The punch line: it is pretty rare to have someone turn down your request for a photo.
October 19th, I attended an Eric Kim street photography workshop in Portland, OR. A single day, all day workshop there was a total of five participants counting me. It made for an intimate and focused session.
The goal was to conquer your fears in street photography. This is an important topic for the budding street photographer. Judging by the number of posts online I see that say something like: “I’m looking for a discrete camera for street…” a lot of people are fearful. For me, I’ve always believed that people have their own f**king problems; they don’t really care what you are doing. But I had a weird hangup too. I’m not sure what the origin of the hangup was, but I was reluctant to take pictures of people on the street. It was a strange thing, because I’m not shy; generally not afraid to talk to anyone. To save thousands of hours of psycho-analysis I signed up for this workshop.
“Street photography” seems pretty popular although I seldom see any practitioners. It makes sense that it would be popular. Many of the great and best known photographers are street photographers. Really, how many people know the name of the guy that shoots brilliant and beautiful burrito images for Taco Bell? But even the most oblivious have a pretty good chance of knowing of HCB.
The ready availability of streets or public places and the low technical threshold place this form at the forefront of easy access photography. No hiking required, no expensive studio equipment, no paid models. All you need is a vision, a camera, and a minimum of guts.
The 15 NOs…
After a short time with introductions Eric gave the first assignment. Break into pairs and head out to the Portland streets. Ask people if they mind if we take to picture of them; if they say the don’t mind: go all in. Take pictures while giving direction (look up, stand on one foot, stare at the camera, …) and take at least 15 images. If they say no, just move on to the next subject. As it turns out, there is nearly an infinity of subjects, so one “no” isn’t going to ruin your day. In fact the entire goal of the exercise was to rack up 15 nos. That is have 15 people tell you that you can’t take their picture! I failed. I managed to find 8 people that said no, and that was after really trying to figure out the “type” that would say no. Guess what? No damage done. I kept photographing, no one attacked me or called for help, or even expressed the most minor annoyance. Great learning experience!
The take then ask…
We met up after the 15 nos assignment to review our results and talk through what we’d learned. The next assignment was just as fascinating. We were to go out onto the streets and very overtly take someones picture. Then attempt to catch their eye and ask if they’d mind if we took their picture.
Yes; do it then ask permission. Like many things in life, in street photography it’s often better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. And that is what this assignment taught. It also taught that if you don’t directly confront someone it’s quite likely they’ll pretend you aren’t there.
We found it really challenging to catch the eye of a subject after the photo was taken. They knew I took the photo. I was standing RIGHT THERE with a 28mm lens so I had to be pretty close to make a photo. But the subject would choose to keep walking or standing at the bus stop or eating and pretend nothing happened. It’s a strange social contract.
If the subject did allow their eye to be caught, it was easy to take a few pictures, often with direction. For this guy in the diner, I had motioned for him to hold his hand so the camera could see the ring. No problem.
First off its was a real pleasure meeting and working with Eric, Nancy, Matt, Max, and Anton. In the exercises having a wing man for support was super! It provided someone to share the experience with and talk through the challenges as they occur.
I feel like I’m cured of whatever weird malady had been affecting my street photography.
Back in my home town, I’ve been applying the stuff that Eric talked us through. It’s pretty fun to do the take then ask technique and effective at producing interesting images.
Ultimately, I would recommend this workshop. Eric creates a workshop environment that is open and direct. He ties the discussion to the work and has useful and creative assignments. I had the luxury to travel to Portland for this one, but I can certainly recommend you’d take the opportunity to workshop with Eric where ever happens.