means shooting with wide or semi wide lenses; certainly nothing longer than a 50mm standard lens. The ideal being 35mm. With a wide-angle lens you are a participant. With a telephoto you are at best just an observer, at worst a voyeur.
Shooting this way means moving closer into people’s personal space than they may normally be used to. For this reason places like crowded streets in big cities, carnivals, parades and the like maybe preferred venues.
As crowding increases, people’s personal space requirement decreases. Also, the space one needs and expects is culturally dependant. In some countries people naturally stand, talk and touch each other in public to a closer degree than in others. But there are general unspoken rules. Get too close, “In your face” — as the saying goes, and people get nervous, even if they don’t know exactly why.
At a fair, at a sports event, parade, concert or public ceremony, people’s need for personal space and therefore privacy is reduced. The level of sensory stimulation is also usually high at these events, which tends to reduce the need for space. As well, in most of these situations people are having fun so they are more relaxed.
At the far extreme is a crowded lift or even on a rush hour tube. We stand touching shoulders with strangers in a small space, yet taking a photograph would be thought of as an invasion, even if it were not physically impossible to do.
Understanding these issues is important to doing effective and interesting street photography. If you poke a camera in someone’s face as they sit alone reading a book on an empty park bench you’re likely to be poked back. But you can comfortably get even closer if you’re both standing in a crowd watching a sporting event.
I’ll cover shooting technique another time, so watch this space.
The featured photograph was taken with a Leica M9 and a Summicron 35mm F2 asph lens: for me, the perfect combination to go walking the streets. And the market trader had agreed to be photographed!
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