Street photography is a social thing

Other than paparazzo’s hunting down celebrities, street photography may be the most controversial type of photography. There’s probably not a single person in the whole world who hates wildlife, wedding or macro photographers.

The reason why street photography is stigmatized is e.g., because some photographers like to get close to their subjects without asking permission. Some want to use flash. These aspects, however, seem to tick some people off.

Photographers who do that are sometimes considered rude, idiots, assholes, and non-artists.

Let’s take Bruce Gilden as an example. I’ve already used him a couple of times to illustrate my point, and I’ll do it again. He’s one of my favorite photographers, and he’s also the most controversial one. That’s why he’s perfect in this context.

Now, just as Bruce Gilden, many street photographers who have similar style (flash + getting very close to subjects) don’t do that to be an asshole. That is not their purpose.

They get close to their subjects without asking permission because that’s their style. That’s what they want to do. This is what they feel they have to do. This is what drives them. This is what they find exciting.

There’s no point in pretending to be Henri Cartier-Bresson if that’s not your style. You need to make the art you want to make not what anyone tells you to do.

Not everyone likes to take these kinds of photos:

Barcelona, 2019

Some like to take these kinds instead:

Luxembourg, 2019

Others do this:

Luxembourg, 2019

Then, some like to do that:

Luxembourg, 2019

And there are plenty who do this:

Maastricht, 2019

Different strokes for different folks.

I believe that a lot of photographers who don’t “like” these more polarizing street photographers are too scared to do it themselves. They would never have the courage to ask someone’s permission to take a portrait of them (or take one candidly up close). So they go out of their way trying to discredit the ones who do have the guts. Some even say that if you ask permission, it’s not street photography.

This is what Steven Pressfield has to say:

“If you find yourself criticizing other people, you're probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.
Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.”

Street photography, and especially the polarizing type, requires social intelligence.

They say most of our communication takes place non-verbally. Therefore, even if you don’t ask for permission and never open your mouth, it’s still a very social thing. E.g., acting very awkwardly and nervously will make others around you suspicious and nervous as well.

Being able to read subtle social cues such as your subject tensing up after you took a photo of them and responding by smiling and saying “thank you”, is a social skill. It has nothing to do photography per se, but it’s a necessary skill to have as a street photographer.

Some street photographers I have seen act weird. They try to hide their camera and constantly look around and pretend not to be interested in their subject.

I think it’s a lot creepier behavior than someone getting close to their subjects. In the first case, the photographer is trying to hide something; in the second he’s blatantly obvious about it. And some people try to make it look as if the second one is the bad one. Oh my.

Of course, if you have no social skills, then street photography can be hard. Even frustrating. However, if that’s what you feel you want to do, then there’s no way around it. You have to socialize.

The good news is that just like any skill, interacting with strangers can be learned.

Imagine you try to learn a guitar. How good are you after the first day? Pretty much the same. What about after a week? Still very awkward but a bit better. What about a month? Not very good, but you can most likely already play something simple. What about after a year? Two years?

Because of the social aspect, street photography can be a very exhilarating, exciting, and rewarding type of photography. For the same reason, it is also very polarizing and often stigmatized.