In his early years legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous for his photographs on the streets of Paris would sometimes hide his camera under a handkerchief so he could capture truly candid shots of people and situations, however once when a gang of youths noticed what he was up to he had to exit the scene quickly, after that he decided not to hide his camera anymore, so even he wrestled with the realities of taking candid photos in public places. Much of street photography involves photographing people either directly or indirectly within a larger scene, a question I get asked a lot when giving a talk, taking a photography tour or doing a workshop is how I go about photographing in these situations.
If I think back to when I was starting out in photography and still on my L plates one of my first paying gigs was function and restaurant photography for a company called Happy Medium, the gig wasn’t so hard really if you didn't mind approaching strangers, dealing with lots of rejection and the occasional drunk. So how it worked was they would send me to a restaurant or function, once there I would endeavour to persuade as many couples and groups as I could to let me take their photo, I’d then jump into my car and race to a centrally located lab (a term I use loosely) tucked somewhere down a seedy lane in Richmond to have my film processed and printed. Then with a bunch of heavily vignetted photos under arm I’d hurry back to the restaurant where I would do my best to match somewhat inebriated happy loving couples with their photo in the hope of parting them from a sum of money. When I first started, the high rate of refusal from people had me struggling, no couples on film meant no prints and OMG! no sales, it was a little soul destroying dealing with that much rejection in one evening. One night having returned to the lab from the Hofbrauhaus restaurant with only one measly roll of film containing just 3 couples I was, I admit feeling a little sad and sorry for myself, why was I getting so many knock backs? Across the room was another photographer a dapper little Vietnamese guy, I had noticed in the few weeks that I had been there that he would always return from his functions with large bunches of film in hand bursting with couples, was it something I was saying or not saying. Seeing my grim look I think he took pity on me and came over and asked what was wrong, I told him my story of woe, whereupon he smiled and then gave me some very good advice, advice that I still use today when the situation calls for it, what he said was simple and also a little confusing at first, 'don't ask to take their photo, because invariably people will nearly always say NO it's their instinctive response'. ‘What' I said 'don’t ask, but how could you take somebodies photo without first asking?’, he smiled repeated the words as if to say you work it out, and with that he turned and went back to collect the mountain of prints waiting for him, maybe he was onto something.
I gave thought to his advice over the following week when I found myself back at the home of lederhosen slap dancing the Hofbrauhaus, however this time I had a crafty strategy, as I walked into the main foyer I started triggering my flash hoping the patrons inside, while they couldn't actually see me would see a flash going off and get a sense of something happening, then summoning up every ounce of self belief I could muster I strutted into the restaurant proper, walked up to the first couple and as I raised my camera as I gestured for them to cuddle together which they duly did without question, I snapped their photo and to my surprise and quicker than you could say ‘process this large amount of film’ pretty much every other couple in the restaurant dutifully fell into line and let me take their photographs, it was a lesson in human nature.
I tell this story because it has relevance to street photography, however the restaurant approach is a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut so you may need to nuance your approach for different situations because, while it is legal to take photos of people in public in Australia (you can read more on the law here) there are still ethical considerations to take into account, particularly if you are focusing in on an individual potentially intruding into a private moment in a public space, say as opposed to an overall scene which may have more than one person in it, I’m always mindful of this and it relies on judgment, common sense and respect for the individual or situation. As photographers we are always chasing that perfect street moment, think of those times when you've been out and come across a scene that you couldn't have dreamt up, you want to capture it but if you ask first and shoot second more than likely the moment will be lost, they'll stiffen up, move position or wave you away. So faced with a choice, you can do the above and possibly lose the shot, keep walking and put it down as the one that got away, shoot first explain later if needed, stand there with camera hanging around your neck pretending you’re not taking a shot when you actually are. It’s a judgement call, I've done and do all of the above. In this scenario when I've taken the shot mostly I'll keep walking, maybe give a gesture or smile if it seems warranted or I may go over and talk to them, tell them who I am and why I took the photo, ninety-nine percent of the time people are fine about it, you’ve just got to play it by ear there are no hard and fast rules, and remember, not everyone is fair game.
But of course, the first challenge is to simply lift the camera to your eye and start shooting!