It took me a few years to figure this out. Wait, that's not quite right. It took me a few years to put a name to this. I have been subconsciously aware of it since I started shooting the streets, I just didn't know what to call it. Now I do. Emotional Intelligence. It's the single most important thing in street photography and if you master this, you can shoot the streets without fear (a healthy level of awareness, but not fear). So, what the hell is it?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.
That's according to Psychology Today and it's the perfect definition. It may seem odd to apply this term to street photography. I know, it sounds academic, but it's very relevant. This term is often used in management. If you manage people in your job, having good emotional intelligence is a huge benefit because you have to manage both your own emotions and the emotions of others, often in tense situations. When raising the camera to your eye to shoot a photo of a stranger on the street, you have to manage your own emotions, and you have to be able to respond to and influence the emotions of the person your shooting if they spot you. It's a powerful thing. Let's explore this further.
Emotional Awareness and Managing Emotions
This applies to both your own emotions and those of your subject. You have direct control over your own emotions. If you're very nervous, you can calm yourself down (deep breaths). You could just not take the shot (and sometimes, this is the right response). You could just force yourself to do it. You could just go home. But what about the emotions of your subject? Let's clarify something, in street photography, you generally want a candid moment. You're not counting on being seen, but you might be and that's the nerve racking aspect. Do you have any influence over the emotions of your subject if and when they spot you? The answer might surprise you.
There are a lot of tactics you can employ to avoid being caught. Sure, you can shoot from the hip. You can hide behind a pillar. You can use a telephoto lens from a distance. But no matter what tactic you use, your fear is that you'll get caught. That's the source of the fear. And guess what? You will get caught. If you take street photography seriously, you're gonna get caught. It's how you respond to being caught that matters. Once you realize this and you learn to manage your emotions and the emotions of your subject when you are caught, you'll shoot with a lot more confidence and you can drop those lame tactics because they limit you and make you look like a creep anyway. It's all about managing your own emotions and learning to influence those of your subject (in a disarming way, we're getting to that).
Managing Your Emotions
When you get caught pointing your camera at a stranger, you need to know how to handle yourself first. You can't freak out and run away (that would be weird). You can't freeze up and panic. Most importantly, you can't deny that you just did what you did and pretend to you're shooting something else (although this tactic can work, it wont' work every time). You have to own it! This person just caught you, a stranger on the street with a camera, taking their picture and they have wide eyes and a look that says, "What the fuck?". Don't panic. Manage your emotions.
You have to keep cool, that's the most important thing. Act like you're supposed to be there, like there's nothing unusual about what you're doing. Inside your own mind you must be convinced that there's nothing weird about this act, it's normal. This is what your attitude should be, even if it doesn't feel natural. You are a photographer. This is what you do and it's not strange or unusual. You are a harmless artist. This may sound like bullshit because inside you're freaking out and grasping for a response, but you have to keep calm internally because your energy (getting all mystical here) will be apparent to the subject that caught you. Keep calm and act normal.
Managing Your Subjects Emotions
Okay, I'll admit, this part seems impossible. How the hell are you supposed to manage the emotions of a stranger who just caught you taking their picture on the street? Yeah, how are you, a simple street photographer going to go all Sigmund Freud on this person? I'm telling you, it's the simplest thing ever. Because you're calm having read the paragraph above, you're not doing anything weird, just acting like your supposed to be there, you're fully prepared internally. Now you have to influence your subject.
Here it is...ready? Lower the camera and smile. That's it, that's the ultimate human kryptonite when it comes to an awkward situation. Just smile at the person that just caught you taking their picture. It's so simple and so effective. 95% of the time, they'll smile back and you'll just keep on walking. No harm, no foul. Personally, I'm not a afraid of being caught shooting in the streets. I try not to get caught because I don't want to influence the scene, but I don't care if I do get caught because I know I can disarm any situation with a smile. Let's take a look at some examples from my own work where I was caught and exactly what transpired.
Examples Of Being Caught
I was clearly caught while shooting this image and I was very close. There was no denying that I was shooting a photo of this guy and his expression is the way is because he's saying (while I'm shooting), "Why the hell you wanna take my picture?!" I lowered the camera, smiled and said, "Because you're an interesting guy." He was flattered and chuckled a bit. I simply moved on. His expression is what makes this image for me.
It doesn't look like I was caught shooting this image, but I was. I approached this lady and she was standing just like you see here in the photo, but before I could click the shutter, she looked over at me and gave me the WTF? look. I didn't take the shot. Instead, I lowered the camera and told the truth, I'm a street photographer and this is what I do. She responded by telling me that she loves street photography. She then agreed to stand as she was before and I snapped this image.
Caught red handed. Normally, I don't shoot images of people staring at their phones. I find it bland and frankly, too easy. But, I was out for hours and hadn't shot anything on this particular night so I went for it and just as the shutter was about the click, he looked up. I didn't say a word. I just smiled and he smiled back. I continued on my way.
Street photography is very dynamic, and a lot depends on context, but, with some introspection and an understanding of emotional intelligence, you can shoot with confidence. Always stay calm and act like you belong where you are, doing what you're doing. The best way to manage the emotions of your subject, should you be caught, is to simply smile, or explain what you're doing. I can't guarantee this will work every time, but it hasn't failed me yet. Everything else in this series builds off of emotional intelligence. It's that important.
What's Your Experience?
I'd love to hear about your own street photography experiences and how you handle confrontation in the comments below. Have you been caught? How did you respond?