How to Defuse Confrontations in Street Photography

The following is a syndicated post originally found on Eric Kim’s blog. It has been published here with his permission. Syndication by Anthony Thurston. 

What do you do if someone gets pissed off with you taking a picture of them?

Here are some personal strategies:

1. Pretend like you’re shooting something behind them

If you take a picture and your subject looks pissed off, DON’T drop the camera and walk away.

SUITS

My suggestion: hold your ground, and hold the camera up. Keep clicking, and don’t make eye contact. Then pretend like you’re shooting something behind the person.

London, 2014. The first picture, with a flash at night.
London, 2014. The first picture, with a flash at night.
London, 2014. The second photo. I pretended like I was shooting the sign behind her.
London, 2014. The second photo. I pretended like I was shooting the sign behind her.

2. “Cool place, huh?”

An off shoot of the prior tip. Pretend like you’re shooting the place… not the person.

I shot this picture with a full flash, and freaked out the couple. After taking the picture, I said,

Cool place, huh?

They looked behind them and said, “Yeah!” I then smiled and said, “Enjoy your dinner!” they said, “Thanks!”

Shot in a restaurant with flash in Michigan, Lansing.
Shot in a restaurant with flash in Michigan, Lansing.

3. “Just keep doing what you’re doing!”

I took this picture of a man eating a sandwich through a window, and after he made eye contact with me… I just gestured to him to keep eating the sandwich.

Funny enough, he laughed and kept eating, and actually posed for the camera.

Suit eating Potbelly Sandwich in Chicago, 2013
Suit eating Potbelly Sandwich in Chicago, 2013

4. Crouch, shoot, don’t make eye contact

I was in close quarters in a crowded Paris subway, and saw this suit looking miserable. I crouched, and shot a photo with a flash, at around 1 arm length away (1 meter).

After taking the picture, I just avoided eye contact, pretended to look at the map behind him, and then opened up my phone.

Paris, suit in the train. 2015
Paris, suit in the train. 2015

Why avoid eye contact to defuse potential confrontations? If you avoid eye contact, you don’t provoke people.

5. Give your subject a compliment, or tell them why you made a picture of them

NYC, 2015

When working on my suits project, I had a lot of people give me a dirty eye after I made a photo of them without permission.

What I did then was compliment them or tell them why I shot them like,

Nice tie!

Or

Looking sharp!

Don’t give fake compliments. Be honest and real. Then most people smile and say thank you, and move on.

But what do you do when you have taken someone’s picture, and they know it was you?

6. Apologize, hold your ground, and wait for the police

Street photography isn’t illegal in public spaces.

Once I made a picture of a woman in Melbourne, and she got angry and threatened to call the cops on me. I apologized, and she wanted me to take out my film. I said no. She threatened to call the cops. I said if she wanted to, she could.

She called the cops.

I waited with her (awkwardly) and when the cops finally came, they said I was doing nothing wrong.

Lesson: Don’t let anyone bully you on the streets. Don’t be a dick, but don’t be overly apologetic. You ain’t doing anything wrong in street photography.

7. Don’t argue; listen.

I once photographed a woman who went off on me in Downtown LA. She cursed at me, and threatened to call the cops.

For about five minutes, I didn’t say anything. I kept nodding my head, had a worrisome look in my face, and I said, “I understand.”

About 6 minutes in, she spilled the beans:

She has an old boyfriend stalker, who was abusive to her. She was anxious that he hired a stalker to monitor and haunt her.

Afterwards, I told her I photographed her because I thought she was beautiful. She said, “Really?” We then did a little photo shoot. She loved the pictures. I showed her the lcd screen. She liked them. I emailed her the best one.

Moral of the story: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Anthony Thurston

Anthony is a Portland, Oregon based Boudoir Photographer specializing in a dark, moody style that promotes female body positivity, empowerment, and sexuality. Besides The Phoblographer, he also reviews gear and produces his own educational content on his website.