The ultimate guide to overcoming fear in street photography (and in life)
July 04, 2019
First things first. For me, street photography is more than just taking candid photos. Street photography can also be asking strangers permission to photograph them or photographing empty streets. Whatever it is, the common nominator is that you go on the street and take photos of the “street life.” That’s how I see it.
If you want to take a photograph of a building, it’s very predictable. You can sit there with your camera all day long and compose the shot and think and wait. The building is not going to react to you taking the photo, nor is it walking away.
Taking pictures of people is what most street photographers like to do as people are certainly one of the most exciting subjects to photograph. No doubt.
No doubt as well that people are very challenging to photograph. They move quickly and are unpredictable. Unpredictable in a sense that everyone can react differently. Every situation is different.
This is what makes photographing people interesting but also causes fear. Whether taking candid pictures or asking permission, the fear is there. We want to make a certain photo, but then again we often don’t do it. Why is it? Why is it that we want to do something and then we don’t do it. It’s as if there’s a wall that creates this massive block.
Have you ever walked around the street with your camera afraid to take pictures of strangers? So that you miss opportunity after opportunity. Or you see someone cool and think that you should ask them if you can photograph them and you don’t. I have been there many many times.
In this article, I mainly focus on the fear of asking people permission to take their photo and taking candid photos (especially from close), but because the principles are universal, a lot applies to anything else you might be afraid to do in life.
The first thing to understand is that the fear you have won’t go away. It’s hard-wired into our brains, so we can’t just get rid of it. What we can do is to learn to manage it. So instead of not doing the thing you want to do, you do it anyway.
Getting rid of the fear wouldn’t be advisable either. It’s what keeps us alive. Imagine not being afraid of jumping off a cliff. That wouldn’t end very well, right?
We also often think that some people are fearless or in some way different and it’s therefore easy for them. That is not true. We all have the same brain with the same “hardware.” Yes, of course, we’re all different, but we all eat, breathe, walk, have sex, and acquire our mother tongue the same way. So the core characteristics are the same. Just the details vary.
Back in the caveman times doing something out of the line, like confronting the wrong person could end up us being thrown out of the tribe which was the equivalent to a death sentence. So, naturally, our brains keep us doing anything that puts us in the spotlight. It wants to keep us safe and the best way to do that is to keep a low profile and do the safe things like everyone else.
Street photography can put us in the spotlight. Taking pictures of people without asking their permission from close, is in a way, confronting them. You are entering their personal space. Some people might not like it and take it as a sign of aggression or mocking.
Even asking permission can be scary, and therefore, our brain doesn’t want us to do that. Again, back in the caveman times, approaching strangers put us in the spotlight, and this potentially might not have ended very well. Our brain wants to minimize the risk as much as possible. It tries to keep you alive, no matter what. It doesn’t care about your artistic endeavors or self-development at all.
Nowadays, in our modern society, things are very different than they used to be thousands of years ago. We don’t live in tribes anymore, and therefore we can’t be thrown out of one. Having a “bad” interaction with someone doesn’t mean anything either. Most likely we’re never going to see that person ever again.
Our brains don’t know that. We still have the same mind as we had in the caveman times. Evolution hasn’t caught up with the rapid developments of human society yet. This is why we can binge eat chocolate or other high-calorie foods. Thousands of years ago high-calorie foods were very scarce, and if you found one, you ate all you could as it might have saved your life (literally).
I wrote all this because I think half of the battle is understanding the “why.” Just by understanding why we’re afraid, already lowers the anxiety as whenever we feel the fear, we realize that “oh, it’s just my brain doing its thing.”
The “How to”
There is no magic pill, but I’ve found out several ideas and concepts that can help a lot to overcome the fear, especially if you combine them.
First, we need to realize that the fear we’re experiencing is not a real fear. It’s excitement. Yes, excitement and fear have the same symptoms, but we often misinterpret excitement as fear.
We get excited because we want to take a photo. It’s our mind telling us that this is what we have to do. It’s not really fear. There are no tigers attacking us. Our life is not in danger, so it can’t be a real fear. It must be excitement.
Look at it as a compass. When you feel the so-called “fear,” it’s a sign that you have to do it. I know it’s easier to be said than done, but try to think of it as a positive thing, not a negative thing. Steven Pressfield calls it the “resistance” (I wrote about it in my blog as well).
What you should be afraid of are missed opportunities. If you don’t take that candid photo or don’t ask that stranger to take a portrait of her, then know that you will never have the same opportunity again — not that kind.
So instead of being afraid of awkwardness or rejection or weird looks or even a small confrontation, be afraid of the missed opportunity.
You will never regret taking action, but you will regret not taking action.
Step out of the loop
First, you realize that you’re in a loop. Second, you make a conscious decision to step out of it.
What do I mean by a “loop”? When you go through similar thought patterns resulting in similar actions or inaction. E.g., when you know, you should get out of the bed in the morning, but you keep putting it off until at one point you decide to break the loop.
The same goes on in your mind when you walk around with the camera afraid of taking pictures. Pay attention to your thoughts. They are always the same, right? And the action? Also, the same. However, “the action” in this case would be inaction. You keep walking (loop).
The solution is to do the same thing as you do when you get out of bed in the morning. You simply decide to get out.
Relating this to street photography, you can say, “Excuse me, you look so cool, may a take a portrait of you?” That’s all it takes. Don’t worry about the rest; the rest will come naturally. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, it’s because you haven’t got enough practice.
Nobody is born to be great at interacting with people or dealing with confrontation. It’s a skill that can be learned by continuously throwing yourself into these situations.
At one point you have to break the loop, it’s not going to happen by itself. You have to make a decision.
What do other people think of me?
This is a really common one.
We all think about what other people are thinking of us. The truth is, nobody cares.
You might be worried about what other people are thinking of you, but that’s the same what everyone else is also thinking.
Most people walking on the street can’t see beyond their arm’s length, especially in the present day and age where many people are on their phones in a constant derp-like state. Everything’s just a blur for them.
When you start a conversation or take a photo candidly, you might get the attention of the nearby people, but only for a couple of seconds. Right after that, they’re back to their thoughts.
Proof not promises
Ask yourself what are you afraid of and try to get to the root cause. Then find an argument against that.
E.g., “I’m afraid to get close to people and take a photo because they might get mad and punch me in the face.” What kind of counter-argument could we use?
You prove to your brain that the fear is ungrounded. Ask yourself if this has ever happened to you? Has anyone ever punched you in the face after taking a photo and not asking permission? Probably not. What’s the worse that has happened? What’s the worse that could happen?
These are just some of the questions to ask yourself while analyzing what you’re afraid.
This is one part of it.
The second part is to give your brain proof, not promises. Thinking and finding arguments against your brain only has a limited effect. What is way more powerful is to show your brain that the fear is unfounded.
The best way would be actually to do the thing you’re afraid of. Face your fears, head-on.
However, for many people, this is very difficult. E.g., some people are afraid of flying, and they go absolutely out of their way not to fly. Many people end up not flying their entire lives. This is how strong the fear can be. It dictates our decisions.
You can start small. Look at photographs that are made from close distance by other street photographers. Look at POV-style videos of street photographers getting close to their subjects and interacting with them. Check out Eric Kim doing street photography with flash in LA or Bruce Gilden’s famous NY street photography videos.
Doing this proves your brain that nothing bad happens and that it’s “normal” to take photos on the street.
This will give you enough proof to go out and replicate it yourself and further gaining evidence that it’s okay and that there’s nothing to be afraid.
The fancy term for this is "cognitive behavioural therapy" and it's one of the most powerful methods to treat this kind of anxiety.
People who are afraid of snakes are first shown snakes behind the glass. Then they are shown the snake handled by a professional snake handler, and before they realize, they have the snake on their hands.
It’s a battle
As I said at the beginning of this article, “the fear” never really goes away. You become more confident, and you learn to manage it, but because it’s hard-wired, it’s there to stay.
What you notice is that once you start taking action and your brain will see the proof that nothing happens, you begin to get into a flow-like state where pictures take themselves. You’re just a vessel.
Let’s take asking strangers for a portrait. The first one is hard and so might be the second, but then you notice that it will get easier and easier until you reach a point where you don’t care, and you want to interact with people (or get close and take a photo without permission). You start to feel cocky even.
Until you go to sleep and the next day you have to start all over again.
Even though the next day you start from zero, it’s not really zero, as you still have the experiences. Over time these experiences accumulate, and this is how confidence forms. You know that you have seen it all (or at least a lot), and know you’ll be alright. You’ll be able to manage whatever is thrown to your way. That’s true confidence.