Street Photography: Confrontation and Bad Advice From My Former Self

Lessons in street photography don’t always age well. Over time, our education deepens and our perspective matures – leaving us a little red in the face over words we once spoke.

Several years ago I wrote an article giving advice about managing confrontation in street photography. I spent time putting together an action plan, including ways in which you can avoid confrontation altogether. At the time I thought it was gold. I shared it as much as I could, and in fairness, a lot of people thought it was good – I imagine they were as green as I was. Looking back, there was some terrible advice in it. So terrible, in fact, I’ve removed the piece. Let’s take a look at what went wrong and I what I wish I knew then that I know now.

There Should be No Cowardice in Street Photography

Whilst confidence may be lacking in the early days, it should be something every street photography aims to improve. Fear of confrontation can prevent a person from taking risks and stops them from expressing themselves creatively.  On the topic of confrontation, I wrote this…

Don’t worry if you’re fearful of getting into a fight, there’s a way to avoid that. All you need to do is take photographs of people who can do you no harm. Elderly and younger people for example. They’re less likely to want to engage in a physical confrontation.

I cringe reading that. And sure, whilst elderly people and youths may not wish to hit you, it shouldn’t be a reason to exclude other types of people from your shots.

The truth is during the six years that I’ve shot street photography – taking thousands of photos in many countries across the world – I’ve only really had a handful of genuine confrontations (by genuine I mean times where I’ve thought “oh it’s about to go down”). The reason for that is not because I’ve been avoiding a certain type of subject, but rather from my experience,  because most people don’t want to get into a slugfest over a photograph.

To overcome the fear of confrontation, I suggest to you doing something I like to call “Smash The Stereotype.”.  Go and approach the meanest looking guy – the kind with tattoos and a vibe that suggests he cannot wait to kill – and ask to take his portrait. Once you see that big grizzly bear soften and become flattered that you want to take his shot, you’ll learn people are not as bad as you perceive them to be.

“The truth is during the six years that I’ve shot street photography…I’ve only really had a handful of genuine confrontations.”

As that confidence grows you can work towards taking candid shots of everything and everyone.

What to Do When Confrontation Does Happen

Like I said, whilst it has been minimal, confrontation does still happen. Back to that awful piece again…

If someone does confront you, whether it’s a calm or aggressive manner, you should either offer to delete the photo straight away or run!

Maybe time makes you thick-skinned and protective of your craft.

In the early days, I led with the idea that in some way I was doing something wrong by practising street photography. I was pushing my camera onto people without their consent, and should any bad come of it then it was down to me. That’s why I would offer to delete an image (without them even asking). Today I stand my ground, and although I’m not confrontational, my objective is to ensure I do not delete an image.

“To overcome the fear of confrontation, I suggest to you doing something I like to call ‘Smash The Stereotype.’.”

A better approach is to calmly explain what you’re doing. Flatter them a little. Tell them they make an amazing subject and you wanted to capture them candidly. People tend to want reassurance you don’t have bad intentions – give it to them. And if someone goes down the route of “it’s against the law” then just politely explain to them it isn’t. Then move onto the next subject.

And whilst today I’m not suggesting you engage in violence should things start to really get heated, don’t run off. You have every right to be in a public setting, creating your photographs and going about your day. It is not for some bully to put you off doing what you love the most. If someone wants to have a fight because a little photo, they’re the problem, not you.

Quickfire Tips for Effective Street Photography

There’s a lot more than just the technical element that goes into being a street photographer. There is a culture in street photography,  and with that comes some best practices. Here are some pointers to help you manage the confrontational side of things.

“A better approach is to calmly explain what you’re doing. Flatter them a little. Tell them they make an amazing subject and you wanted to capture them candidly.”

  • Wear dark clothing – You want to be almost invisible when out shooting. Loud, eye-catching clothes are only going to draw more attention to you.
  • Avoid eye contact – This is your chance to be the awkward, strange person who can’t make eye contact. Not looking someone in the eyes will suggest you have no interest in them. Then pow, take the shot.
  • Know your laws – Being equipped with the knowledge of what you’re legally allowed to do will set you in good stead when people throw the law at you. Even if they sound really convincing, they’re likely to be wrong. So make sure you can shut them down by knowing your stuff.
  • Relax – Being relaxed and carefree will help you to shoot more openly. If people sense your tense, it will draw attention to you and freak them out. The consequence of this is poor street photography.

Street Photography is Fun, I promise.

Reading this you might be thinking it all seems like to much hard work. Worrying about being a ninja and a master of confrontation may not be what you thought street photography was about. Please remember, this is only going to be relevant for a very small amount of your time spent shooting.

Street photography in the most part is about freedom, creativity and to quench the thirst for the curiosity of life. Enjoy it.

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram.