Respect For Your Subjects in Street Photography

Ilford Delta 800

There was a time when I often felt a quiet rage when a photograph I wanted to make didn’t work out. It was either at myself or at the person (or people) I was trying to photograph. With the former, it could’ve been that I reacted too slowly, I wasn’t in the right position, or I hadn’t set my camera properly. With the latter, my subject didn’t what the photograph needed or they became aware of what I was doing. I can’t do anything about the first because I don’t set up scenes because that’s not what you do in street photography. With the second, it often felt as if they had transgressed, that their not wanting to be photographed was somehow an affront to me. It was a while before I realized that no one owes me a photograph.

Belligerence towards an unwilling subject in street photography is at the very least unwarranted and deeply disrespectful. It signifies a disconnect, a lack of empathy, which ultimately affects the image and the photographer. Frustration is a very real and natural thing to feel, but when a photograph goes untaken, it’s gone. Nothing can really be done about it, and when someone signals that they want no part of it, it’s best to let it go.

Good photography is predicated on respect for your craft, for your peers, and most importantly for your subject. How you carry yourself and your camera on the street ultimately affects each image you try to make. If you’re aggressive with your camera, people will be inclined to defend themselves. Aggressiveness doesn’t necessarily mean exaggerated actions. It can be subtle. How you react to someone who objects will determine how the rest of the interaction goes.

julius motal the phoblographer foto365 image 03

It’s hard to take a belligerent, self-aggrandizing photographer seriously because they’re difficult to deal with and their images are often lacking. It then becomes hard to understand why they’re doing it at all when disrespect is a part of their discourse.

It’s the photographer’s responsibility to set the mood, whether it’s in the studio or out on the street. Hostility begets hostility. Each person on the street, by virtue of her or his existence, is an unconscious participant in a photograph. It could be a tourist’s snapshot or a photographer’s image. More often than not, if you’re good and subtle enough, they’ll be a part of your photograph without knowing it and continue on. It’s important to feel, and occasionally express, gratitude for their participation because they make your images possible. Yes, you pressed the shutter, but they decided to go out that day.

Empathy, humility and gratitude go a long way. They’re the elements of good images with emotional resonance. I realize this all sounds rather didactic, but that’s not my intention. This is all gleaned from the photographers I’ve met in person and online, and those whose work I’ve seen but haven’t met. I’m writing this largely to contextualize what I’ve learned, and if you get something out of it, then that’s an added benefit.

Some of this, too, is inspired by Mary Ellen Mark, a renowned photographer who passed away a few days ago at the age of 75. Mark was prolific, having produced 18 books with another one in progress by the time she died, and the level of humanity in her work put her at a level above the rest. There’s a video below in which she talks about her work and the people she photographed. The respect she had for subjects is apparent in the fact that she could recall their identities many years after the fact.

While Mark wasn’t exclusively a street photographer, her approach has lessons for all of us, regardless of our genre. Yet, it resonates deeply for street photography where the dialogue is unspoken, and where the respect (hopefully) goes both ways.