Why are you so afraid of street photography?
Want to get your start with street photography?
Maybe you’ve been thinking about how to begin street photography? But ugh…don’t you have to make eye contact with people you don’t know? 🙂 Have you ever wondered how photographers engage with strangers on the street and photograph them? How do you choose who to spend more time with, or who to interview? I liken photography to heart-led research, so that’s what motivates me to photograph strangers despite being an unrepentant introvert. I’m confident that if I’m able to engage with strangers, then you can, too. I want to share a few helpful street photography tips I’ve learned through trial and error that will hopefully have you feeling motivated to begin street photography.
Find an area or an issue you want to explore
A few years back, I was driving down the main drag in Yogyakarta, Indonesia during the end of Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims. I saw about 40 people sitting and standing on the side of the main thoroughfare with big handfuls of cash in different, colorful denominations. The cash was plastic-wrapped and looked new. Getting a crispy new bill in Indonesia is a momentous occasion. So, it was wild to see all those people holding crisp, new cash. What exactly was going on? A good reason to begin street photography is to have an excuse to observe people and things you’re interested in more deeply. I decided to go back and photograph and talk with the new money sellers.
Selling New Money- an Eid-al-Fitr Phenomenon
Participants in the month-long Ramadan fast wake at about 3:00am and eat breakfast before abstaining from food, drink, and impure thoughts all day until dusk. They should not take part in sexual activity or violent acts and should avoid thinking about these things. It takes a large amount of control. Snack vendors populate the streets during this month, selling foods suitable for breaking fast. While still fasting, many people buy snacks or drinks from them and need to avoid imagining eating it. Imagine how much willpower that takes!
If you’re interested in learning more about the meaning and purpose of Ramadan, one of the 5 pillars of Islam, take a look at this article. It’s an interview with Imam Mikal Shabazz of Oregon, and it’s written to explain the practices and philosophy to non-Muslims. (I found it really useful, even though I’ve been living in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, for years.)
So, after a month of lots of prayer and donations to the poor, people want to celebrate and spend time with family. It’s akin to Christmas time for Americans. They go home to gather with extended family (if they make it there) have traditional meals and celebrate in their finest clothing. After the fasting is over, many people buy new clothes and possessions in anticipation of Eid-al-Fitr, the official end of the month of fasting and celebration time with family. Children get new money from family members.
A touch of convenience in an overcrowded existence
Java Island’s overpopulation makes simple tasks monumental sometimes. Trying to get a ticket at the train station or airport or accomplish a simple transaction at the bank could take hours. Who wants to wait around? There are usually ways to bypass waiting in this culture. Sometimes I see police motorcycles or cars driving erratically with large lighted batons honking and clearing the way for people in cars who have paid for the service on the backed up roads. Indonesians can pay a calo, (scalper) sitting just outside the airport for a plane ticket to go home when everything is sold out at the ticketing counters. Or, it turns out, they can buy new money on the side of the road instead of heading to the bank. Of course, there is a fee for these services but Indonesian businesses function with a small profit margin.
My plan to photograph new money sellers—not a complicated plan really
Once I had seen the new money sellers, I knew I wanted to go back and photograph them. And I knew I had to act fast, as there were just a few more days until Eid-al-Fitr. I didn’t need an elaborate plan. All I did was head out with my longer lens and walk up and down the street.
Engaging with strangers in street photography
As I walked down the street, I smiled at the money sellers and took photos. Some engaged with me, and some looked uncomfortable. I made sure to pick up on what they were putting down, and spent time with only the people who appeared open to being photographed. Of course, if you were working on this project long term, you could break some down some of those barriers. But I knew I’d only be interacting with these people once, and there was no reason to alienate them.
Any personality type can photograph people.
As you begin street photography, trust your what your intuition is telling you about other people. It will help guide you to better outcomes. If you remember only one thing from this article, this should be that thing.
I believe you can work within whatever personality type you have to be a successful photographer.
If you’re naturally gregarious and live to meet new people, more power to you. You will have a great time meeting people and photographing them on the street.
But, if you’re an introvert like me, chances are you have innate empathetic listening skills and could have a quiet yet powerful personality. Both of those qualities you can capitalize on to form relationships, even momentary ones on the street. Vulnerability can help you create rapport between you and your subjects. You don’t have to change who you are to photograph strangers, you just have to capitalize on and develop your own, unique personality strengths.
When I reached the end of the street, I met a friendly man named Ambon. In Indonesia, it is appropriate to use a title, so I will call him Pak (Mr.) Ambon from here on. Pak Ambon was normally a rickshaw driver (it was parked nearby) but for the days leading up to Eid-al-Fitr, he decided to sell new money since it had the possibility to be more profitable.
Using a quick interview approach to build rapport
I was happy to have a few minutes to speak with Pak Ambon. He had time to kill, as no one was currently buying any money from him and he was happy to answer a few of my questions. Asking questions is a great way to build rapport when you’re photographing people you’ve just met. It usually makes them more comfortable once you resume taking their photo.
I want to share my questions and his answers for two reasons. First, as photographers, I think many of us are naturally curious. I just wanted to know about him, and maybe you do too. Also, seeing my simple questions can give you ideas for the types of things you can ask strangers on the street when you want to get to know them quickly.
Me: Have you had many sales today?’
Pak Ambon: ‘Yeah, it’s been ok! It’s getting rather quiet now but earlier at about 2pm, I had a lot of sales. I got here at 1pm today after I went to the bank to get the money.’
Me: What do you do usually?’
Pak Ambon nodded over to a rickshaw. Usually, I drive a becak, but it’s pretty quiet due to the Ramadan holiday. So, I’ve been selling new money to make some extra income while I wait for things to pick up again.
Me: How does this work?
Pak Ambon: We package the money in 100,000 rupiah stacks. Customers can choose what denomination they want to buy. Any package costs 110,000 rupiah. So I make Rp. 10,000 ($0.85) per pack.
Me: Why wouldn’t your customers just visit the bank?
Pak Ambon: Ha! Who wants to stand in line for 5 hours? [When getting the new money to sell] I couldn’t even go pee for fear I’d lose my spot in the line to enter the bank.
Me: What do you do if you need to go to the bathroom here?
Pak Ambon: I have to bring everything with me.
So, in all, selling new money doesn’t seem like the easiest way to make a profit to me. I thanked Pak Ambon and felt happy to have had my questions satiated. I also got to make some photographs of him. And, hopefully, he enjoyed the exchange as well. There are different, more in-your-face approaches to street photography, but this is mine.
If you haven’t already started, get out there and begin street photography. You really have nothing to lose but your dignity or a few teeth. No, but really, if you shoot with a kind approach, you will rarely have a problem.
So, where do you plan to photograph? Write me a note in the comments below and then start planning when you’ll grab your camera and go there! Tomorrow? I hope so!