In my last tutorial, I talked about all of the photographic benefits of shooting from the hip, and while I got a lot of positive feedback about the techniques themselves, many people were concerned about the social aspects of hip shooting. They felt that they’d love to try it, but they were worried that they would be perceived as being surreptitious, sneaky or sketchy for shooting without raising their camera. I completely understand where they’re coming from, but in the end, the key is to remember that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shooting from the hip; you’re not doing anything wrong or illegal. If you can convince yourself of that you’re halfway there. The other half is learning how to defuse confrontations before they start.
I really want to hammer this home: shooting from the hip is not a crime. At the very worst, you’re doing something that a few people may object to, but that’s what living in a society is all about – agreeing that while we all do things others may not like, we put aside those dislikes and follow a set of rules we can all agree on and not infringe on each other’s freedoms under those rules. Personally, I don’t like crying babies on the bus, dogs that bark all day, jeans worn a foot lower than underwear, people that walk and text and a hundred other things that people do every day. I’m sure I do things that annoy people as well, but as long as it’s not against the law I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop anybody from doing those things and I expect them to pay me the same respect.
The key to avoiding confrontations while shooting from the hip, or really when doing any street photography, is to remember photography is not a crime. Taking pictures of anything and anyone while in public is completely legal in North America. There are a few exceptions for some government sites, but there’re usually well marked with signs. Body language is what betrays us most times, if you feel like you’re doing something wrong, your body echoes that. Your eyes dart around, looking anywhere but where your camera is pointing, you slouch or try to hide your camera and you end up looking shifty.
Have you ever picked up an item in a store, got distracted and walked out right past the cash with the item in hand? Congratulations, you just learned the secret to successful shoplifting: not looking like you’re guilty. I spent a lot of time in retail in my teens and you can spot an amateur shoplifter from across the room, they just look like they’re up to no good. Luckily, when it comes to photography you actually aren’t doing anything wrong, we’ve all just been scared by the media into perceiving people taking pictures in public as potential terrorists, kidnappers or pedophiles. Terrorists don’t need to use real cameras, they have cell phones and Google, and contrary to what shows like CSI would have us believe, I couldn’t find a single documented case of a kidnapper or pedophile deciding to target a random child from a photo taken in public. The overwhelming majority of crimes against children are perpetrated by friends or relatives, you know… the people you have no problems with photographing your child. You’re not a criminal for taking pictures, stop feeling that way and your body language will reflect that. Street photography is about making and capturing fleeting moments of life to create a photographic record of our society. Some people won’t understand or appreciate that, but in the end, that’s no reason for accusing you of doing something wrong.
It took me a while to get over that fear of shooting in public, but once I did, the difference was amazing. I stopped unconsciously trying to hide my camera or my actions. I walked around with confidence and I stopped trying to disguise that I was taking pictures. I didn’t make it obvious, but I didn’t advertise it either. I just went about my business like there was no one else around, and surprisingly, most people stopped caring that I was taking pictures. Even people that obviously caught me shooting them just didn’t care as much. I don’t look like I am doing something wrong, therefore I must not be. I must also have started coming across as more approachable because I started getting a lot more people stopping to talk to me, interested in what I was doing, not mad about it; it’s a really nice feeling to have people actively interested in street photography.
Sooner or later though, you will run into someone who has an objection to you taking pictures in public, whether it’s another pedestrian, a security guard or the police. When you do get into a confrontation there are many things you can do to defuse the situation before it gets out of hand. Remember to be polite, smile and under no circumstances go on the defensive; that will just make you look guiltier in their eyes. Most people I’ve encountered immediately have the wind taken out of their argument the minute I smile, say hello and don’t give them the guilty reaction they’re expecting. The second thing I’ll do is give out my card and offer to send people a copy of their picture. Right away that stops 90% of confrontations in their tracks. It shows you’re not trying to hide who you are and what you’re doing, and can even get people interested in street photography. Most people only have posed pics of themselves and giving them something new to put up on their Facebook can quickly turn hostility around. Just remember, you’re completely within your rights to be taking pictures, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No one has the right tell you to delete photos, stop taking pictures or even show them the shots you’ve taken in public. Personally I have no problem showing people my work if they ask nicely, but if they’re rude I may say no out of principle; sometimes though, it’s an easy way to get people off your back.
These same rules apply to police and security guards, although it’s up to you how much you want to push your rights with them. Personally I’d go as far as being thrown in a cell for a bit if it meant standing up for my rights, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to go that far. If you do decide to go the same route, politeness and courtesy are even more important; law enforcement officers can make your life difficult in other ways besides getting in the way of your photography, so don’t give them any more ammunition by mouthing off or breaking non-photography related laws. Be sure to know your rights and any laws regarding photography in your country and if you’re told you’re breaking the law, politely ask what law exactly it is you’re breaking. If things look like they’re going to escalate, be sure to get the name and badge number of any officer you talk to for future reference; they’re required to identify themselves as much as you are.
In the end, every confrontation will be different, but cool heads usually prevail and will help keep things civil. Street photography has gotten a tarnished reputation lately and it’s up to every single practitioner to help polish it up a bit. Try to leave people with a better preconception of public photography after meeting you and we can slowly start to change public opinion.
<- Street Photography Tutorial #5: Shooting From The Hip