An Open Look at Street Photography Experiences
One of the many reasons I started this blog was to give an inside look at Street Photography around the world. This includes the not so pretty parts during my 100 cities project, shooting in over 100 cities across 6 continents. I want this blog to be open and honest, especially with my own experiences, so I decided to create a few posts that touch on some of the negative situations that come along too.
Traveling constantly and shooting Street Photography in cities around the world doesn’t always go perfectly. The fact I like to walk everywhere, including the less visited areas, can add to this too. Things do happen. I trust my instincts, but I will go where others don’t and take the shots that I might not have years ago. I find being friendly, genuine and confident is the best approach. 99.9% of the time everything goes fine, but there will always be exceptions.
Negative Reactions to Street Photography
One of the most common questions I get is if I’ve had any negative reactions or confrontations when shooting candidly without asking. Much of my Street Photography is shot closer up and I’ve gotten to the point where I take the shots I want without fear. At the same time, I try to treat people with respect and how I’d want to be treated. I try not to invade anyones space or affect them in any way. I also try to stay aware of my surroundings and observe any risky situations before making the photo.
This approach has treated me pretty well. I don’t run away and I’m good with people, so even when I get an initial negative reaction, that quickly goes away after I smile and speak to them. That being said, while confrontations are very rare, they have happened.
It might come as a surprise, though, but the worst confrontations I’ve had didn’t deal with the person I took a photo of. They were people watching me take a photo of someone else and wanting to save the day from a Street Photographer. This type of thing seems to be partly influenced by culture, as it only happens to me in certain areas of the world, but here’s a story of one such confrontation I had in Istanbul, Turkey.
A Physical Confrontation Over Street Photography in Istanbul
Living in Istanbul last year, I spent most days exploring the city. One of these days, I was walking around the Tarlabasi neighborhood of Istanbul, which I had done many times before without too much of a problem. I will mention that Tarlabasi is known as a rougher area with some danger and crime, though, and it’s noticeably less friendly than most of Istanbul. At the same time, there’s a lot of life going on in the streets and it can give some authentic captures.
As I walked by a few young men sitting at a doorstep, I noticed less than friendly glances coming my way. I smiled at them with a nod, but got nothing in return, except their continuous glares. So I continued walking along the street and around the corner.
A few minutes later, at the bottom of a hill, I noticed how the sunlight was hitting a young woman hosing down the street, while other people in the neighborhood filled the block. So I turned, took one photo, and then turned back to continue walking down the hill.
Below, is the actual photo:
I don’t find anything too special about the photo. I was shooting with a 35mm lens and as you can see, it’s taken far away. This was definitely not a close-up in your face shot. When it comes to my style, it’s as far away as I ever get from the action. Which is ironic since it also caused the worst reaction from Street Photography that I’ve received to date.
After turning around and walking further down the street, I heard a man’s voice yelling from behind. His voice quickly grew louder and louder as he got closer. I turned around and he immediately was in my face yelling with an almost uncontrollable aggression.
I didn’t notice it at the time of capture, but you can actually see the young man starting to run towards me at the top of the hill in the photo. I also immediately recognized him as one of the young men I had noticed glaring at me earlier.
His anger towards me was shocking. He was up in my face yelling and I couldn’t understand anything he was saying due to the language barrier. I knew the photo was the only possible cause for his anger so I tried showing him it on the lcd screen to let him know it wasn’t anything bad. His anger was so out of control that he wouldn’t even look at it, though.
He only grew more visibly angry as I tried to calm the situation. He then started touching me and kicking me in the foot repeatedly, as if to instigate me to fight, rather than fully physically starting it himself.
After I let him know he needed to back up and stop touching me, a few of his friends walked up and stood behind him watching us. I looked over at them to try to find some solution to the problem, but they only watched me to see what I might do.
(For whatever reason, in moments like this, I get too focused to think about being scared. I actually worry about my camera more than anything and think of the best way to get out of the situation with it one piece. I’m fully aware this might be a personal problem :)
So I continued to try to calm the situation down, as I held my camera tightly in my hand as the only form of protection I had.
Then I noticed an older man come around the corner to see what was going on, so I called him over. We also had a language barrier, but at least I knew enough Turkish to get him to listen. He spoke to the young man and then pointed at my camera. So I pulled up the photo on the back screen for him to see. He then motioned for me to scroll right. So I did. Then he motioned for me to scroll left. Which I did too, as I scrolled past the original photo again.
Then the old man immediately turned to the young man, reached back, and gave him a full open hand slap across the face. This was followed with a loud, stern lecture, which caused the young man to hang his head down and sheepishly walk away with his friends. Then the old man turned to me with a nod, as if to say I can now go safely.
So with adrenaline pumping, I walked away trying to think what the hell just happened.
So What Do I Think Caused This Confrontation?
I believe a few things came into play here. First off, many younger men in the more conservative neighborhoods of Istanbul act as the protectors of their neighborhood. I’ve seen it too many times to count among each other, many times ending in fights between them. Secondly, many people assume every camera comes with some sort of telescopic zoom that can pinpoint an ant a mile away. Prime lenses don’t exist anymore to many as they can’t understand the use when you could have a zoom instead. And third, there are women in the scene I captured.
I’m almost positive he thought I took a zoom shot of the young woman in the light and he wanted to show his dominance by physically confronting me for it, even though she never voiced any problem.
The young man probably explained to the old man that I took a photo of the woman so he looked through my photos. When he saw I took nothing like the young man’s accusation, he let him know it. With a loud slap.
What Can Be Learned From This Confrontation?
Well, one, I was lucky, but another thing that might have helped the situation is being able to speak the same language. That definitely didn’t help me explain or calm him down.
I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently that would have made things go better than they did, other than never taking the photo in the first place. From this experience and others, I still believe that staying confident and under control is the smartest approach when being friendly isn’t enough.
Standing your ground is another personal choice so I don’t fault others who take the overly apologetic route to get out of the situation. Although, I do believe being confident, but calm helped this situation more than being overly apologetic would have. I’m completely comfortable with how I treat others when I shoot Street Photography because I know I treat people with respect and am not harming anyone in any way. But I do believe in being as friendly as possible until they turn the situation into more than just a reaction questioning what I’m doing. Not everyone understands Street Photography and that’s ok. Verbal, and especially physical, abuse for taking a photograph in public is not ok, though. Ever.
The best thing is to be aware of your surroundings, try to avoid riskier situations, and trust your instincts. I stopped going to Tarlabasi after this, and witnessing some other dangerous situations. That being said, I will continue to go off the beaten path. Choosing to enter riskier areas is a personal choice and comes with pluses and minuses. But at the same time, being aware of the risks and trying to minimize them is always smart.
Fortunately, being friendly and confident in what you’re doing stops 99.9% of negative reactions from happening. For the other .1%, making the best of it and learning from it is the best approach, in my opinion.
Hopefully, openly discussing the negative situations here too is interesting to others and not taken the wrong way. I tried to leave out info that could turn this into a generalizing attack in comments. This is just to touch on another side of street photography experiences that might interest others. So if any of you have found yourself in a similar situation, let me know in the comments below!