I Never Talk to Strangers: Overcoming Your Fear of Street Portraits

I exhibited 45 of my Khlongtoey street portraits at a gallery in Bangkok a few weeks ago, and a question I was asked dozens of times by visitors was “How did you get so close to so many people to photograph them?”

It’s also a common issue for the photographers I meet on my walks and workshops – nearly everyone, from complete beginners to experienced shooters, says they find it difficult to approach people for street portraits and want to know how I do it.

So, based on over 8 years of photographing people on the streets of Bangkok, here are my 5 tips for overcoming your fear of taking street portraits…

It’s OK to Be Nervous

One of the biggest misconceptions about street portrait photographers is that we’re all extroverts, brimming with confidence and social skills, who love meeting complete strangers. Whilst that may be true in some cases – Bruce Gilden isn’t exactly shy – it doesn’t apply to everyone and I’ll bet that many/most of us, no matter how long we’ve been doing it, still get anxious every time we approach someone for a shot.

I’m a total introvert, painfully shy around strangers, and to this day I need to summon up all my reserves of courage just to go up to a stranger and ask if I can photograph them. It’s OK, it’s normal, it’s human. The image below, of a heavily tattooed man in the slums of Bangkok, is one of my earliest street portraits and it took me a lot of deep breaths to summon up the courage to get this shot. As the classic self-help book title put it, feel the fear…and do it anyway!

Look for Easy Targets

If you’re nervous about doing close-up street portraits, start off with people who are less likely to say no. That friendly-looking old man sat on the bench feeding the birds. The kindly old woman selling newspapers. People at protests, concerts, festivals, where photographers are to be expected. Friendly countries such as Thailand, Vietnam or Sri Lanka.

Or go out with an experienced street portrait photographer and ask them to show you how they do it. Book a tour or workshop with a street photographer and get their advice. That’s what I did in Goa a few years ago as I found that I was getting conflicting signals in India – some people loved being photographed, others got defensive or aggressive (one woman at Panjim market tried to hit me with a broom!) The local photographer I went out with explained the cultural issues to me and took me to locations where my presence was more welcome.

Once you’ve got a few of these easier shoots under your belt, your confidence will increase and you’ll be ready to approach less welcoming-looking subjects.

Protests & demonstrations are great places to practice street portraits – protestors are used to photographers being around and in most cases they actively want to be photographed!

Be Honest

Probably the most important tip in this post is to be honest and open about what you’re doing. Yes, some people get annoyed when street photographers shoot them, but that’s usually because the photographer is being sneaky – hiding behind a tree, using a long lens, pretending to shoot something else. If you’re furtive, you won’t be trusted and you may even get shouted at or reported to the police in some countries.

So be honest. When you spot a likely subject, go up to them with a smile, say hi, tell them you’re a photographer and you think they look cool or interesting and you’d like to photograph them. Show them your website or Instagram feed. Give them a business card. I usually chat for a while first before I pop the question. This open approach means that, even if they still don’t want to be photographed, they’ll reject you politely because you asked politely and you’re clearly a decent person. And most people will be flattered to be approached and say yes – wouldn’t you?

And remember, your camera is both a passport and a shield in these situations. If you didn’t have a camera and walked around chatting to random strangers, people would probably run away! Your camera immediately establishes your reason for being there and for approaching them, and also gives you a kind of shield to hide behind and mask your shyness.

Monks aren’t always happy to be photographed but once I’d told this guy how amazing he looked he was happy to be shot – and the result was well worth it!

Don’t Fear Rejection

I had a good friend at university who was very successful with the ladies. Whilst the rest of us stood shyly on the edge of the dancefloor trying (and usually failing) to summon up the courage, often the Dutch variety, to approach the object of our affections, he’d circulate and ask every girl who caught his eye if he could buy her a drink. Most said no, but the law of averages suggested that at least one would usually say yes. He had zero fear of rejection, and it worked for him.

If you fear rejection, you’ll never take a street portrait in your life. It’s inevitable that some people will say no, sometimes rudely; suck it up and move on to the next. Yes, it might knock you back, in which case, sit down, have a coffee, take a deep breath and get back out there. It’s not personal; they just didn’t want to be photographed by anybody.

The turning point for me as regards fear of rejection was a few years ago when I saw a potentially fantastic shot of a guy in a beautifully lit Chinese shophouse. He didn’t look particularly friendly, so I wimped out and didn’t get the shot, and when I got home it really gnawed at me. So I resolved from then on that I’d rather ask and be told to fuck off, than come home with regrets at not asking at all!

I was initially wary of disturbing this old man’s morning cuppa but it was far too good a shot to miss 

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

This is a question that applies to all decisions in all areas of life, particularly to street photography. If you’re unsure whether to approach someone for a photo, ask yourself this: what’s the worst possible outcome of this interaction? 99% of the time the answer is, they say no. And that’s it. You’re not going to get attacked, your camera isn’t going to get damaged, you’re not going to get arrested. You’re simply going to have a lightly bruised ego for a few minutes.

And if the worst DOESN’T happen, which it probably won’t, you’re going to make a connection with someone, have a good chat, and come away with some great photos. So it’s definitely a chance worth taking.

These tips won’t transform you from a shrinking violet into an uber-confident street shooter overnight, but with time and practice you should at least be able to manage your nerves, learn that most people don’t mind being photographed, and realise that a rejection isn’t the end of the world. You’ll have a lot more fun on the streets, make more connections, and get better photos.