Photographing people: Being comfortable with strangers and yourself
By Jimmy Alford
12 Dec 2013
By Jimmy Alford
Photojournalism, fashion, and street photography all require photographers get comfortable around people and learn confidence in taking photos of sometimes complete strangers. Struggling with approaching people and taking photos can limit creativity and stunt budding photographers.
Dallas Morning News photographer Louis DeLuca said learning to get over his angst and becoming more comfortable with the camera enriched his life. He has made taking photos of people his bread and butter.
DeLuca is widely recognized as one of the best sports photographers in the United States and he has been named National Press Photographers Association Regional Photographer of the Year numerous times along with receiving countless other awards. He is currently a Senior Staff Photographer at the Dallas Morning News and has been published in Sports Illustrated, Life Magazine, ESPN the Magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times Magazine. Visit his Dlass Morning News blog at http://photographyblog.dallasnews.com/author/ldeluca/.
"I was always very self-conscious about taking photos of people that I didn't know as a young photographer. I would say it is something you overcome by doing," said DeLuca. "Some people are extroverts and others introverts. If you struggle with being around people you don't know, you will feel uncomfortable photographing them."
He said he got over his anxiety eventually by convincing himself that it was his job and he needed to get over be uncomfortable.
"Sometimes it is still uncomfortable, but usually when I define it as a job I have to do I can fight through any shyness and do what needs to be done. Most people don't mind being photographed, so it helped to realize that," DeLuca said. "You find there is a sharing and bonding when you invest in someone else's life with your time and efforts," DeLuca said. "You may actually grow to really care for your subject and become friends. At the very least you will help others share the experience you document and that enriches their lives also."
DeLuca said for him, the toughest subjects involve emotional stress, like illness or crisis.
"A person usually will have to build some trust in you before they let you into an intimate and honest part of their life," DeLuca said. "But if you show a genuine interest in them and spend time with them most people want to have their story told by someone.
For the amateur photographer and beginner aspiring to take photos for a living, getting up the courage to photograph people might stem from not knowing the law and not understanding what is legal, or acceptable in the United Sates. Lisa Parisot has been studying the role of privacy in the U.S. Parisot is the owner and executive producer of Reel Reflections Media with more than 25 years experience. She has been mainly a videographer, but has been a hobby photographer for years. Her awards include two Emmys. See her website http://reelreflectionsmedia.com/.
"My Masters thesis was on the invasion of privacy law, and whether TV news photographers knew and understood the law," Parisot said. "With the change in technology and the ability to take a photo/video with so many different things, I think the definition of privacy has been overlooked."
She said she has also felt it has been her responsibility as a photography to know where, when and who to photograph, the definition of public figure and where public viewing ends and private life begins.
In the U.S. Photographers have the privilege of protection under the First Amendment and the fact is if a photographer is in public they can shoot what they want. Of course, this basic right held by all people, not just journalists and professional photographer has been under fire by police in many areas. For stories about struggles of public photography and the police, go to http://blogs.nppa.org/advocacy/. There is also a good post on the New York Times' Lens blog on the subject, http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/14/criminalizing-photography/.
Speaking to the economics of photography, the moment a photographer decides to pursue commercial gain from their craft is where the unlimited freedom innate in people photography like street photography ends. If a photographer chooses to use or sell a photograph for commercial or stock use, they must first have the explicit permission and agreement from the subject to do so.
Also these are all just guidelines for the U.S., in some places like Japan, where if you can take photos of anyone in public, but if it can be proved that you harm their privacy, you can be sued. For some advice from a photographer in Japan, go to http://tonymcnicol.com/2009/01/26/photography-in-japan-what-are-your-rights/. For more specifics about rights in the U.S. go to http://photorights.org.
Even though a photographer has the right to takes photos of whatever and whomever they wish while in public, it still pay to get people comfortable with the idea of being photographed. Realizing that their subjects are just normal, people can help young photographers get over some initial shyness.
"It can be an intense experience because each person has a different personality and you have to figure out what that is, what they like and dislike, essentially you have to figure out really fast what type of person they need you to be to get them comfortable and give you the photo you're after," said freelance photographer and MJR Collective member Brandon Thibodeaux. "It's the chameleon affect. You're lingo changes, you may speak slower if they do, even your body language has to change and to some degree emulate theirs. These are really subconscious acts that I think we all do when meeting new people, we're deciphering the social code sort of speak. I'm not talking about playing a part or acting out a role, but simply figuring out what demeanor you should carry for you're subject to feel at ease and forget they just met you. I find a big smile goes a long way.
Thibodeaux has photographed for Forbes, The New York Times, News Week, and The Wall Street Journal among many others over the past decade. Check the MJR Collective at http://wearemjr.com/.
"I like being around people, always have, I like talking to the garbage man and the city councilman, when you get down to it there's really no difference between either one," Thibodeaux said. "They're two guys with bills, and lives, and wives, who probably even drink the same beer."
Tips for people photography:
DeLuca - Try to build some rapport with the people by visiting with them and showing genuine interest in what they are doing so they will relax around you and allow you to see the real part of their lives. I tell many people that I want to tell their story. Most people respond positively to that.
Parisot - I offer links to my work to the folks I shoot so they can share them with families or attach them to their websites. I also shoot for paid clients, but that is usually in their place of business so it is less of a problem."
Parisot - Joining professional organizations also helped me learn how to talk to people and overcome the initial shyness in my early career. And I had a few awesome mentors, Leigh Wilson at Mizzou and Darrell Barton in Oklahoma City. Just following them on assignments and watching how they worked, helped me to learn the ropes.
Parisot - I would add that preparation is the best way to avoid anxiety, or nervousness. Know the story, the facts, the people you will be interacting with, be knowledgeable and respectful. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Be observant of what is happening around you and I would often do a walk through without my gear prior to shooting to get the lay of the land and make the subject more comfortable.
Parisot - Practice, practice, practice with your equipment until you know it really well. That builds your confidence and it shows when you enter into a shoot. If you know what your gear can do, and you know what you need to get the shot, you will be comfortable doing your job. Go in to the situation without your gear, and let them meet you as a person first. Talk to them, show you are interested and mean it. I often would let folks look through my video camera or now you can show them the photos as soon as you shoot them. That doesn't mean you are giving over editorial control, just showing them how the equipment works.
Parisot - But it's a two-way road. It's hard to shoot if you aren't comfortable yourself and that's where I think things like straightforward honest talk and spending time genuinely getting to know your subject comes into play. And sometimes you just have to put the camera down and be where you are for a moment as a person first and a photographer later.
Thibodeaux - Read. Read. Read. Read. Ellen Gilcrist once said, "We live at the level of our language", the same thing holds true with how we interpret the world through our photography. Also, watch movies, go see plays, absorb characters, pay attention to story development, what goes where and when. Know when a quiet moment will speak volumes more than that in your face shot.
Thibodeaux - And most importantly listen to yourself. You're very best work will come when you're making something for yourself. When it's a subject you're interested in and can speak about passionately. I'm not saying you have to fight the world's hunger problem or save whales, just find a subject that draws you in your desire to create will do the rest.
Jimmy Alford is a photojournalist in Texas. He graduated from the University of North Texas in 2008 with a Bachelors in Photojournalism. www.txprophotog.com