Lives of people cross each other much in the same way as the criss cross of the roads we take. It is this vibrant environment that creates the perfect blend of audience artists desire. The streets are a leveler of sorts. Everybody, rich or poor, happy or sad, kind or mean, guy or a girl have to hit the streets on a daily basis. They are everywhere. Village, towns, and metropolis, except probably the Amazonian rain forest or the dessert perhaps.
For an artist; any artist, musician, painter, dancer, singer, actor, con men, pick pockets, magicians, scientists and photographers streets provide an unmatched recipe of adrenaline rush, appreciation, disappointment, admiration, livelihood, recognition and a possible shot to fame. Audience and artist are the yin and yang to each other and streets the closest connection between them.
I strongly believe that taking your art to the streets is the best way to test your skills. The people walking by provide and endless flow of impatient audience. They are on their way to work, or home, going about their business. You have to be at the top of your game to hold their attention, make them stop and take notice, and not get booed upon in the end. It doesn’t cost money and gives a good break from the mundane lives to both, performer and the spectator.
I love walking the lanes, absorbing the local sights, sounds, smells, mood and rhythm of the place. I carry a camera to immortalize it all and relive and share again and again. The fun of turning strangers into friends and admirers with a smile and eye contact is unmatched. Listen to their stories, the history, the folk tales, the myths, the fantasies, become one of them for a while. I have been enjoying street photography for quite some time now and would share my understanding here with you.
So, what did I learn from shooting the streets? Can you do it too? Here is a quick roundup:
- Stop being scared: Many people ask me that how do I walk up to complete strangers and ask them to click their pictures. The secret lies your eyes and your smile. Eye contact, a smile, a little bow of the head is the non verbal permission that works for me most of the time. We all want to be famous, known, admired. When you click someone’s picture, unless they are in a helpless situation, such that of pity (beggars, lepers, handicapped or such) people generally feel flattered, admired, important. So they are more than happy to welcome you. Works better than any pick up line 😉
- Which camera? This one is controversial. Most of us “serious” photographers own a Dslr and an array of lenses. They can be really helpful in getting pictures in low light conditions, to get blurry backgrounds, crisper images. But, what I feel, the bazooka monsters we carry is a double edged sword. Sometimes people get scared of it and may not want to be photographed at all. A smaller, less serious camera or a phone cam is your best tool then. Also, it gets you into less trouble if you plan to click in a sensitive, conservative area.
- Talk to your subjects: In a hurry of getting as many images as possible, or to keep pace with your group/friends, we tend to rush through our shoots. That’s why travelling alone is sometimes better. I prefer talking to the local folks. Get them relaxed. Tell them what I do, where have I come from, what do I plan to do there. I ask them about local customs, best places to eat, stay, see. Tell them what I liked about the place, traditions, culture. People love to hear about themselves. I even collect addresses, and send them the pictures if possible. But, if you are trying to get candid pictures, at least be courteous to show the subjects their pictures on your camera LCD after taking them. Not always possible, especially when using long zoom lenses, subjects are far away. That’s an exception.
- Get a fixer: He is someone who can introduce you as a safe human being and can show you around the place. You save time, get good pictures and don’t have to break your head over hunting sights, events, timings etc. Though I haven’t required one so far, but at times I do feel that knowing a local would have saved a lot of trouble. For finding a fixer, read point number three, or the internet.
- Read about the place: If you are going to a far off place, it is always good to have some background knowledge. People clicking pictures are generally perceived as outsiders and easy targets of con men, taxi/rickshaw drivers, shop keepers, policemen etc. Having knowledge of the local customs, festival, prices and a little geography, easily available on internet can be really helpful. You can impress locals that you are not as much a foreigner as they think and you save money and time and get a better experience.
- Mix in the crowd: If you attract too much attention, you are going to get posed pictures. I don’t like posed pictures very much. So just hang around the place, click at random objects, just sit and do nothing physically. By this time, people have lost interest in you, or written you off as crazy. Best. Now I pick up my camera go about clicking happily. Dress in muted colors, and according to the place. Your shorts, tees, glares and boots are sure to make you the talk of the day in a village for example.
- Time of the day: In photography I take things lightly J I mean good available light, light shoes, light gear, light bags, light clothes, light food and so on… but lets talk sun light here. We all know mornings and evenings are great times to photograph landscapes, portraits, animals, donkeys; anything looks good in the golden hour. So, its self explanatory that the best time of the day to hit the streets is early mornings and evenings. But there is also another secret when deciding when to step out. In the mornings the streets are empty, people are fresh, weather is cooler, day is starting. You are less likely to be shooed away. Will get fresh faces, and soft lights and shadows. By noon, people are occupied in work, disappointed and worried already, heat is bad and last thing they want is you thrusting your lens on their faces and asking them to smile. Evenings are slightly better. Day has ended; people are going back home, they might wana share a laugh or two with you. Thumb rule: wake up early, go the extra mile.
- Avoiding trouble: This is a learned art. Read point number one. These days’ photographers are habitually considered as trouble makers. People may think you are a nosy reporter on sting operation, a stalker, a pervert who will morph women onto objectionable images or someone who finds their troubles funny. Then there is the “photography not allowed” signboards awaiting you at every place worth your tiniest attention. So what do you do now? Thumb rule: don’t give up easily. If you give up easily, you will certainly not get any pictures but also money will be extracted from you. And trust me, such troubles happen very often, you may loose your pictures once, twice, but not every time. So ask questions, try to explain yourself, be nosy, talk sweet, work your charms only then give up. Half the times only scratching the surface is enough to get past the resistance. Oh yes, if there is a mob collecting or things getting physical, move out. Period.
- Learn from foreigners: What is your backyard might be an exotic place half way around the world for someone. So, think as if you are totally new to the place. Learn to get surprised easily. You can enjoy a place lot more if stop taking it for granted, and considering it mundane. An elephant walking on a busy street in Mumbai is nothing new for me. But for some westerner its their “ Aha” moment. They click pictures and make it to the Nat Geo cover, while you just shrugged your shoulders, prayed to the elephant, mocked the foreigner and walked away.
- Don’t be a bore: with a camera around your neck. Be a part of the celebration, the vibe, the atmosphere. You might have to learn to escape from the realms of your own mood and quickly get immersed in the activity around you. Have fun, its ok to keep your camera aside for some time. Its ok to make a fool of yourself. Its ok to just sit back like a normal person, relax those shoulders and back muscles, wipe that sweat and enjoy the drink. It’s a good refresher to pause, give your mind some free time, and become a local.
- That’s all folks: This is what it is. Hours and hours of wanderlust, making mistakes, making friends, being welcomed, being chased away, being laughed upon, being criticized, being hungry, being high , being low, being disconnected, being overwhelmed, being confused, being happy, being sad…all packed into the above blog post. At the end of the day, art is about wandering without being lost.
Thanks for dropping by 🙂