When you photograph on the street, nothing affects your output as much as your own mindset. Understanding this is essential to becoming a confident street photographer. If you feel insecure about what you’re doing, if you have doubts about the morality of photographing strangers or feel timid about approaching strangers, it’s going to be challenging—at best—to get the pictures you’re after.
Street photographers who consistently produce compelling pictures are able to do so because they have one essential quality: confidence. They believe in street photography’s role in our society, and its ability to keep our culture evolving. They know images like Robert Frank’s “Trolley—New Orleans” (1955), which depicts racial segregation in a street car, are imperative to have so that we never forget the depth of our history of prejudice. They understand that images like Susan Meiselas’ series Prince Street Girls are key documents that preserve the portrayal of neighborhood bonds, youth and femininity in the 1970s. And they realize how some of Joel Meyerowitz’s images—for instance, the photo of a man carrying his large poodle like a child on the streets of Midtown Manhattan—can help keep us laughing and from taking life too seriously.
One way to gain confidence on the street is to start collecting images you deem powerful and important and placing them somewhere you’ll see them a lot. You don’t need a fancy magnetic board, a lot of money or even that much space. I cut pictures out of magazines that I find particularly compelling or important, take note of the photographer, title and date on the back, and then stick them on my apartment walls with blue painter’s tape. Every day as I go about my business, they surround me, seep into my subconscious and, like supportive friends, silently remind me why I keep doing what I do.
When I photograph on the street, those images remain front and center in my mind. So, when a stranger asks, “Did you just take my picture?” I can answer confidently “yes” and easefully and articulately explain why. Even if my intention is different than Frank’s, Meiselas’s, and Meyerowitz’s, just knowing their images exist gives me the confidence I need to explain to strangers why I photographed them without asking first.
This is just one of several ways to gain confidence on the street. If you’d like to learn more tried-and-true methods for photographing on the street, consider enrolling in the hands-on classes I am offering this summer in New York City’s iconic Washington Square Park. Or, simply stay tuned here! Over the next several months, I will be discussing many aspects of photography that continue this thread. And if there’s a topic you’d like to see discussed here, please make a note to us in the comments. We would love to hear from you!