eye contact




the most often asked question i get when mentoring an emerging photographer is, "how can i get closer to people?"  ..they tell me how shy they are when it comes to putting a camera up to their eye to photograph a stranger on the street or in a bar or social gathering…

several times in my travels i have suffered from "room lockdown" ….unable to leave my hotel room, watching CNN, ordering room service,  and fearful of going out on the street to learn the local "ballet" of street shooting…eventually i just must GO, but it is not always easy….and so it is with  many students i have in my workshops…

the "art" of photographing complete strangers close up and personal who started their day not thinking they were going to be a photo subject, is indeed a skill to be learned and perfected….some photographers have a natural flair for this, but most find this an often unbearable challenge….

i once spent an entire week in Chile with a fisherman and his family….i met the fisherman  by chance, as i do with most of my photo subjects…. he was on a beach early one morning and  was fixing his nets…..i asked if i could take one picture….he agreed…this led to more pictures and me finally asking if it was possible to actually go out in the boat with him and fish…one thing led to another, and hours and hours and hours of fishing in bad light went by and i spent most of my time helping him haul in his nets…two days of this…..then meet the wife and kids for a family "gift picture"…..and then and then…but, what do you think this fisherman would have said if i had asked him upon our first meeting on the beach, "excuse me sir, do you mind if i spend an entire week with you and your family ??"

it is all in the approach… the handshake … the "body language" and voice….and the most important thing of all…eye contact….the "language" of eye contact is universal, international and cross cultural….your intent is most often mirrored in your eyes…..this is when you are "judged" by a complete stranger…..

for those of you who want photograph people in an intimate way, what do you do?  how do you overcome your "shyness"?   how do you make the photographs you want and yet leave everyone feeling good about the whole experience??

146 Responses to “eye contact”

  • David I’ve been a fan of yours since you came to speak at temple university about 3 years ago and really inspired me to pick up my camera and get out there. You probably don’t remember but I asked you for some book recommendations and because of your talk and those books I’ve been in love with photography since. I’ve been lurking on your blog from the start but this is my first time posting.

    to the matter at hand:
    eye contact and a smile seem to do the trick. I usually have a smile on my face when I’m shooting and people seem to appreciate it. Also being totally aware of your surroundings helps. The second you get in the way is the second people become irritated your shooting.

  • AARON…

    i do remember recommending some books for you…i am so pleased this has led to your continued work…so you are one of those “lurkers” !!! i am pleased to have you here, invisible or out here in the open..

    keep smiling!!!

    cheers, david

  • David,

    You’re wicked! This is definitely something that I deal with. I have a very hard time photographing complete strangers, in a way I feel like I am violating someone’s privacy or that they will think I am trying to sell them something or superimpose their picture on something pornographic. The current general paranoia doesn’t quite help. Example: I went down to the Jersey shore last Sunday in the hopes of overcoming that fear. I told myself that I would approach someone and ask, can I take your picture? I would do a whole series of photographs on people that said yes. I really couldn’t do it. I felt that I needed to break the ice somehow, establish some type of “contact” before I can ask that question.
    I felt like I needed some type of subtle permission.

    So I decided what I would do is sit on a bench and let the picture come to me. It often happens if I sit around or walk around with an expensive looking camera around my neck people approach me and ask me questions. This is usually followed by some rapport and then I ask to take their picture. They always say yes.

    This time at the shore, I was approach by a dog. This massive great dane approached me, shortly followed by his owner, a petite, wavy haired blonde woman, who assured me of the dogs good intentions. I struck up a great conversation with her and eventually got to take a couple of pictures. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get the picture that I wanted since the dog kept on moving as well the the owner trying to control him. That is another talent. Getting the picture that you want, as opposed to something nervously hurried.

    Thanks for bringing this up. Wicked. I always wondered if introducing yourself as a National Geographic photographer made it easier for people to allow you to take their picture.



    very good question….simple answer….most of the people i photograph, as in the fishermen i mentioned, have never heard of National Geographic or cannot relate, as in my “boyz in the hood” for hip hop…

    only a small percentage of the time, in my work, does the National Geographic name help…and even then, only for quick recognition…if you are going to really “get in there”, the NG will only get you so far and sometimes even hurts because nobody ever realizes how much work you are going to have to do…it all ends up being very personal…

    i do often take NG copies to show and now, of course, i have my books to give…but, this is usually only good for high level officials for getting certain kinds of permissions or press passes etc etc, but out in the street, where things are moving instinctive and fast, you have nothing but YOU…


  • I’m an introverted photographer, and I think it comes through in my work. Not that I’ve suffered much as a result, but I would like to broaden my abilities as far as engaging people. There can be so many different approaches, but say for nightlife photography, it’s almost better to leave the camera in the bag, make friends and throw back drinks with people, then introduce the camera.

    I’ve had girls who are completely drawn to the camera like a magnet, and others who get that look like “who’s the creep with the camera and what’s he doing with it in the bar?” The stigma of “will this end up on the internet” is a new drawback to deal with.

    I’ve been working on a club project that could greatly benefit from a series of portraits of the kids, but for some reason (and this is my problem) I just haven’t broken through on that level. They are aware that I’m working on a project and are receptive to it, but I can’t get personal with them to a certain degree yet. It’s odd—I feel as awkward among high schoolers as I did in high school myself. You really just have to ask, but try to get shots that don’t look to effected by the camera.

  • For people to be photographed by you involves an act of trust on their part. Most people just don’t get the whole photography thing and think you just want some inane snapshot and become confused when you keep taking pictures of something they don’t think is remarkable (themselves, their home, etc.).

    But once they get a sense of what you are doing, they can become your collaborators–not that they are posing for you but that they trust you enough just to be themselves and do their thing (whatever it happens to be) while you photograph.

    It’s all a process. You introduce yourself, you hang out, you snap a few pictures (you have to act like a photographer). Everybody becomes more comfortable. They get used to you and the fact of the camera.

    If you are genuinely interested in other people, they will respond. You can’t fake that kind of sincerity.

    It’s also about being a good guest. Most of the world’s cultures put a premium on hospitality. I can’t tell you how much food and alcohol I have consumed in my photographic pursuits. Your subjects respond to you as a person first and a photographer second. If you are good company, they’ll want to stay in your company. And as the hours go by, you develop a real relationship–and photography is about relationships.

  • David,

    Everytime I go out to shoot I feel like it is almost an immpossible undertaking. As if the very act is a futile endevour. After about 3-4 hours of wandering and waiting, things start to happen. After a day or two of shooting, I look back in amazement, everytime, at the people I’ve met and our brief relationships. I think to myself, if I never got up and did it, even for mere hours at a time, I would not have a wealth of new material (yes good and bad material, new material nevertheless). It is always hard, but very rewarding.

    I guess that great feeling of “doing”, is what keeps me going. The dance between subject and recorder keeps me wanting more.

    IMHO I believe empathy is your passport into the lives of others. For me it’s very important to never feel as if I am exploiting a situation or people/persons. Hopefully my emotional barometer in this matter is calibrated sufficiently. If your intentions come through in your movements, body language, eyes of course, people pick up on it. Great question David!


  • David,
    well, it’s true that the question “how can i get closer to people?” goes in my mind everytime i go out to travel.
    Well, and there is one question in my mind also if i see someone on the street which catch my attention. “Do i want to know more about this person? Or do i want just to make some pictures from the person? and What good does it make to the person? Would my pictures able to help him?”
    I always asked my self those question and sometimes i choosed not to take a picture at all. I met a transsexual in my city in a karaoke contest and she was a good person who like to laugh and she was also open to other people. And we arranged an appointment that i go to her 2-rooms house just to visit her as friend.
    But soon as i got there, it was not so welcome for me because the people there see me as outsider. And even though i brought a camera with me, i couldn’t take a picture because they seems for me not ready to be photographed. So i choosed not to take picture. From the dialogues with my friend, and the neighbours, other transsexuals i began to understand what their problem is. And i still haven’t made any photograph from them. The problem was Personal ID card. My idea was to make pass photos for them for free. And I don’t know how, but i’m sure that those picture has made it easier for them so that they didn’t have to pay for any photo, soon some of them started to open their house for me and accept me. I still working on my project about those transsexuals right now and still continuing to visit them as friend.

    Sometimes i thought also that the camera is a barrier to get closer to people. I saw some photographers with one or two or more cameras hanging in front his/her chest with the heavy long lenses. Sure their face seems so proud. But soon as they want to get closer to people, they can’t. And they have to walk away from them to take pictures with those long lenses.


  • I just came from a place where people are very tired of pictures, where people think that you want to trick them and get a benefit from their images. A place where it is very difficult to take pictures of strangers at the street. But I came back with lots and lots of pictures of people that accepted very friendly and happy to be in my pictures. Why? because I gave them that eye contact first with my big smile, because I offered them a honest heart, because I sat down with them and treated them as equals. Because I explained them that it was just my way to share my soul with them…. So the first main thing is to achieve their trust on you. It is like a deal: you give them your esteem, they will give you theirs.

    But, regarding to this point, there is a question I often do to myself. Even if they agree to be in the picture, should we always ask for a signed paper to allow the publishing?? I never do that as it makes me feel kind of awkward….

    A big smile!


  • generally I wait until the moment when it becomes impossible for me not to photograph a certain situation when there’s people involved. the moment when the thought of making a possibly good picture wins it over the shyness; when you think about the result and forget about yourself. then I start taking pictures from a safe distance to eventually come closer and closer. most of the time people don’t really mind anyway, but sometimes they do and then you have to explain yourself… I prefer not to communicate, though I sometimes find myself saying ‘sorry’ after shooting someone. how strange is that ?

  • the first workshop i ever did, the first assignment was to go out and take formal and environmental portraits of 6 different people – no kids, no old people and no tourists! that was one of the hardest days i’ve ever had photographically. i didn’t do very well, but got good feedback from the instructor.

    sometimes you get lucky though, one of the people i photographed that tough first day took a liking to me for some reason. she spoke no english and i spoke no italian – she dragged me to the nearby tourist office and asked the people there to translate for her.

    it turned out she was inviting me to photograph a group of scouts that she was chaperoning on a trip. i went to the campsite the next day and got some decent shots. why did we make a connection? i still have no idea – i just try to remember that experience every time i’m out shooting and get nervous about approaching people.

  • Think of the number of times you’ve been walking out on the trail or sitting at a bar or in a coffee house, book store, what have you…and you find yourself in a conversation with a complete stranger. It happened rather naturally and pleasantly, right. It’s relatively easy to do.

    I just try to take that natural way of communicating with others now when I have my camera. They’re often interested to see if I am a “professional” photographer. What kind of photography I do. Most of the time when I express an interest in what they are doing they are more than happy to allow me to photograph them. If it goes smoothly we get together again…and again!

    By the way, I learned much in the way of this approach from DAH himself at a workshop over a year ago. I’m not the most outgoing of individuals, not an extrovert (though, I’m also not what you would call shy!) But just having that new and different outlook genuinely helped. Just wanted to say, for me at least…it works!

    Thanks David.

  • I hate having my picture taken, loath it partly it’s because I don’t want reminding that I’m not that handsome 16 year old anymore but mostly because I feel uncomfortable being scrutinised and focused on that much.

    It’s important for me to remember that most people don’t mind. I try to make the experience fun. I’m currently taking pictures of pheasant shooting and I love hanging out with a load of old country folk drinking whiskey for breakfast and talking bollocks. I guess most of them don’t really understand what I’m up to but don’t mind me as I have an almost bottomless hipflask full of expensive booze.

    David what do you do if someone looks amazing or is important to your story but is camera shy?


  • I’ve found that, although I have the same problem as everyone else (and it is truly encouraging to read that even you, David, after years or work still have the occasional “room lockdown” day…) when I can approach my going photographic “expedition” with a light heart, almost a playful attitude, everything goes much better. For some reason dancing comes to mind: you can be stiff and stomp on everyone’s toes and people will get upset, or you can gracefully (if not elegantly) move through the “floor” and people will either not pay attention or smile at you.

    One aspect that helps me achieve that is to be focused on the situation at hand rather than inwardly centered on how I’m feeling: when I am able to look at the place in am going to shoot in, and feel it, thoroughly, deeply, becoming a part of it, attentive and responsive to how people move and shift, how they relate to each other (do they look in one another’s eye when crossing paths, or just look in front of their feet), how “things” move and drift and change (the natural flow of the place), and get in tune with them, I inevitably am able to get better photos and have a much more enjoyable experience.

    Thanks for the question, David! It is a very central one and it is very much about relation with the subjects on more dimensions that just the shooting-in-public one…


  • I think the most difficult is always firsth step… to go and start to talk with people… later is easier and easier…

    and smile is very usefull :-)

  • This was precisely my goal in my first workshop with David. I wanted to increase my comfort or at least find techniques to help me take photographs of people that were something other than removed and pure documentary/street photographs. David of course is a master at this however I was surprised to learn several things from him… that new situations/places can overwhelm even someone of David’s caliber and experience. When David told me about sequestering himself in a hotel room putting off the obvious, that helped me understand that I am not alone in these kinds of feelings. I learned that just as David says, you start small and people open up at their pace… some never do but many do.

    Bill Allard said at the Charlottesville LOOK Festival that he explains to people why he wants to take their photograph and why that its important to him. David and Bill both come to their work with honesty and respect. That respect means so much and opens doors along with just being friendly.

    I have been working on a project photographing HIV/AIDS patients. When starting, I made it clear why it was important and what I hoped to do… bring a face to the numbers behind AIDS in my community and do so with respect. Due to the stigma still attached to HIV/AIDS, I have been surprised how people have responded by allowing me to photograph them and show their face. But it is because they knew I was sincere and respectful.

    It can still be painful to insert myself into new situations that I must do to capture something important but I have learned that it will not kill me and many times I have ended up making new friends in the process. Often I find that if I get a couple of “gift” or posed shots out the way, then people will end up loosening up and that is when the better opportunities open up.

    Thanks for the gentle prodding along the way David!

  • A very rich subject that very few don’t take at hearts, even to explain why they don’t shoot people up close.

    I apologize to the ladies here, the whole thing my be different for them, but for me, I find in that discipline of people portraits/approach, it’s very much like boy meets girl stuff. Every example cited here can be transposed towards how best flirt, introduce yourself to have a chance at taking it further. And the inhibtions and shyness match too. Often the saying is right on: you hesitate, you lose!

    David, indeed, what girl is not going to run away, at least think you are a creep, if you come up straight to her and say you are going to marry her or you are going to make love to her?

    Some guy have that contact thing, that inner innate confidence that does wonders with gaining the subject’s sympathy. But if you like people, even someone like me who started shy, can practice and improve your approach. Age maturity along with playfulness/childlikeness does help a lot for the more introverted amongts us.

    It’s not automatic for most of us, and enjoying the “journey” beyond trying to “get it” is paramount. People sense you are not just hitting on them for a selfish gain. Though some are good at agressive candids (Klein?) and anyone will lie just to get that shot, we are predators still, just not eating flesh!

    David, a question for you. Let’s say you are out with pupils, some/one of us maybe, and you see him/her failing to engage someone. Do yopu think you have in your experience “arsena” the know how to succed where we have failed?

    Great discussion. It is so much at the core of who we are, deeply inside, our contradictions, our inner selves. I think it takes 40 years to take a shot sometimes (and miss it therefore), not just aim and 1/125th.

  • Sorry:

    arsena= “arsenal”

  • Gratitude..genuine and complex gratitude for the ability to follow my heart and desire/need to enter into this relationship with individuals. It is really a strange thing to expect that anyone would want to participate in my relentless drive to put the world as I see it into these little squares, but they do.
    And for this I am filled with gratitude and I try to always shoot from, and approach from, that place.
    I am just in the door from a spare hour of shooting, wandering..and there were 2 separate individuals that, if I had to bet in advance, would have said ‘absolutely not’ to my request to photograph them. They both said yes – regardless of how the images turn out, I can’t even begin to explain how thankful I am to both of them, for sharing part of themselves with such openness.
    I think that in order to have any regular ‘success’ at this, you must find a way to have a true belief in what you are doing, and to be grateful for the opportunity to do so.

  • Hey Jay
    I don’t know if we met but I have a couple of galleries from the LOOK festival:



  • Hey David and fellow bloggers,

    After starting with a genuine interest in the subject matter, I think you have to share your humanity with the people you want to photograph, and allow yourself to be a bit vulnerable.

    Being photographed is an act of generosity and trust. The subject is vulnerable in front of the camera, and often sharing intimacy with the photographer.

    We should give back emotionally or else we risk letting our subjects feel cheated. You don’t have to share your life story, but give just enough to make a connection or share common ground. And maintaining the confidence to pull it all off while being scrutinized by a group of strangers helps too.


  • Hi David McGowan,
    I’m not sure if we met either but thanks for sharing your work. Very nice! Put me back there for a few moments!


  • Hola david, love this question, thanks for bringing it up. when photographing, I simply explain that I just saw something beautiful in them and i thank them for sharing it. to me the most important thing is genuinely looking at people and being curious about one another for simply being in this world at the same time as me. do they share the same doubts, fears, struggles as me? it’s taking the time to unveil the strangers and getting to know them that is the most beautiful part of photography…taking a stroll down kent ave-LES-East Village-Chinatown-soho and taking the time to talk to others and ask how their life is going is a fabulous trip and if i have a camera to capture it it’s even better! abrazos, carmen

  • Smiling does the trick for me. I think people who feel that you empathize in some way and share something in common with them makes it easier for them to come around. At least that’s worked for me.

    But the photograph you posted David brings to mind another question. And that is the ‘gaze.’

    I would love to hear you have to say on the subject. You employ it regularly in your images and I just wanted to get a sense from you when does the gaze (an image of someone making direct eye contact with the camera) work and when doesn’t it work?

    I’m sure in any one ‘series’ of images of the same subjects there are pictures of people making eye contact and then not making eye contact.

    How do you decide between one or the other? What is your thought process from a picture selection point viewpoint?

    Thanks in advance.

  • Hi David.

    Photographing strangers is something I’,ve had to learn (& am still learning) to do. when I started photography all I did was natural history work. I used to be too self conscious to even photograph a plant on the side of the road.

    As my work progressed into different areas i found i became more interested in documentary work. To photograph people I had to get close and engage them. I just have to force myself sometimes.

    If you approach people with an open heart and smile it’s amazing what doors open up for you. I seem to spend more time chatting and breaking the ice than making images. But I’d rather have a couple of top images than a number of “good” images.

    I also use a number of photo quotes printed out onto an A4 page by photographers I admire to get me going sometimes. I often get what you call “room lockdown” especially when overseas!

    Here is a copy of what I use in case they are of any help to anyone!

    Don McCullin: Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

    William Albert Allard. I think the best pictures are often on the edges of any situation, I don’t find photographing the situation nearly as interesting as photographing the edges.

    You’ve got to push yourself harder. You’ve got to start looking for pictures nobody else could take. You’ve got to take the tools you have and probe deeper.

    David Alan Harvey. Here’s a case where I invested a lot of time in the picture. It’s a very straightforward picture, but I got up before dawn to go out with these fishermen. By the time they’re bringing in their catch, I’m their buddy, because we’ve spent four hours making small talk.
    Most of the pictures I’ve published that I consider good usually involve hours or even days. A lot of boring hours, actually, waiting for something to happen, always wondering whether it will. In this case, they had a good catch, but I had invested hours in this situation, shooting various pictures before this one.

    Freeman Patterson. Even when my feet are placed in footprints I made previously, and even if I stand there at precisely the same time I did the day before, the angle of light will have altered slightly and the sky will be deeper blue or paler with dust. And I will be a day older. So every time I gaze upon the whole, it will be from a unique perspective. And each of my unique perspectives will be different from each of yours.

    Henri Cartier-Bresson. Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you’ve missed it. So what?

    McCurry: Actually, I’m naturally kind of shy. I’m not inclined to just walk up to someone and put a camera in his or her face. But to take photos of people, you have to get out on the street, out of the hotel room. You need to push yourself a bit. It’s kind of ballsy to walk up to people with a 50mm or wider lens. They see and acknowledge you.

    One thing that will happen is that you won’t always want to take pictures. Sometimes when travelling you can be in a good mood, but just not for photography. I don’t have that luxury on assignment, and for anyone interested in getting great photographs, they have to be out there taking pictures. Sometimes you just have to force yourself to get out and get started. One foot in front of the other, take a few frames to get started, then things will start to flow. You’ve got to go for it. Don’t hold back.

    Sam Abell. A key idea in Sam’s approach is to first identify the background. With a promising background, you then wait for the light and the subject to complete the photograph. He showed a photograph of two women meeting on a street corner in a traditional Japanese village. He had gone back to that street corner for weeks waiting for just the right thing to happen. Finally, these two women came, talked, and then, as they were saying goodbye, the older one reached out and touched the garment of the younger one, presenting a timeless image that Sam was able to capture. Find the right background, wait for the right light, wait for the right subject, nail the exposure, pay attention to details of micro composition, and take the picture.

    As a final point (totally unrelated) thank you David for your help and inspiration. On Wednesday I take my first leap into that great unknown called freelance photojournalism (fulltime) at the ripe old age of 44!

    Your words “It’s never too late to be the man you could have been” has been my mantra… Now, any quick fix to help the heart palpitations… Thanks!!

  • I am also sometimes very shy when it comes to photographing strangers. But I think it’s a different problem when you are doing street photography and when you want to photograph people during several hours or even several days as in the example given by David. In the latter case, you can introduce yourself, explain your project, etc. or even start with something that has nothing to do with photography as has alrady been said. But if you are photographing in the street, have spotted a potentially interesting situation involving one or several people who are likely to move to another location within at best a few minutes or at worst a few seconds, asking permission seems to be impossible to me most of the time. Because it would be very likely to destroy the very scene that you wish to photograph. For if you ask permission, in 90% of the situations people will pose and smile and look straight at the camera. Then you can tell them “no, no, pretend I am not here” and hope for the best, but many people will find that just weird and I am not comfortable with that. And again, it is in principle possible to give some explanations about what you are doing, but time is running and the other elements of the picture are likely to have vanished by the time your interlocutor has understood and has resumed his previous activity. And yet, if you want to take several pictures of the same scene, people will in general be aware of your presence as soon as you press the shutter for the first time.

    Let’s take a simple example: the other day I saw a baby sleeping in his carriage with a funny look on his face while his mother was reading. Let’s suppose you want to photograph both the baby and the crossed legs of the woman with her strange striped stockings in the background. You would also like to try several slightly different framings. You may not say anything as the woman is reading, but your camera is not so quiet and she’s likely to detect your presence after the first shot. You may make some comment like “what a cute baby!” and smile and possibly add something like “may I photograph him?”. But she’s likely to slightly change her position if you say anything and that would ruin your picture.

    Of course there is no definitive answer and after reviewing all these possibilities, being shy, I ended up taking a single picture and running away. Framing was OK but the speed was too low and the picture blurred by the shake of the camera. What would you do in such a situation? try to be as discrete as possible? or photograph openly?

  • In fact I’m realizing that my example is not directly related to David’s original post as it is not about “intimate” photography; but it is still related to the problem of dealing with people and with one’s own shyness…

  • Not really a dissenting voice, but reading some comments, I’d say there are many instances obviously where the result or even the goal is not to befriend the people “in the photo” and spend time with them, but simply have that moment of mutuality/friendliness where they authorize us to shoot them, or simply do not mind. Portraits are not always about spending quality time with the subject.

    David, one of the most impressive, beautiful shot in your Cuba book, for me of course, is the picture about the young girl along the beach, there is both virginity, innocence, but also coming of age, feminity etc, it is of Cuba and out of Cuba, etc…etc…

    I somehow think you snapped the shot without having gotten to know her or her family.

  • David,

    Would you mind explaining the shot you featured for this thread? Did you know them beforehand? Just meet them? Students in workshop?


  • just a brief comment, more later (i hope)….

    i never, now, (more than 2 years) photograph people I do not know or havent spoken to…that’s simply, at this point, my gig. The most essential quality that a photographer can possess is the ability to wait, to wait and wait and wait: to wait and listen and watch and allow people to tell stories, to allow for your own breath of the story, to measure yourself inside and out of the lives and tales you are watching, and also, participating in…..

    don’t get me wrong: i dont only photograph “acquaintenaces/friends/families/students”: not at all. But at this point, i realize that for me, it all is about the engagement, the relationship to those people and places that I am ensorcelled by: the diction of a face, the rhyme of a story, the gesture of a movement, the experience of my life and those around them. I have never been interested in “reporting,” not ever, but in watching in wondering in trying to sift through the strange and wonderous and sad life which surrounds. I photograph as a means of breathing, of questioning of trying to figure out what it is that surrounds. …

    I love to listen to people speak (or not speak): to tell stories about their lives their ideas their loves and their losses: a questioning, really…

    I’ve been fortunate man: somehow I have been able to be trusted, to earn trust, to settle inside the lives of others. Why…who knows. but maybe it is because I, instincutually, allow and hunger for people to settle inside me: that vanquish me, feed me, trick me, generate…i photograph, not them, but in truth myself (trying to be honest here), my reaction to them, to place, to a story, to a face, to an emotion, to something unexpressable through concrete words….

    above all, i am drawn to people, to this passing life, drawn deeply to the connection and disconnect with all that surrounds….as much as I love photography, i love this life and the passage of it even more….

    a small example: 2 nights ago I attended a talk by Chris Anderson (brilliant talk, brilliant guy, brilliant-beautiful face ;)):…a great show, but i was struck by the enormity of number of cameras shooting, of photographers carrying cameras….snap, snap, snap…later at the bar, cameras on tables, cameras in bags, cameras everywhere….

    i did not take my cameras as i wasnt interested in shooting chris, not at all (i did not know him, other than through some email exchanges), but, next to him, drinking, i wanted to know him, to listen to him, to drink and shuttle and share with him: not ’cause he was a great photorapher (fuck, my son is a great photographer and my wife is a great photographer) but because I like the way he spoke: i like the humility of his words, i liked the light in his beautiful face and I liked that he was fucked up, just as I am, just as we all are: drawn to make pictures because we dont know fuck shit….nothing, absence, questions, but, in that, is something around which we root….

    intimacy to shoot: trust born of listening and recognizing that there is nothing that separates us from one another but for the face we remain, through our thinking and often through our actions, separated….

    pictures have always been less important to me than what surrounds them…my photos fail, but when i am lucky, the relationship, the wellspring of community, communication, arises….that’s why im not a PJ: aint my bag…

    how much we wish to be listened to, genuinely listened to…this is infinitely more important than being understood….

    how to get close: open wide something other than your eyes and lenses….;))


  • ps. I should contextualize my comment “I liked that he was fucked up, just as I am, just as we all are…”.

    I dont mean he was crazy or weird or drunk, i mean, like all people: fucked up by the arch and drama and mystery of life: the unknowable bonds that shelter us between life and death: dreamscapes, sadness, drama, desperation, calm: that life really digs inside you and that’s a fucked (beautifully) charge and a difficult one: he possesses that understanding: its there in his pics, in his eyes, in his confidence (bravado) in his humility in his uncertainty….that shit means more to me than all the scarfs, leicas, awards, wpp’s, travels, fans he has….

    there are people who listen and people who do not…he listens and that is what bound me to him and what binds me to people i feel fortunate to shoot….

  • If i don’t feel comfortable, i don’t make it, I can’t. Just try to blend in. First made the mistake to carry to much equipment. I only need one camera and lens, no bags etc. This makes it easier to become part of people i like te photograph.

  • how much we wish to be listened to, genuinely listened to…this is infinitely more important than being understood….

    heyhey, Bob,that too I heard from women I had started acquainting myself with….;-)

    Reading you, we just realize there are so many degrees to approach the subject, and someone of course. Maybe a few of us do take the different approach, shooting strangers, but barely anyone we know, because it fits our corrected introversion (corrected because we vanquished the approach problematic). As much as I do like to make friends, love women, whatever, I do appreciate immensely to be alone, and photographying does fit me, in that sense (so does Buddhism).

    Not that I don’t wish to expose myself, but what we could call my private world (and pictures are always more private than public, no?) seems to (not always) have me retreat in more than reaching out. There is also a playfulness I enjoy taking pictures that encourages me to stand aside, playing with myself maybe?

  • Great Ice breakers include:
    I’m a Virgo, Whats your sign?… Can I take your photo?
    Do you work out?… ”
    Would you like some candy? ”
    No, this isn’t a real camera. ”
    What time is it? time to take your photo?
    Your kinda cute. Can I take your photo? HeHe…
    You look pretty drunk. I’ll just take your photo.
    I’m on a scavenger hunt & need a photo of a girl. do you mind?
    Whats for dinner? I’ll bring my camera.
    I’ve got some Ice wine. Want some? …click!

  • SF Jason: :))))))))..hey, Im a Taurus: can I go to your pad for dinner ;))…and like totally: ICE WINE: THE KEY ;))))))))))))

    HERVE: :)))))…I wasnt judging those who shoot strangers (i used to), totally understand that, I meant, only for me ;)))…infact, i loved to shoot strangers and then i thought: man, i want more to talk to them, or listen to them, or whatever ;)))…i also think camera does free u, absolutely: just as playing with yourself (myself): wow, no performance anxiety ;:))…camera actually made me (wife too) more “extroverted” :)))…

    it’s all good: anyway that you can get close is cool (except for long lenses, which i hate ;) )…..

    running to cook for my son..


  • so many interesting answers.
    yes, smile.
    yes, be open and warm.
    yes, FEEL your subjects.
    yes, be grateful to everyone.
    yes, see beauty everywhere.
    see the extraordinary in the mundane.
    see the ‘lotus flower emerging from the mud’
    look deeply and be breathless.
    a perfect example of what i’m trying to say here is my meeting with kenny, a homeless man in seattle.
    you can read about it here:


    (on the right, a third of the way down.)

    just being open and caring and kind will get you further than you’ll ever imagine.

    a smile works great as well when you’re busted taking spontaneous photos of people. you’re making yr frames and suddenly they spot you – now i burst out laughing sometimes when that happens or simply smile and shrug as if to say ‘you caught me’. it never fails to disarm & ilicit a smile from them.
    be light-hearted.
    people are generally good.
    really. :)

  • I have three clients that work in religion philanthropy where I shoot documentary images.

    Most of the assignment are to shoot Sunday services, talk about “shyness”. The first time I was afraid to even look through the camera let alone click the shutter, you can hear a pin drop in church. The next time I made sure everyone seen me, “that guy with the cameras”. I walk up and down the aisles just before service starts so that everyone see me. I smile, say hello and act like I know everyone. This worked and found the congregation just ignores me.

  • Two comments: one – I just ran into a show somewhere, called Photographing Strangers. Was it online? magazine? Minnesota Center for Photography? Interesting concept for a series. Do you have to make the person an acquaintance or friend or…?

    two- the trick is to pretend to be sincere. This leads to a problem; if you are sincere and care about your subject, and it is one of those documentary projects like I did on Pine Ridge Reservation, it takes its toll on you. You really do care, or you couldn’t get the pictures. The trick then, is not to let it immobilize you in the long run, so that you end up closing down and having to pretend to be sincere about the minor (seemingly) predicament of the your next subject.

    Does that make sense? Gotta ramble sometime.


  • I’ve only been shooting for a short time, but one thing I’ve discovered is that people, for the most part, want to matter — to me, to someone, maybe even more than one. I’ve been surprised at how trusting people can be, once I take the time to talk first or at least acknowledge and be acknowledged. Through the camera, I’m letting them know they matter, and that I want to not only know some of their story, but to let them tell it.

  • I don’t hardly take a photo unless it’s of a stranger so I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with it… it comes quite naturally……BUT as easy as it is for me in places I’m used to shooting such as India, I have to start all over working up my courage in a new country…or situation that is “different” such as walking into a group of tough men.

    An image that helps motivate me is the photo I took many years ago in the mountains of Colorado before I became serious about photography. I was out horseback riding and came across a photo shoot featuring Sting. THE Sting. He was on horseback wearing a “long rider” coat and hat…he looked fabulous and the whole scene was gorgeous, old cabin, mountains in the background…looked like a Vanity Fair cover. At the time I was working for Sting’s manager in LA and had a connection to him so I struck up a conversation with him but still I couldn’t get up the nerve to ask for a photo. All I could come up with was reasons why I SHOULDN’T take the shot…”I’m bothering him” ‘The (Japanese) crew with him will be mad at me for interfering” and on and on. So instead of asking and shooting him (which I’m sure he would have been fine with) I just photographed a dog sitting in front of the cabin. Even just the dog is a great shot but it will always remind me of “the one that got away.”

    I have to consciously decide sometimes if I want that to happen again or if it’s worth taking the chance.

    I must add that sometimes it’s not appropriate to take the shot which is important to be aware of. It’s not all about the photographer getting up nerve…it’s got to be a communal effort between photographer and subject…but thats another topic.

  • A few things…

    1. The best thing I’ve found, for me at least, is to go somewhere were people’s inhibitions are dropped. There’s a massive fair, sometimes with about a hundred thousand people on a given day, going on a few miles down the road from me. I’ve only managed to get down there and shoot two days- one of which was probably the best day of photographic work I’ve ever had. (It was also the most agonizing, because I mistakenly formatted the memory card with what was probably the best photograph I’ve ever taken on it.)

    In normal circumstances, the whole “getting to know” people thing helps. A portrait I did recently, of a barista at a coffeeshop I go to, started off with a good conversation and an inside joke.

    Barring all that, my tactic is to absolutely, positively promise myself I’m going to take a photograph of the next person who interests me for a portrait. And then the next, and the next, and so on.

    Something else I’ve found… if one gets the permission of a barkeep, a barista, someone with authority in whatever place you are to photograph them, it becomes much easier psychologically to photograph patrons and others passing through. At least for me, though I don’t know what says about me.

    2. What Bob Black said about being drawn to produce by the undulations of life and so on instantly reminded me of a quote from a short text of writing guidelines Jack Kerouac drew up: “Believe in the holy contour of life.”

    One of the best guidelines for writing, photography, and living I’ve ever heard.

  • I think I’m going to print out this post, so many great comments, so many useful things to keep in mind!

    On my first night at the “at home” workshop, David sent me out and told me to bring only one camera and one lens. Don’t even bring your bag, he said…and that was what I did the rest of the week. It was incredibly liberating, and allowed me to get so much closer to people, because I wasn’t encumbered by any “gear”. Also, the camera was in plain view so there was never any doubt in peoples’ minds that I was taking pictures.

    Bob Sacha says he likes to approach people camera in hand, and make gesticulations with it while “chatting them up” so that people become very comfortable with the fact that he has a camera, and will probably take pictures with it. By the time it comes around to take some pictures, it’s just an extension of the conversation, and the conversation continues once the photos have been taken.

    I think it’s also important to size up the situation and get a feel for the general attitude towards photography in the region. Some places, the direct approach works best–just ask. And if you sense people are saying “no” but they really mean “maybe”, then keep trying to convince them. One of the best shots I got at the workshop took a half hour of convincing the girl involved that I’d only keep the shot if it was flattering. Digital helps with this, because you can show people your shots, delete them if they ask, and generally get them involved in the creative process of taking an interesting photo.

    One thing I’ve started doing is just explaining my shot to my intended subjects. “Scuse me, but I saw you there with the light in your hair and that dog in the background and that sign on the wall behind you–do you mind if I take a picture?” Sometimes they can’t help but participate once they feel your enthusiasm…

    David, one of my favorite things I heard at the workshop was how you got those photos of the revival at Oaxaca. THAT’s getting in. But that story also raises questions, because though you were “in deep” on that one, you obviously didn’t ask permission to take those photos. And that’s the real dance I think, when to ask and when to just take the photo, capture the moment, because asking will interrupt, and thus ruin, the moment.

  • I have been doing street photography on and off for many years and I have had lots of practice, and for me practice helps, just doing it, getting nervous, figuring out how to do it and overcomeing things. I mostly take photos as if I am invisible, I can get pretty close, very close sometimes and it seems people do not even notice me. With practice I get to know people’s psychology, who looks like they are in another world not paying attention, people engaged in their own conversations or activity and people who seem like they will be totally bothered by me taking a photo of them. I do not look like a photographer when I am walking about, my camera is a small rangefinder that fits in a purse like bag I wear, it is mostly in there, I take it out when I want to take a photo here and there and put it back in when done. I look non-threatening, I smile, sometimes I act interested in a store window and such but really more interested in the people in front of it. Many different techniques I use for different things. I have been shooting Coney Island a lot this past summer and there every other person has a camera, photographers, just regular people with cameras, hoobyist wanting to use their new dSLR, that it is really easy to shoot anything and anyone there and there is so much to shoot there. Every situation is a bit different and for me every situation calls for different techniques.

  • For me I can take a shot of a person without much problems. Sometimes if I sense the situation isnt right, I will not do it. But most of the time, its not a big deal. I went to a fireworks show last weekend and ended up taking some shots of people, with flash, often very close up. Its not a problem. I think you are talking about something more. You didnt just take a few shots of the fisherman, you got in his world which lead you to be able to get to photograph his family. Thats different than going to an event and photographing strangers. BUT I think its also easier once that first step is made. Once you get the go ahead, you are in and free to shoot. Im still shooting TKD but now Ive changed locations and shooting in a school. I got permission from the TKD instructor to be able to shoot and once that was given I was free to take the photos I wanted. I also FELT free to shoot and it was easier to do than shooting without permission. I also remember you telling me that you like to follow a group of people around, get them to trust you and then you are free to photograph without any hesitation. You stressed that this was one of the challenges in Korea – to be able to get into a group. Im trying to do that more now, with the new location for TKD. Ive also gotten in conract with a Korean opera tenor to shoot him over a few days. Ill be going to my wife’s friend’s wedding and shooting something there on Saturday. For all those Ive already got the get go to photograph. And it does feel easier, more liberated. The key is to get the go ahead from the head honcho: be it the teacher of a school, the head of a family or the bride at a wedding. Once you have it, its easy to approach strangers at the venue.

  • I’m in awe of everyone above who have a handle photographing relative strangers. I’ve tried many times to break into that groove, almost always chickening out.

    Although reading all the helpful tips and advice above might help, I think we all just have to find our own way, bite the bullet and just do it, assuming that the subject is visually inspiring…

  • I’ve had much better luck taking pictures of people I don’t know; sort of hit and run: the HCB pick pocket approach. I’ve never asked a person to take their picture, because what I’m looking for is something else. It’s real fast: girl playing with a boy’s hair, street musician talking with passer by; people coming out of a subway station. I’m looking for something in the eyes, the power of their presence, their movement. Something that tells a story or brings up a question. Ability to compose in the moment is crucial and I’ve found it must be almost instinctive. I’ve had no luck with hanging out then taking something good. Better to be an observor; easier to see that way. And I don’t take many pictures of people.

  • I’ve skimmed this thread… David, these forums get long FAST.

    But I want to comment briefly on ‘getting permission’. If you get hung up on verbally asking proper permission, then I think you’re in store for many short-lived projects. I believe the key is eye contact, respect, demeanor, charm, curiosity, subtle gestures, etc. Be a chameleon with a purpose. People can sense purpose. If you are unsure of yourself or what your doing, then you are more likely to get denied or run off.

    Personally, this initial ‘in’ is easier the more I shoot.. and more difficult after long breaks from shooting.

  • I think there’s a difference between photographing random strangers (because they have interesting faces or the light is good) and befriending people in whom you are interested as subjects (because of their culture or stories).

    In my case, photographing in Indian communities around the world, I’m only interested in photography that comes out of time spent with people. I’m not really a street photographer, and in working with people, I’m interested in peeling back the layers of the onion. Yes, I might take a some pictures of a guy in his shop, but I would really like him to take me home for dinner to meet his family. That’s where I put my efforts.

    Shooting total strangers cold (as in, “Hi, my name is Preston and I’d like to take your picture”) is really difficult. But if you have a context for what you are doing–a project based on an abiding and informed interest–getting people to agree to be photographed is much easier. Then you are not just photographing them so much as enlisting their participation in your project. These people are your assets, your sources.

    Obviously, not everything has to be part of some big project, but in shooting strangers, it’s helpful to give them some idea of the context of what you are doing–even if it is just, “I look for interesting people to photograph.” Most people want to be helpful and are flattered by the attention.

  • It’s one of the choices, Preston, to involve people in what you are doing (like the young girl in the David’s Cuba shot I mentionned), but there is also such photography where the shot depends on the subject either not knowing he/she is being shot (1), or merely sees it, but with absolutely no “ice” being broken between the 2, save maybe a reaction to the presence of the photographer.

    (1)Like the shots by R. Kalvar, which David posted on Sept 10th (Family/friends forum).

  • I can relate to many of these comments on “shyness” and shooting. For me it is a feeling within me. Something internal that the outside world responds too. I can feel when it will “happen” and when it will not. I am in Mexico for the first time alone. Yesterday I bordered on “hotel lock”. This morning I wandered around with the camera in the bag and felt alone and isolated – a lone turista in an unfamiliar place. This evening I went out with an open heart, a purpose (camera at the ready) and a warm smile. I was met with many many warm smiles in return.

  • My letter must have been very naivety!

  • Jason try rescue pro that picture might well still be on the card.

  • Yes, this is post for me… why?… i’m shy guy who always asking myself “how can I get closer”. But I had not this problem when I was started, but since I first time said myself “I want do best photography seriously”. I’m shooting mostly people even if I have any human on my photos.
    I often watch my colleagues photographers when they working. Some of them not watching at people at all not asking, not smiling , some of them treats people like old pal “what’s up!” this is their first words.
    But for me it all depends on mood. When I’m in good mood I will speak with people, smiling, I do all for good relationship without fetch , and it works! But when I’m in bad mood or melancholic mood, I’m quiet and I keep myself alone even in crowd. I stopped fight with it some time ago.
    Sometimes when I’m working on street, or in pub and I’m in good mood, full eagerness and energy, some people call me “fucking paparazzi! Etc. ”. my good mood just flows… and I’m blocked for the rest of day…
    And this is most funny!… 99,9% of this people are not my subject! I don’t take them pictures!! I don’t remember one person witch I worked who had really problem with it (maybe my parents only)
    they just walk on street, or sitting in corner, but I just bother them. Me and my camera.
    One time I was finished film in my camera last frame so I just took picture
    ‘toi toi, toilet” on empty big square, nothing around… no one around… until after 10 minutes walking run after me a car with some guys yelling on me “why do you taking us pictures?!!”… ???????…. ?????….
    This is very dangerous situation, because I’m very nice guy, but …

    I just want to say that work with people is very difficult, but if it could be easy it could be boring.

    And answer for your question David… “how do you make the photographs you want and yet leave everyone feeling good about the whole experience??”
    I just try be myself… only more nice :) … and more contactable… and not shooting only because I have nothing to do with my hands… but I have eyes open and waiting…
    And first of all I try making really good photography (in future of course) because I need a good reason to interrupted in human life with my camera.

    But I just keep learning… how talk, how smile, when push shutter release … and first of all why I want push shutter release

    Martin (Smile is best for all)

  • And one more observation…

    Like I said, I’m shy guy… (am I?)
    But sometimes self-confidence not helping. I was working with polish “celebrities”, actress and actors, and people who think about self “actors”. I have really good relation with them (not with all, it impossible) because I didn’t run after them, not try to be their friend, I treats normally like everybody else and with respect.
    They was surprised when I said “excuse me, can I take you pictures? Or, how are you today?”
    They even was more interested in me than I was interested in the (guy with camera and not arrogant??) . Their try to talk with me, not I with them… maybe I was too much busy, probably I should give them more attention… they are interesting people even in light of flash. This was lesson for next time…

    Now I know that photographer should be flexible, good photographer should feel comfortable at work with people. And should looking for people not only good pictures…
    This is my purpose now…


  • Martin, yes!

    “And should looking for people not only good pictures…”

    This is good advice.


  • I think so much has to do with your internal dialogue. In an effort to protect itself, because of fear, the mind likes to make up reasons why someone wouldn’t want to be photographed. Often, that fear simply reinforces stereotypes and narrow beliefs that are unsubstantiated.

    What I have learned: don’t try to negotiate with fear, because it will win or will compromise your intention. Fear not..that’s all..which sounds harder than it is. Put your energy elsewhere, into your passion, your compassion, your curiosity, your mission, and stop feeding the fear by entering into debate with it.

    It’s not that I don’t suffer from lock-down, because I do, but for me that comes from faltering belief in the worth of my photography, and confusion about the merit of ‘art for art’s sake’, an issue which is additionally clouded by the fact that my work is self funded and is having a real and measurable detrimental financial impact.

    The mystery of why we are driven as artists (if you will pardon the grandiose in that) is a beaut, with a force that runs through people of all times and cultures. It is most certainly larger than my person, and I do my best to use it in service to the muse but also, to ‘get closer to people’ for the relevance of human connection.


    i always have the camera present from the beginning…maybe not shooting, but it is there…pulling it out of the bag later, after i have made contact, seems “sneaky” to me…

    i also always always take the picture that people expect…i have so so many “group shot” and people sitting looking at the camera…i bring those back as prints…i have given away lots of “one hour photo” prints or poloroids…

    and yes Preston, many dinners and drinks and general hanging around not taking pictures at all….enjoying the local hospitality, being a good guest and being genuinely INTERESTED in their lives…NOT just interested in taking pictures…


    i am the same….i never never never want to feel as if i have exploited….i care more about a “shared experience” than i do about the picture…if you are not the type of person who sincerely enjoys people for who they are, then probably “people photography” is not the way to go…when i walked away from the fisherman and his family, all i could think about was what amazing people they were and what a close-knit family they were and how truly lucky lucky they were to be living in this little house in this little village in an unheard of town…i felt so great and happy when their picture was used in NG….not for me, but for THEM!!!…


    i always find one “main character” and stick with that person….i do not try to make friends with the whole neighborhood directly, but by befriending one person or one peer group it seeps out usually to the others…but, if i sense someone does not want to be photographed, then my camera is hanging around my neck…i have no desire to photograph someone who does not want to be photographed….not my game


    so you have stepped out!! i hope it feels good…please stop by when you have a chance..


    if you are talking about the girl with the white shirt and the heart who is looking at the camera, i knew very well her whole family…as a matter of fact, that picture was taken when i was with both her and her mother…we were taking a non picture taking walk together along the malecon…i think that picture does speak as you say, but she was totally able to “come out” in that way because her mother was there….


    i have no signed papers after all these years of working with people, except for commercial advertising shoots where it is required by law and the models are being paid etc etc..

    i could never make anyone sign a piece of paper after building a rapport…that would kill the whole mood..i just can’t do it.some photographers do this so they can then sell the pictures through an agency for advertising purposes….i guess i have a whole lot of pictures that cannot be used for advertising!!!

    for books and magazines you generally do not need a release for shooting people on the street, except in France (the home of street photography!!!)….


    why not just take the picture they want?? i do that all the time….give them exactly what they are expecting…nobody does not like a good picture of themselves…people do not want to be violated, but people like pictures…even cultures where supposedly pictures are not permitted seem to have family pictures on the walls…have you ever ever been to anyone’s house where family pictures where not hanging or present somewhere??? become the family photographer….somewhere in there you might find a picture for yourself or even better the family might just suggest a picture that is even better than what you were thinking!!!


    you are a great people photographer….i think you work in perhaps a different way from me, but in a very good way….each of us has our own way….you are totally non-threatening, which is the key to all of it…


    i do not think it is necessary to be outgoing at all…just blending or non-threatening as i mentioned to Nick above…HCB was certainly not outgoing…


    running, but back soonest for more comments to your comments…this will be good

    cheers, david


    i know what you mean….in those fast moving really “street” situations i try to move instinctively…you are right, in those situations , if you ask, you will miss the moment…in that case, many times i shoot first and ask later….again, quick eye contact to “feel” if it is ok….you can sense it…if the people are totally oblivious, which is rare, then i just shoot…but almost always i make contact one way or another….it is rare for me to just shoot and walk…


    got the wine!!! many many thanks…now that you have built rapport with me , you may shoot a picture anytime!!!

    chris gave me a good report on your meeting…he really enjoyed himself as you enjoyed him….

    actually photojournalism is not “my bag” either..i never see myself as a photojournalist….what you said is exactly what i feel…”open up something wide besides your eyes and your lenses”


    if someone is camera shy, i leave them alone….if i really really really am interesting in shooting them, then i might wait to see if they change their mind…if not, i enjoy them on another level…


    by the way, if you want to see the fisherman and his family just do an advanced search on Magnum website….CHILE and my name…the pictures are out of sequence in this folder, but i am sure you can find the 6 or 7 that belong to this series…

    ok off to Photo Plus for a couple of hours….back soonest to read and respond to more of your comments…

    cheers, david

  • Classic question. I have been asking myself this question and trying to fix this issue. I consider myself a shy person and most of my people are candid. My method is to look for sympathy of isolation or collective expression of strangers on the street, take some snap and move on. But that would not be the best way to give the insight of the persons in the photographs.

    Fortunately, lately, I have experienced big party events that allowed me to get closer to the subjects without too much effort. It might not be that much a challenge to get really intimate but it certainly boosted my confident to approach people.

    However, the lessons are still to be learnt. I find that trust is the key. It is easier to portray people in the closer look when they see the photographer’s sincerity. Some photographers are natural to show it to them and effortlessly to connect with strangers. That means photographers have to open up themselves as well. Honestly, I still have to work on it.

  • Classic question. I have been asking myself this question and trying to fix this issue. I consider myself a shy person and most of my people are candid. My method is to look for sympathy of isolation or collective expression of strangers on the street, take some snap and move on. But that would not be the best way to give the insight of the persons in the photographs.

    Fortunately, lately, I have experienced big party events that allowed me to get closer to the subjects without too much effort. It might not be that much a challenge to get really intimate but it certainly boosted my confident to approach people.

    However, the lessons are still to be learnt. I find that trust is the key. It is easier to portray people in the closer look when they see the photographer’s sincerity. Some photographers are natural to show it to them and effortlessly to connect with strangers. That means photographers have to open up themselves as well. Honestly, I still have to work on it.

  • Classic question. I have been asking myself this question and trying to fix this issue. I consider myself a shy person and most of my people are candid. My method is to look for sympathy of isolation or collective expression of strangers on the street, take some snap and move on. But that would not be the best way to give the insight of the persons in the photographs.

    Fortunately, lately, I have experienced big party events that allowed me to get closer to the subjects without too much effort. It might not be that much a challenge to get really intimate but it certainly boosted my confident to approach people.

    However, the lessons are still to be learnt. I find that trust is the key. It is easier to portray people in the closer look when they see the photographer’s sincerity. Some photographers are natural to show it to them and effortlessly to connect with strangers. That means photographers have to open up themselves as well. Honestly, I still have to work on it.

  • Classic question. I have been asking myself this question and trying to fix this issue. I consider myself a shy person and most of my people are candid. My method is to look for sympathy of isolation or collective expression of strangers on the street, take some snap and move on. But that would not be the best way to give the insight of the persons in the photographs.

    Fortunately, lately, I have experienced big party events that allowed me to get closer to the subjects without too much effort. It might not be that much a challenge to get really intimate but it certainly boosted my confident to approach people.

    However, the lessons are still to be learnt. I find that trust is the key. It is easier to portray people in the closer look when they see the photographer’s sincerity. Some photographers are natural to show it to them and effortlessly to connect with strangers. That means photographers have to open up themselves as well. Honestly, I still have to work on it.

  • Classic question. I have been asking myself this question and trying to fix this issue. I consider myself a shy person and most of my people are candid. My method is to look for sympathy of isolation or collective expression of strangers on the street, take some snap and move on. But that would not be the best way to give the insight of the persons in the photographs.

    Fortunately, lately, I have experienced big party events that allowed me to get closer to the subjects without too much effort. It might not be that much a challenge to get really intimate but it certainly boosted my confident to approach people.

    However, the lessons are still to be learnt. I find that trust is the key. It is easier to portray people in the closer look when they see the photographer’s sincerity. Some photographers are natural to show it to them and effortlessly to connect with strangers. That means photographers have to open up themselves as well. Honestly, I still have to work on it.

  • To Michael Kircher:

    In David’s photo, the woman closer to the camera is one of the workshop assistants in Sicily. She also appeared in one of David’s posts from April. No idea who the other woman is.

  • David – I’m not implying that one gains rapport then whips out a camera from the bag and start shooting—that’s no different than walking up to someone and randomly shooting—it’s just rude. But I’m certainly not being sneaky about it. When I say “leave it in the bag” I mean leave it there, leave it hanging, leave it on the table, whatever. Just don’t use it in a way that disrupts anyone’s comfort level.

  • Interesting thread. How do I do establish eye contact and move in for the intimate picture? Well, I take Erica’s advice and dont negotiate with my fear; I just give in to it and hide behind a bush with a 300mm telephoto lens. Works every time.

  • Does talking with and photographing strangers it ever feel like diving into a cold pool to anyone else? You know its gonna be cold but the longer you think about it, the harder it seems to get. Once you decide to go, you’re in the water so fast and too busy to notice that it was a problem at all. I find the first photo of the day hard to make and after that, I’m swimming. If I don’t swim, I don’t feel satisfied.

    I find that smiling and acting relaxed helps so much. I think Giancarlo had it right, relaxed and purposeful relaxes your subject. Nervous, edgy and untalkative makes people nervous of your motives.

    Action seems to help too, if someones doing something “extra-ordinary” then they seem to expect you to make pictures. Photographing a person’s ordinary is much harder.

    David, you use small, unobtrusive cameras to get “closer”. Did you ever find/consider/think that a giant black brute gives you access as you look more “professional” ? I’m considerably bigger than my biggest camera, is it not ME thats the obtrusive object? This is a bit of a devil’s advocate question…..

  • Akay, here is an alternative to your 300mm (is’nt it heavy?)


    I was amused to see someone advocating this object on flickr. It seems so dishonest!

  • David :))))…

    when marina, dima and i make it down, that small ice will be big bottle ;)))…tell Chris i gave Mrs. Black and Dima a similar report: especially since Dima always loved his cowboy voice (from his Bolivia Election Magnum in Motion piece)…thanks for the permission to shoot you ;)))…ditto the same: though you’ll me more drawn to marina and dima (photographically): believe me ;))


  • Neil,

    Not only dishonest, deception is deception and imagine getting caught!


    It really is an amazing thing, making images of others on the street. I think photography is at its best, after you’ve stripped everything away…it’s about sharing

  • Reading all, I think the answers do not reflect only on photography but on the period we live in, where people want to re-instate an honest and sure rapport with others, amidst much superficiality and alienation fed by so many medias and social structures (or constructs?).

    I wonder if this is reflected in much photography out there, in these medias. There is so much “television” in mediatic photography nowadays.

    Just an imprecise thought.

  • Herve,
    I think we are also dealing with Camera Phones which can make people nervous about cameras in general.
    The other day I was riding BART [subway] wearing a Scottish Kilt. (I was on my way to a gig with my drum)
    Anyways, I heard this loud/fake shutter sound. Looking up I saw this girl with her camera phone pointed discretely at me.
    No acknowledgment that she just took my picture either.
    I had to just laugh!

  • More on the (less vs more) equipment discussion…

    I have a friend who has recently begun working as a photojournalist, his lifelong dream. He goes out to shoot totally dressed the part, looking as though he is going into battle…camera on each shoulder, belt loaded with gear, vest, even THE SCARF I think. :)

    I had a good chuckle when I had a chance to hang out with the “real” photojournalists at the LA VII Seminar and they talked about wearing bermuda shorts and carrying diaper bags…whatever they could do to NOT look like photojournalists. To reduce intimidation factor as well as to gain access when traveling in countries like Burma.

    Something to think about.

  • Thank you David. Yes it feels good, albeit a bit scary! Hopefully the heart palpitations will slow down a bit soon!

    I’ve chosen the path of freelance editorial photojournalism rather than newspaper work. I like being able to spend time on a story and to me, the experiences more than compensate for the money.

    Hopefully that path will lead to more inspiring meetings and experiences.

    As an aside; have just had Larry Towell’s “The Mennonites” arrive in the mail and all I can say is WOW!!

    Would love to call in at some stage, but as I live in New Zealand, can’t see that happenning for a while!!

    Thank you for your inspiration.

  • Yeah I like to carry a bag (as long as it’s not a camera bag) because if I’m not using my camera, I don’t care to advertise an expensive piece of gear when out at night. The only drawback in rough-and-tumble regions of Michigan is that you get shit for carrying a man-purse!

    I like what I can do with my D200 and the creative lighting system, but there are many times by the end of the night I just wish I had a high end point and shoot, rather than that tank. I can understand why David keeps it light with the M8.

  • MARTIN….

    you always have good words of wisdom ..and i have had the same experience as you…the only time i have had negative vibes from people , were people who were not in my picture frame at all!!! very curious phenomenon…


    i was not implying that YOU were sneaky…you are not that type at all!!! it would just make ME feel “sneaky” if i pulled out the camera to shoot way into the rapport building process…i want people to know i am a photographer who would like to make photographs, but will not take photographs if not invited to do so…


    i am looking out my window for you now!! please come out of the bushes and come up for a cold beer…you are welcomed here…


    interesting question you have….i do use just one small camera, one lens and look fairly “unprofessional”…..

    this has worked against me in some cases where i am trying to get in somewhere using my “professional credentials” and they do not believe i am really professional or not who i say i am because i have “no equipment”!!!
    but, usually “no equipment” works for me…

    however, sometimes when i am in a group of professional photographers covering some event (which is rare), the photographers on the scene will sometimes not even talk to me because they think i am an amateur and not worthy of their conversation!!! i do not have the “professional fashion look”… this happens many times…and i enjoy this most of all!!

    cheers, david

  • David,
    Reminds me of your stock car racing coverage in ’98? You had your small camera while The ‘professionals’ had super telephotos. I think You said you were a “real freak” in that environment.
    Love it!

  • For me I think the best way to be comfortable photographing people is to have belief in the project I’m doing. Most of what I do is street photography and I mix it up between asking people – often in small groups – and I will hang out for a while. I prefer to start making pictures right away and then I can pause and talk. On the other hand I do a lot of pictures where I shoot quickly on the street without asking. I both cases I do feel that I feel the most confident by knowing in my mind what the project is. That way when I ask people to photograph I can explain well and be sure of myself and likewise if I shoot on the street without asking – well if someone asks me what I am doing I have my answer ready. For the last year I have been between projects and was a bit unhappy and certainly unsure of myself while continuing to make photos. Now I have a now project underway – I have a vision of what I am trying to achieve and that is pushing me to get out there to work and to feel sure of myself when I am out there. Often when I just say to myself – go out and make pictures – then I come back with nothing. I think I’m sort of thinking to myself, well how can I approach someone or take their picture on the street without a reason beyond I just want to. So maybe having some sense of what the larger picture is, knowing the why, is helpful in getting past the lack of confidence and insecurity.

    Eugene Richard has a good quote in his book Americans We that helps me when I am not sure of myself. “My confidence is gone. Inexplicably, after all these years, I’m still a shy, doubting, anxious child when I have to go out and confront people I don’t know.” I figure that if he is doubting and anxious when he goes out to shoot then it is ok for me to feel that way too.

    All best to everyone out there trying to photograph.

  • David,

    you mean the drunk in the water bar?:) That guy was just plain crazy.

    How is the editing of the Korea project coming along? When do you guys plan on getting it out?

  • i think being authentically yourself and intuition play the main roles when capturing
    real life & real people..

    let’s face it everyone wears masks & it’s up to the photographer to peel the layers off like an onion. Essential to try & get as close to the center as possible.

    Richard Avedon during an interview once revealed a trick that he employed while photographing the Prince and Princess of Rainer .. the famous couple are notorious for their standard publicity persona (face)
    while being photographed. So to dance around
    this obstacle Mr.Avedon knowing that the couple are dog lovers related a story.

    He told the couple after everything was set up that on the way to the studio that the taxi driver had run over a dog // hence his sorrow.

    immediately the couples guarded persona mask dropped revealing their true feelings for an instant.. presto..an icon.

    **sidenote** no dog was injured Mr.Avedon tactfully employed a white lie for a commendable cause.

  • i think being authentically yourself and intuition play the main roles when capturing
    real life & real people..

    let’s face it everyone wears masks & it’s up to the photographer to peel the layers off like an onion. Essential to try & get as close to the center as possible.

    Richard Avedon during an interview once revealed a trick that he employed while photographing the Prince and Princess of Rainer .. the famous couple are notorious for their standard publicity persona (face)
    while being photographed. So to dance around
    this obstacle Mr.Avedon knowing that the couple are dog lovers related a story.

    He told the couple after everything was set up that on the way to the studio that the taxi driver had run over a dog // hence his sorrow.

    immediately the couples guarded persona mask dropped revealing their true feelings for an instant.. presto..an icon.

    **sidenote** no dog was injured Mr.Avedon tactfully employed a white lie for a commendable cause.

  • Sometimes I find people so fascinating that I make the mistake of looking at them in a very intense way, forgetting that I’m invading their privacy…when I walk I always look around me all the time looking to everybody, searching for that “somebody” that really stands out, that really jump from the crowd…

    I usually don’t have a problem approaching people in a way that I can gain their trust little by little…but since I changed my m6 for a big digital SLR, I feel like I’m attacking that person with an M-16 and lately have been very hard for me to get close…close enough…

    Before I changed my gear nobody asked me what was the purpose of my pictures…now people ask me….what are you gonna do with those pictures? and that turn me off a little bit because since I’m not a professional I really don’t have an answer for that….

    Get close to people…particularly strangers is easy for me when I travel and very hard in my own backyard…I don’t know why…so lately I’ve been trying to create some photo projects rather than go out hunting for images..I feel more comfortable but again, I’m not a professional…

  • KATIA….

    as i look at your work, i think you have absolutely zero problems in dealing with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations…you are comfortable in your own skin, which is the key to making others comfortable…


    yes, letting people know “they matter” is a key to this whole discussion…i always make the scene be about “them” not about me…


    laughing…yes, THE SCARF….hmmmm, well they could be useful sometimes and sometimes make a political statement, but c’mon guys please please!!!


    i totally understand Eugene….that is the way i am too…hence, being “room locked”…once i am moving and the scene is “fluid” i can really go to work…but, breaking that invisible barrier is often a heavy weight to lift…

    and, of course, it all varies from culture to culture and there is absolutely no absolute one way to do it..


    exactly!!! that guy!! from out of nowhere and not in the picture at all!!!

    the book was edited last week in new york…i do not know the release date…i will let you know as soon as i know…


    i remember hearing that story…i wonder what the prince and princess looked like when Avedon told them the truth!!!

  • SF JASON….

    you must have some “stand up comedian” in you…and you are a performer at least with your drum…please send us a link to a picture of with your kilt and drum….AND, i ask you, can you shoot a bit while you are performing?? is there a moment in the performance with just enough of a break to shoot?? that might really be interesting since you are already “in”…try it…


    i started out being the “fly on the wall” with street photography…like HCB….and sometimes i still like to work like this…however, find that i can still be another kind of unobtrusive photographer by getting so so involved with my subject that i am totally forgotten…in this way, i am still a “fly on the wall” after i am so “in” that i am “in”visible..

    but, of course, you should work in the way that makes you feel most comfortable…


    i was so proud of your new work…i think you really added something to your portfolio…i am still looking at your prints on the wall…very very nice…will post as soon as i can….


    i work the same….and i too will put myself in certain situations where a camera just is not noticed as you do on Coney Island…shooting the “edges” of a fiesta or event makes “street photography” much easier..


    in situations where you really have time to explain, you are absolutely correct…giving subjects the context of your work really works….

    cheers, david

  • Jonathan… I like your photography ;)

  • Hi David and All…

    I think mostly photographers who working with people have the same experience,
    but… I don’t know you personally David, but I know we are very different people. You are very self-confidence in work person I think… and I… after 27 years being painter, working alone, keep myself alone I have much more problems with people than you, I suppose.
    I ‘v started photographing because I always am watcher, observer, and I like people… I love people! But I mostly had not need to talk and participate with them before I started photographing, working with people it is something much more difficult for person like me.
    Simultaneously when I’m working without people, I think about them, and when I shot empty place I looking for human emotion. So, not always I must be very connectable in work. I don’t need people for story I tell about them.
    My biggest problem at work with people is my own person. Mostly they are more open, mostly they invite me inside. But I’m working with this.
    I think I’m prepare for work with people now, I’m learning quickly… we’ll see…

    I’m learning but I’m not fight with my nature now, i don’t try be someone else…

    We are similar in one… you wrote answer to Neil about your “professional look”, but you wrote every single word about me!!!

    Martin (no professional fashion look)

    Ps. Sorry for my English last time, I have no time for keep learning it now… i have time for nothing!!

  • Thanks so much David for answering to my question. It is something I was wondering because, as you know, I love to take pictures of people, specialy portraits, and when I applied for a NG contest, they required me a signed paper when a person was recognizable.

    But I never in my life asked anybody to sign a paper. I don’t feel comfortable asking for it even if they are friends. I feel like it breaks all the feeling, all the emotions and all the comunication that photography means to me…. As you said, I always thought that asking for that will kill the whole mood. And one of the things I really enjoy being a photographer is that “exchange” of emotions that goes through the rapport.

    And it is good to know that for books and magazines you generally do not need a release for shooting people on the street… (The same for portraits???) That makes me feel more relaxed!



  • when working on a particular story for this thread what worked for me was this:

    meet with the person(S) and tell them what you are doing.. ask them for thier input…if you meet with the person “in charge” that’s a real plus

    i wanted to do a particular story and i thought who do i know who knows…knowing somebody who knows somebody really helps

    establish common ground…listen to the person and get to know them, be genuinely interested in them.. what is important to them what they are interested in etc. share stuff about yourself honest stuff …if you are genuinely curious and care about people and their lives this is the best

    if you can offer them something that is a plus… copies of pictures, a story in the local papaer, etc.

    once into the situation, do what they are doing, if people are dancing, i find that i get better pics by not standing back and photoing them dancing, dance and then photo and dance some more…if people are inside washing dishes, i sling my camera over my back and get into the dishes , you know one person washing the other drying, the other putting away etc. and then break for interesting pics….once i was doing yard work and rather than take pics of people working a grabbed a pitch fork and started pitchforking with others and then break for pics even giving my camera to others so they could take pics of me.

    stuff others have used too i’m sure…enjoy the thread.. dah, let me know if you would like a contact in brazil.


    when i see your work, it seems that you are just fine working with people…so if you are shy, it does not show up in your photographs..

    in your “empty space” more landscape pictures, you do seem “lonely”…yet i know you are not lonely…

    perhaps our photographs are often the opposite of the way we think we are or the way we project ourselves to others…OR they are really the way we are with all of the masks stripped away…surely, our photographs are personality revealing…


    yes,yes…i learned long ago how to dance with a beer in my left hand and a camera in my right…

    i am ok with contacts for this quick trip to Brazil, but many thanks for offering..

    cheers, david


    actually, you and i are the very best example of how we both are with people…we met as total strangers, not at any photo event, and neither of us with a camera in hand…we were both just the “guy sitting next to you on the plane”…

    and, we still have not taken any pictures of each other!!!

    cheers, david


    my apologies…i totally missed your last name when reading your post the first time and, in a hurry, did not click on to your website..i have your book and would love for you to sign it for me when you are next in new york…..great street photography!!!

    cheers, david

  • David,
    Good to see you at Photoplus In New York. Enjoyed the new work–as well as some of the images I had seen before. The
    BBC clip about you was very interesting and really showed the way you work as well as about your life. People on this blog might enjoy that if they could get access to it.
    I think your friendliness and genuine warmness is part of what makes “it work’ for you. You seem really and truly happy to see us all–past and present students and participants in this site– when our paths cross. I think that joy in life comes across in your photography. When I feel “right” about what I’m photographing”–when I can feel the “pulse”–be tuned into what is around me and really begin to “see” and not be thinking of “me”–that’s when if seems to work for me. Rosemary
    ps Read this through–have used the word “work” so many times–but that is what it is as well as the spirit within

  • I’ve been a silent “lurker”, as DAH refers to them, on this blog since June and have enjoyed and learned from everyone’s comments. This topic REALLY hit a nerve for me. I’ve just edited some images from a recent trip and came to the conclusion that one of my biggest areas for improvement is that I need to get closer to people – I’m on the edge, the periphery of a interesting situation, but held back by some sort of invisible fence, like I’m looking in, instead of being in. To move in often feels like an intrusion of personal space. I guess I need to get over my shyness. The one thing I’ve found that helps is when I am able to start conversations about something, anything, perhaps it’s the history of the area, a question, or some other expression of genuine interest in trying to understand or learn first rather than charging in with camera glued to my face. People seem to respond to curiosity and enthusasium and are then more open to being in the photograph when asked. This is all new to me and I have a lot to learn. I started this new project after attending the DAH workshop in Charlottesville, which forced me to really think about my photography, the project I was stuck on and the excuses I was hiding behind. I’m now photographing something I know well and have access to on a regular basis: the cities I visit on business trips/life on the road, which is proving to be as satisfying and adventurous as my other project. Thank you, David, for the workshop experience and this blog.
    (PS – I was the one with the sailing images.)

  • David – Wow – and here I was thinking that I was toiling in total obscurity and virtually no one had seen the book. I’d love to visit and would be more than happy to sign your copy. I am actually based back in New York now – living in wonderfully diverse Jackson Heights. I’d be pleased to give you a copy of the catalogue from my Chicago work too. So basically – any time – you let me know where and when! Feel free to email.

    All best,

  • David…

    I wonder what you think about how danger our work is and about work with women… you know… eye contact… handsome photographer (you) with BIG camera… ok, maybe with small camera… but still handsome… at work… be in middle of action…
    Eye contact… beautiful women…


  • I feel a bit rebellious (It’s good!) about the “nice” answers. I think with photography you never comes quite as clean as “honest, tell the truth, getting to know them”, at least, and at worse, There is nothing wrong with using people, the greatest artists did it, Picasso, Wagner, Beethoven, Avedon, etc…..

    Maybe we are trying too much to look the good part here, but why photography should be the abode where we do not face the contradictions, paradoxes, even calculations, we as human beings, neurotic and not perfect, contend with in our lives, and within our personalities or social entity.

    I think whatever you can get away with, in photography, and does not hurt anyone (unlike some of these genius up there, other times I guess), while having a purpose (very important) for it, is fine. If it’s lying to royalty, living with a cave dweller for one month, becomes the family’s best friend, or simply steal a shot, be it. A camera is not a gun.

  • David – understood – I just have an aversion to immediately having the camera out until I’m comfortable with my surroundings. That’s probably something I’ll grow out of over time.


    it was so nice to see you yesterday…you are a true “class act” and beautiful woman in every respect…thank you for your comments…i feel exactly the same about you…


    i am leaving for brazil/mexico tomorrow, but back mid november….i will try to set up a meeting time for us when i return…


    yes yes…hmmmmmm, well potentially dangerous territory and yet and yet is there anything more beautiful in life???

    i would have to start a whole new blog to discuss this subject in detail…maybe we save this conversation for when we meet over a cold beer or two…

    in this arena i have no expertise whatsoever…i am just another guy trying my best to do the right thing and at some points having done the wrong thing…

    my mother tried to explain the whole process to me when i was a teenager…my poor mother!! perhaps i had better give her a call!!


    well, a camera is not a gun…but photographers have an incredible opportunity to both communicate with others about a particular subject or have a positive influence on the people they meet…photographers have a certain kind of access to people that few have…

    perhaps artists historically have “used” people to create their art..but, a little “payback” to the subject with some common human decency cannot possibly hurt the “art” and just might make somebody feel better that day about themselves…

    i like to think that perhaps photographers can be great ambassadors in a world so full of people who really do have guns!!

    again, just a “brick in the wall”, but the world needs every brick it can get….i do not think “nice” has to be some kind of superficiality….


    whatever you do should be natural and organic….do not try too hard to be something you are not….many of the world’s greatest photographers are not people people….be comfortable in your own skin…people will feel it….and respond accordingly….and your style will be a reflection of who you are…..and who you are will manifest itself in work that will reflect the subject in a way suitable for all..

    cheers, david

  • Bypassing answer… ok, i will ask when we meet over a beer and rum or gin (i’m not drinking beer)
    will be fun…
    you going to brazil and mexico? cool…

    ech… women…


  • i like to think that perhaps photographers can be great ambassadors in a world so full of people who really do have guns!!

    So true, David, but it goes also for being able to show that picture, there is ambassadorship at that too. What I meant is that

    1) there can be some kind of experience in getting something out of the subject, where the photographer makes use of “tricks” (the Avedon’s dog, a lie), independantly of the great rapport, and maybe friendship estbalished.

    2) there are just instances where the “getting to know” is not of the matter, and that a little stealing (which is no human dishonesty,as to the object of the craft/art, ie. expressing oneself) that transfers the ambassadorship when the pix is shared with the world (a bad example really, but I think of that “Nosferatu” shot of Goebbels by Einsenstadt. You sure want to steal it (Goebbels was quite unwilling if I recall) and run :-). A jewish photographer on top!).

    Definitely, going inside, getting to know is not only important to crucial photography, but for its rewards, humanly. The making of the Cuba shot along the malecon is a good lesson to not just wandering, as I thought.

    Yet, we all enjoyed Jonathan’s link, which are not totally about “getting to know”.

  • >>please send us a link to a picture of with your kilt and drum


    >>can you shoot a bit while you are performing?? try it…

    When playing gigs like weddings & special events like Bruce Fraser Tribute etc. I don’t have time till after we finish performing.
    However when I play in a Pipe Band at Highland Games events, there is lots of time to photograph my buddies in other pipe bands from around the world.

    After giving much thought to your suggestions, I realized today’s Pro Wrestling event I declined would have made for very interesting photos! (oops!)

    Thanks for your suggestions and enjoy Brazil!
    SF Jason

  • It’s slightly different everytime you go out. You have to adjust to the rules of the location. Sometimes it is eye contact and a smile and sometimes it’s something different. There is no clear recipe on what to do. One thing I know is that most of the time I’m not going to blend in so I’m not going to count on it. Camera is always out in my hand. There is no mistake if I raise it to my eye.

  • David – safe and pleasurable travels..

    all this talk of getting close is staying very present with me as I am out photographing..I felt so very close today, maybe too close at times, and it seems this is the way I am being drawn, closer, closer.. I wonder some about the ramifications of losing boundries, for both photographer and subject..have you ever felt the same?

  • Smile, chat, be direct and don’t lie. Have prints with you. Don’t know, guess you have have to have a bit of charm at the end of the day… don’t forget to brush your teeth and wear nice shoes ;-)

    (Btw, all non standard cameras help… medium formats make you look like a professional, small ‘point and shoot’ film cameras make you look inofensive, twin lens cameras just crack it, etc.)

  • Well, I make it sound quite technical, but it must be because as far as I have an excuse and it’s not a girl I fancy, I can start a conversation with anybody…

  • HERVE…

    yes, i understand…and i was only on a ramble about the positive side of getting “in”…but, of course, i also work as the unobtrusive photographer as well…i do not put one style above the other…

    surely , as you say, jonathan is a good example of the stealth street photographer….




    very good question…well, i have often likened what i do sometimes to “method acting” in the sense of melting into the “part”…becoming the part….being the scene….often to the edge …often close to slipping off….sometimes actually slipping off and only grabbing a tree branch before a long plunge down down down..somewhere between totally “losing it” and “total professionalism” is where i often live….safe is only safe…..life on the “edge” is the ultimate rush and from whence by best work cometh….


    for me i like to work quietly with a small camera or , very rarely, with a medium format and be very very obvious….but declared….clearly defined….this creates another type of environment and can be very compelling….

    for example, i once set up a med format 6×9 at an Aussie bar…just so obtrusive…but i stood by my tripod at the bar, bought a couple of beers for the guys next to me and managed to eventually get some of the most candid possible bar pictures..the camera and tripod became a “fixture” and they totally relaxed because i was just there relaxing with them ….and they totally forgot the camera…and everything else too!!!

  • David, I like the idea of putting the tripod in the bar. Sometimes I make myself be the tripod. I claim a spot on the sidewalk and put the camera up to the eye and start shooting. People have to go around you – walk by the lens – whatever – but you just say to yourself this is where I am this is what I’m doing it’s my place – if people want to walk in front of the camera well that’s up to them, then I’m going to take their picture!

  • David, yes !! “somewhere between totally “losing it” and “total professionalism” is where i often live.” You say method acting I say living as “a natural chameleon” (!!chameleon |kəˈmēlyən; -lēən|noun a small slow-moving Old World lizard with a prehensile tail, long extensible tongue, protruding eyes that rotate independently, and a highly developed ability to change color – to adapt to to the surroundings-)

    the color change to fit in and eyes that rotate independently to see all sure come in handy, but it’s that slithering up and down the the edge and holding on with the tail that keep me from going too far..

    thank you

  • Been lurking for a while but this subjects strikes a chord so wanted to write though I am tired now and not at my best. On photographing strangers I too feel nervous and am often, I think, too polite: I feel I am imposing too much on my subjects when I wish to photograph them and rush the shots even when I work up the courage to present the camera more forcefully in the great conversations and relationships I have nurtured. This happens especially on personal projects. Ironically when there is a piece of paper with a newspaper`s name on top that wants this shot and that shot by the end of the week I am braver – the need to get the job done making the nerves disappear more appologetically, and then, only then it is easy, sort of, but anyway easier.
    To this end I try to trick myself that each personal shot is in reality a commission just to get the nerves out of the way but I can`t always do it.
    Nice to here that even someone like yourself gets the same sort of feeling and the advice from all the people here is very enlightening. Thanks David and all; will be smiling my way around a personal shoot this Wednesday and making lots of eye contact to be sure.

  • the first step where you have to talk whit the people and you dont know what goint to happen is the more dificult,but when you start you most do tha the people trust in you , and then you can shoot and when you are in the place or whit the people whit a camere in fron of you imediately you change and you can see more and more and more. Tienes que envolverte ser parte de ellos y que ellos sean parte de ti.


  • I think we have to challenge ourselves too. I am not doing it enough. And I mean, not challenging like just getting it humanely, fighting shyness, but strictly as a photographer, Like hanging for 4 hours at the same spot, shooting people, just mean it exactly as it is, and no shots of anyone further than 12ft!

    I think the time we are negatively acknowledged (killing any chance of happenstance or candid), is when we pretend to be discreet when evrything about us, is screaming “I have a camera, but please do not pay attention to me”.

    I believe this is actually projected from inside onto our physical behaviour, or vibes. If we catch our thoughts at that moment, they tell us that much. IMO

    It’s like the race has started, and you are still in the blocks. you ARE the deer in the headlights. Self-portrait then maybe to save the day?….:-)

  • HERVE…

    self portraiture is always therapeutic….


    running to plane headed for brazil…..probably off line until tomorrow noonish sao paolo time at the earliest….

    now here is something i have noticed…why is it that when i am on the way to the airport, the weather is always spectacular and the light magic???? i have turned the taxi around a few times in my career when i just decided not to go after all…

    keep chatting, back soonest….

    ciao, david

    p.s.. check out new student work(workshops) if you have time…more coming all week

  • I doesnt have to be that challenging. My next 2 projects will be about Hapkido and a Korean opera tenor. I got access to both easily through people I know. David had a similar experience in Seoul. In the Dress Cafe you photographed Soo jeong and people around her, right David? I remember you were very friendly with them, the girls were part of some photo club. So they werent perfect strangers. You were also going to do a wedding where you got access through Soo Jeong who knew the people. For me the Hapkido story has a different twist: its a class of foreigners (Canaidians, americans, a guy from Morocco, a girl from Mongolia, etc) doing a very Korean martial art. I also did a little wedding photo essay and the wedding was my wife’s friend’s. The Korean tenor is the cousin of my private tutoring student. I think there are interesting stories around us where we can have very ready access.

  • No doubt Rafal, but on the off days, it’s still good to practice the eye, and also one’s skills at working a crowd, a space.It will be useful in any assignment.

    Maybe also, I am thinking of euro-american street photography. US is between (most of) Asia (the non-confromtational approach there is a bonus for stealth photography) and France (they strive on :-) confrontation!).

  • Rafal wrote: “I think there are interesting stories around us where we can have very ready access.”

    So True…. So True
    and yet easily overlooked as I have come to realize.


  • Herve,

    Ive been rethinking the concept of street photography, which I was once a big proponent of. Now though, I think it isnt enough. I am lately thinking hard of doing projects. Somehow a long project is so much more satisfying than just getting a few good snaps on the street. Ive actually not gone street shooting since the summer and Im now focusing solely on series and long term projects.

  • one thing though, street photography is good practice for getting that composition or trying to catch that moment. So for me it was a good way to progress a bit from beginner status to maybe something a bit more. Now Im trying to put what I learned on the street and put it into longer stories. Its a challenge.

  • Found a short article on photographing people by William Albert Allard on the NG site:


    “great photos are given, not taken.”

    “You must project that you’re not there to make anyone look foolish”

  • Lately, I’m going through an opposite dilemma.. I’m in there close a lot of the times but I might be missing the better shot by not backing up… This is especially true when it comes to making portraits with permission.. I’ll often use a very wide lens set to min. distance (17mm @ ~18″) and focus by moving the camera.. I love the actual experience and connection by shooting in this manner but i’m not positive that the results are as good as they should be for viewers besides myself..

    I’ll often shoot in a similar fashion for the non-permission shots except i’ll set the focus to 3-4 feet.. so in that regard, that’s one way to force yourself to get in there close — glue your focus to a short distance and you’ll have to wait until people are close or else you’ll end up with a bunch of out-of-focus pictures..

    As far as how I actually do it, I don’t think I can come up with a decent explanation.. I’m a shy person by nature and I definitely wouldn’t consider myself to be the life of the party type of guy.. More like the fly on the wall people watcher type.. A camera gives people watching a new dimension and with the portrait type shots, i’m actually able to sometimes enjoy a decent conversation that would have never occurred if i weren’t making pictures.. I can’t always do these closeup shots and I’d say I have enough energy to do that style for about one hour per week.. It helps me to try and previsualize these close shots and then do what it takes to get the shots.. It also helps if i try to mentally prepare myself for a session hours or days before actually going out there.. just relaxing..
    Once i begin a session (typically, 20-30 minute spurts – even if i’m out there shooting for 6 hours), I tend to forget about the nervousness and just try to enjoy these connections to people that I’ve never experienced without a camera.. When i start to feel mentally exhausted, i’ll take a break… I might call it a day or i might recharge for another go.. Don’t force it – that rarely works..

  • david!

    like you said eye contact is very important, it tells a lot, but what i think is, that people have to see you beeing into what are you doing. i’m doing assignments for university of wales course in newport. we are learning basics at the moment. assignment is about person at work. one of places i’m shooting in is boxing gym. the trainer has son, who helps him to train. at the time i was walking around people, trying to find my frame i felt his eyes on me, i was doing my work and he was observer, he accepted the way i’m working, do you understand what i’m trying to say?

    oh, do you think it is possible to see you here in newport as guest lecturer? it would be fantastic for us to have opportunity to meet you! do you remember chiara tocci from easter processions workshop in sicily? she stays next to me right now and we have good laught. we both, and i’m sure all of our friends here would like to talk with you! we can help in organize the meeting.

    best regards

  • RAFAL..

    you are right about the dress cafe on that day…nobody was a total stranger…but, the day before everyone i shot there was a total stranger…and even the one´s that were not total strangers on the day you mention , were total strangers the week before!!!


    please give Chiara my warmest regards….i will write you by e-mail my schedule and the possibility of doing something with you in newport..


    now in sao paolo….limited computer time….but off to photo fest in paraty tomorrow, so i should have some interesting material for you…

    as usual, i ask your patience when i am òn the road`….

    cheers, david

  • Hey Uncle,
    I once had the privilege to work with a great reporter who taught me a lot about how to break the ice with the folk we report on, I mean this guy was ( and still is) something else…..wearing running shorts, a pink Lacoste sports shirt and riding boots topped off with a silk scarf and 6 ft 6 ” tall.. they guy may as well have been wearing a goddamn moonsuit!
    But he had this way ,this way with people that made them invite him into their lives , homes , dramas .. almost like they couldnt believe someone like him was interested in someone like them!
    People can spot a bullshitter and a faker from a mile off…so is best to be yourself and be very interested in the people you take pictures of…just saw your pics on the blokes with big hats …Do you agree the notion of the cowboy not only applies to bovine cutodians in cool hats? but also takes in the qualities so eloquently described in Willie Nelson’s ” My heros will allways be cowboys”?
    Uncle Bob.
    I am cooking up something fun for you old son!

  • These would be my suggestions;

    So much can be achieved without even speaking a word. Be entirely open. Be aware of your body language but not so much that you are tense. Don’t fold your arms. Don’t embrace yourself as so many of us do unawares. These are the barriers that strangers pull back from. Keep your body open and fluid and that applies most particularly to your face.

    Also, pre-focus as much as possible so that you can minimize the amount of time the camera is at your face. It also helps to make plenty of shots without looking through the finder. This can extend your reach towards intimacy in a nonthreatening way with surprising results. If you’re an experienced photographer and you know you gear well, you’ll know what you can expect to get in the frame with a little practice. This approach can really add dynamism to your work and you’ll surprise yourself.

    It’s a combination of things. It’s the dance. Be economical and quiet in your movements. Be as fluid as possible and people will welcome you into the fold.

  • Damon, good to see you here. I’m glad. You’re right, it’s good to know that Mr. Harvey himself gets the jitters. It’s reassuring somehow.

  • JEFF…

    cool website!! nice skateboard stuff and portraits…i have no time now to look carefully, but will do so soonest…


    you hit the nail right on the head…`people can spot a bullshitter a mile off…` being yourself is exactly the key…and i have a feeling we are both cowboys (ringers) at heart….


    you too have it right…i suppose there are many ways of being `right`….certainly the word `dance`does apply and all of us must go with the particular beat of the music playing at the time…


    i do it both ways, so i know what you mean…sometimes i have NG as a reason for shooting , but many many times it is just ME…people quickly forget the publication you are shooting for anyway…that is good for just a few minutes and maybe a press pay or whatever…ultimately, people must like YOU….

    cheers, david

  • Twas mentioned above that we should not make people look bad but this is something I often do for various reasons. Much of the time I’m not setting out to but a situation may make someone look rather daft. This is part of the human condition after all. Some people just look unfortunate. I appreciate the comic value of absurd situations and realize for the most part that these persons are anonymous. Sometimes I think it is necessary to step back and watch people for the animals that we are. I often watch people through the same eyes that I would watch a flock of birds or a pack of dogs or a herd of elephants. The pack behavior, the animal antics of humankind. These are the eyes I look through as I meander through city streets. However, when I come upon an intriguing human story I linger a little, make connections and begin again to see the individual.

    I still keep coming back to a previous comment on a previous post about being invisible. I like this idea. For the most part I play this game but on occasion will approach, introduce myself and demonstrate my intentions, though not always verbally, and often make friends.

    Being a street photographer is so contradictory, isn’t it? So many approaches. So many states of mind. Sometimes we are driven by empathy. Sometimes cynicism. Always curiosity. I try to make street photography when I’m in a bad mood. I try to make street photography when I’m in good form. I try to make street photography when I’m depressed and when I’m elated. Each time it’s revealing. Not of humankind, necessarily, but of oneself.

    I could write and write on street photography, the invisible observer of the herd and the intimate observer of the individual but I’d only go round and round in circles. It’s still such a mystery. People are so mysterious. It’s pure unadulterated chaos. Therein lies the magic of it all. The not knowing whether you’ll be beaten up or invited to dinner.

  • PAUL…

    well, i have never been beaten up and have had many a pleasant dinner!!!


    that should read press pass not press pay!!!

  • I read David’s recommendation to use one lens and camera so that using the camera will become second nature and fast. People sure loose patience quickly when someone is fumbling with a camera.

    I’m a shy person. I find I can engage with people when I’m feeling comfortable and happy. Then a smile or eye contact or a few words puts people at ease. When I’m in that playful state of mind I feel like I belong.

    It takes a certain amount of energy to be in this frame. When I don’t have that, a lot of the things mentioned on this page have helped make me feel like I belong there—getting into people’s personal space. Those are having a specific project, having permission to shoot from authorities (event organizers, business owners or permission from people), and also knowing I’m there to do a job—when it’s a paying gig—and I gotta deliver!

    I’d really rather be the guy holding a camera and being obvious that I’m shooting than trying to be sneaky about it. Even if I get a good photo encache I find the camera takes a picture both ways and captures my state of mind too.

    David, how does someone like Alec Soth get so close to people that they allow them to make the photos he does? I saw the Niagra series and it seems like wizardy. It must be nice to just hang-out with people an make photos over an extended period. I would like to try that. Grab shots can only take me so far in depth.

    Great page, cheers.

  • that’s great, we are looking forward to hearing from you!

    chiara sends you a bear hug, and a big GRAZIE

  • You’ve never been beaten up because you are a big man. I know because I met you back in 2000 under the influence of several beers at an ICP bash. I was with my dear friend Hilary Duffy and was knocking them back in relief at not having damaged Helmut Newton’s huge book whose pages I was assigned to turn for guests. Those white gloves I had to wear had me on the brink of insanity. I hate those things.

    I’ve never been beaten up either, miraculously. Mind you, I can run very fast, even with lots of gear.

    Why hasn’t Hilary uttered a word or two here, I wonder? I’m sure she’s lurking.

  • IAN G..

    only alec soth knows for sure…but, knowing him, i can see that he is totally `non-threatening` in general and this is probably true when he is talking honeymoon couples into taking their clothes off…

    and again, there are two ways to work…one; more or less unobtrusive (small camera, friendly, part of the scene or un-noticed) or two; big camera on tripod (not sneaky, totally declared, everybody knows what you are doing and they can take it or leave it)….the latter is alec´s way and actually my way too, even though the camera size is different…


    you were the helmut newton page turner??? get that in your bio….that´s ok, i had to drive helmut from the airport to downtown washington once as an intern….i liked that man…i am sure you would turn his pages any time and i would have driven him anywhere..

    i saw hillary not so long ago, but now i am trying to remember where…some opening or other photo function…

    hillary where are you??? come out, come out…paul and i are waiting!!!

    cheers, david

  • Cousin Glenn (come on Nephew, I aint as old as the hills y’all! ;)) )…

    Old Son Dima is awaiting :))))))……

    for the record, i guess, i should add this too: i have 3 cameras (not counting the cool polaroid that one of my students gave me), each with 1 lens, and i almost only ever carry 1 per shoot/day/moment, etc….

    in a way, i’ve always felt this: my head was (and still is) cluttered enough with thoughts and impressions and senses and words and scents and hopes and fears and loves and lusts and sounds and tails and time and worry and dreams and dust and dirt and silence, a patch of something, awaiting, to ever, ever use more than 1 camera at a time or thing about multiple lenses or settings or flash vs. noflash, or holga vs 35mm, or lomo vs medformat or, yes damnit shoot that or no damnit wait, to concern myself with too much gear….so much shit inside my head and spreading body, that i prefer only 1 bag, 1 camera, 1 lense, a few rolls of trix and await to see: that’s nerve racking enough, and oh, yes, like this:

    that’s it…..bob

  • Jeff,

    yes, the skateboard essay is impressive in an already quite impressive link. I hope it’s OK Can I ask you what kind of lighting equipment you use to stop the action as you did, while framing as if the guys were posing. Is processing also paramount in getting thi hyepr-realist “patina”?

    Not sure if that is asking to give away one’s method, so pardon my curiosity if that is so.

  • hey Herve..
    i guess this is going way off topic but…

    i use five flashes – 2x sb800, sunpak555, 400w/s lumedyne action pack, and a viv285… all triggered via pocket wizards..

    the main thing to realize about freezing motion with flashes is that they have to be brighter than the ambient by ~2stops or more.. once you get that kind of ratio going, the 1/250 xsync no longer matters and the speed of the flash will be the effective shutter speed..
    the problem with that however is the greater the output of a thrystor style flash, the slower it’s duration… for the most part, i try to keep my flash output at 1/4 or less — they are around 1/3000 sec and faster at that point.. however, at such low outputs, they aren’t bright enough to overpower bright ambient so that’s why i carry so many of them.. i often have to double or triple them up and i never use more than three actual points of light.. the lumedyne is great in that it’s fastest at its highest output but i only have enough room in the bag to carry one (all of my gear has to fit in a backpack because i skate to most of these spots – i don’t have the luxury of driving around with a trunk full of gear)..

    as far as processing goes, i keep it to a minimum..(aside from the obviously overcooked ones).. simple toning and contrast via the curves dialog.. once i convert to sRGB for web display, the pictures will often take on this overly saturated look but they are more toned down when printed or viewed with their original profile on a calibrated system.. the lighting i use gives these most of their pop..

    and i don’t mind giving away my methods.. afterall, they are basically my regurgitated ways of those that came before me.. maybe you can chew them up some more and spit something else out of them…

  • Thanks, Jeff. a bit daunting at this point for me who knows nothing about artificial life except leaving it to chance, but a very valuable input from you (nothing is quite off-topic on david’s blog, esp. when he is away and “leaves us the key”!).

    I think quite a bit of experience, feeling one’s way goes into this superb knowledge to make flash photography work for you. What you call regurgitating.

    Much grateful for your reply.

  • errata: artificial light of course (not life)….

  • From the book “Image Makers, Image Takers” by Anne-Celine Jaeger (and Alec Soth’s own blog)

    “Q: How did you overcome your fear of photographing people?

    Alec Soth: I started out with kids because that was less threatening. I eventually worked my way up to every type of person. At first, I trembled every time I took a picture. My confidence grew, but it took a long time. I still get nervous today. When I shoot assignments I’m notorious amongst my assistants for sweating. It’s very embarrassing. I did a picture for the The New Yorker recently and I was drenched in sweat by the end and it was the middle of winter.”

    I sincerely appreciate photographers’ honesty about this … makes me feel better, more confident, actually, to know everyone goes through this to one degree or another. If Alec Soth can move from sheer terror to nudes of newlyweds he’s met at Niagra … then I have no excuses ;))

  • There were two of us, myself and Harry Zernike who was a classmate.

    Perhaps I will put that detail into my bio. It was a strange night.

  • It’s great to be back on the blog after a couple of days being consumed with whether my house in San Diego was going to burn down. Our neighborhood was evacuated but thankfully it looks like we’ve been spared.

    We’re in the process of moving to Santa Fe but our home is in (Carlsbad) San Diego. I guess you could say we “pre-evacuated” without any belongings since we’re in Santa Fe now, heading back to San Diego next week.

    It’s a huge disaster there and I feel so badly for everyone affected. I’m feeling lucky that I was away during the fires…but then again there would have been some great photo ops! Oh well…having my house okay makes up for missed shots.

  • Good that you and yours are safe, Cathy.

  • David,

    This thread could not have come at a better time for me. I have been in quite the rut lately and have had a major case of the “room lockdown” recently. It is so nice to know that I’m not the only one who has this issue. Let alone someone so succesful. The responses to your query have also inspired me. Because of this thread I decided to “bite the bullet” and throw away all thoughts of fear. In fact I did something I had not previously done. I walked up to someone’s house and just asked them if I could take their picture. And it worked. Amazing! I know it won’t work everytime but its a good sign when you finally are able to overcome a fear. Thanks again for the thread and thanks to all those who responded.

    –Davis Archibald

  • David, it’s an evil pleasure to see everybody has the same problems! and you continue to show your ability to ask wicked questions. when I start working on a project I come to circumstance and find one or a group of friends (find them myself or just introduced to them be older friends) and mostly they will contact me to others in the area. I spend time with them show my interest to their lifestyle, my real feeling about them, I let them to know about me and my love for photography of everything, I start to take pictures of ordinary things and their questions will start: why you take pictures of this or that but it will pass and then I take more and more pix. but yes at last there is always the hard moment: eye contact, let them see my mind and heart and give the permission from them. it is not easy some days I just prefer to hide myself and stay home and reading Harry Potter instead go out and face it :)
    I have a question about your camera hope you answer that: what kind of camera and lens do you use?

  • i just discovered this blog and i only wish i had found it sooner…reading the comments here make me feel as if i have found a long lost and needed support group. sometimes i feel as if i am the only street photographer that feels anxiety and struggles with shyness. most websites that i have come across rarely seem to have comments with some of the vulnerability revealed here…anyway, after buying a canon 30D in january of this year and taking an excellent photo class, i became infected with the street photography bug. It was at first a struggle to get past of some of my anxieties, but then after a few months, it started to get better. living in NYC, and shooting primarily in manhattan, one invariably encounters ALOT of really uptight and defensive people. my approach has varied from shooting from the hip to asking to the Gary Winogrand thing i saw in a video of holding your camera at shoulder height and just shooting as you walk along to other techniques. the biggest battle for me is that it is just hard to get past my anxiety. the reason that i keep on doing it is because when i get on a roll, relax and find interesting subjects to shoot, it is EXHILARATING…i have no interest whatsoever in shooting landscapes, fashion, product photography, studio portraits or nature. for me, it is all about street photography and nothing else excites me to do or to look at in photo books. As far as equipment goes, I was initially shooting with a 17-50mm 2.8 telephoto lens but felt that it may have been intimidating people, so now for streetwork, I use small prime lenses (24mm f/2.8 or 35mm f/2.0) Maybe it is all in my head, but when I use these smaller lenses, it seems that people don’t look at my camera as I walk around as much…

  • The link below is an interview with Henri Cartier Bresson made in 2000.


  • I still like prefer hiding behind a bush with a telephoto lens. There’s just something comforting about it, and then there’s almost always a can or a bottle you can redeem for a nickle nearby.

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