Reluctant to photograph people

Singing at the Lamplighter
Olympus OM-2n, 40mm f/2 Olympus Zuiko Auto-S, Ilford HP5 Plus at EI 1600, HC-110 Dilution B, 2022

I don’t often photograph people. I’ve dabbled in portraiture, which I enjoy, and street photography, which I don’t. I think it’s because I don’t want to deal with a stranger upset that I’ve made an image of him or her.

I follow the blog of pro film photographer Ken Wajda, who says the secret is to engage with the people you meet on the street. After you’ve built a little trust, just ask if you can photograph them. Most say yes. He also usually offers to send his subjects a print of the image. He rightly points out that in this era of mobile phone photography, few of us own prints of our likeness. His subjects are delighted.

Sometimes I think I should push through my reticence. But there are so many photographic opportunities in my favorite subjects — old buildings, old roads, and old cars — that I’ve not needed to yet. It’s a classic photographer’s conundrum: I can challenge myself with subjects that make me uncomfortable, or just keep getting better at photographing the subjects that naturally draw me in.

I’ve taken to making images of people under two circumstances. The first is in an environment where there are lots of people and many of them are making images, even if only with their phones. I’m essentially invisible with my camera then. The second is when I’m out having fun with people I know, even if only as acquaintances or colleagues.

I made this photo in the second circumstance. My company held a big industry conference last year. After everything was done and our guests had moved on, we all went out to a karaoke bar to blow off some steam. I had my Olympus OM-2n in hand with a terrific 40mm f/2 lens, and I pushed some black-and-white film well past its speed rating to make images in the available light.

This is Jon from our Copenhagen office. Given that he’s Danish, you should pronounce his name yon with a long o. He recently announced that he’s moving on to a new opportunity. Maybe I should send him a print of this image before he goes.

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16 responses to “Reluctant to photograph people”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I was never much of a street shooter, I always feel like I’m violating someone’s personal space. When I was in photo college in the early 70’s, we actually had an exercise where you had to walk down a busy street and photography people that were coming towards you as you walked. The teacher expected to see not only the person you were picturing, but the next person somewhere in the fame behind them, so he could see that you were shooting everyone no matter how uncomfortable, and not cherry-picking those that seemed benign. This was the era of guys like Garry Winogrand, so street shooting was a big thing.

    As a professional advertising/commercial photographer, I was mostly always photographing situations I was paid to be doing, or people I was supposed to be photographing, so there was a tacit agreement that what was happening was supposed to be happening.

    You would think that with the modern era of cell phone cameras, everyone would be pretty familiar with a camera being stuck in their face and think it was no big deal, but I’ve found the reverse. People seem hyper-reactive to seeing you pointing a camera at them, unless you are someplace like an event, and will react pretty negatively including demanding an explanation of what you think you’re doing!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m with you – much more comfortable photographing people when we both agree that I’m to be doing it.

      I think that non-phone cameras stick out a lot more today, because there are fewer of them out there!

  2. brineb58 Avatar

    I also feel awkward photographing strangers, I love buildings and signs. I don’t have a problem with photographing people I know!!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Right there with you!

  3. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    Are you a fan of Bruce Gilden?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I appreciate what he’s doing for its own sake, but don’t enjoy looking at it very much because it runs to the grotesque.

  4. Darts and Letters Avatar
    Darts and Letters

    Hmmm, Ken Wajda’s blog is very interesting. Thanks for sharing the link, Jim. Have you ever checked out the 100 Strangers Project on Flickr? I’m doing a version of that (to protect peoples’ privacy and exposure a little extra, I don’t post to the pool of group photos or put tags on my pictures). I’ve only gotten four stranger portraits, but I’m enjoying it immensely and it has added an entirely new interesting dimension to my walk-around photography.

    I 100% agree…….if one has trepidations about how to photograph random people on the street, engagement with the person (or persons) can completely change the dynamics. One question in my mind, is how does this change the nature of what might be considered “street photography”? What I’m doing for my Strangers Project isn’t really candid portraiture or street photography in the sense that those images represent random scenes. I’ve influenced the subject within whatever setting we’re in together.

    For me, that question doesn’t change the appeal of the project. It’s very worthwhile and I feel that it has tremendous value to me and hopefully others. But it feels like a definite subgenre of the sort of street photography where people are captured in public without any kind of engagement or consent.

    Could you imagine doing what Vivian Maier did, just walking right up to people and sticking your camera in their face for a picture? I could never do that, not in a billion years.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for the tip on the 100 Stranger Project; I’ll have a look. You’re right, capturing people surreptitiously gives an entirely different look from capturing them with their permission, even when they are strangers. I have only ever done street photography from enough of a distance that if someone were to become truly enraged, I have a good head start on running away!

  5. tbm3fan Avatar

    I think in this particular day and age, right now, I wouldn’t want to take the chance on photographing strangers as my subject. You never know the reaction today as it isn’t the ’50s or ’60s anymore. People get shot for less today and to them YOU are a stranger.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s good to be mindful of that kind of thing.

  6. Joe from the Resurrected Camera Avatar

    The other option is to NOT ask their permission, just take the picture. It takes practice but a lot of my photos are made that way. I usually am in a good mood and have a big smile on my face when I’m out photographing so it’s never been an issue. It’s not something everyone can do and it does take a while of doing it before it becomes comfortable. But with July 4th coming up no doubt there will be big crowds around Indianapolis, it could be a good opportunity to try it out!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I did a little of that on my recent trip to Germany but I didn’t love doing it. I do, however, really like a couple of the images I got.

  7. Michael Elliott Avatar

    Jim – absolutely in agreement with you here. It’s tough – especially in this era – to do the things that Frank, Capa, Meyerowitz and so on did, simply because people’s expectations, awareness and mindset have changed. I discussed this too in a recent blog article; there’s definitely an ethical consideration in shooting street photography and I do find myself tending towards capturing surreptitious shots with longer lenses than most would consider “true” street shooting, and never exploitatively, but I still find myself uncomfortable with the concept.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Exactly what I did: surreptitious shots with a long lens. I can’t imagine classic street shooting with a 35mm lens.

  8. kennethwajda Avatar

    Hey, that’s me. Somehow I missed this one, Jim. Thanks for the story. Good one as always.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re most welcome!

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