“You need to be at peace in order to take a good photograph.” Those were the words of Leica photographer Mathias Heng, talking over a boisterous crowd in a barbershop in Little India, Singapore. His words didn’t resonate with me at the time, as I was busy trying to frame-up an annoyed looking customer mid-shave. As I think back to that day, however, I realise the significance of that advice: there’s undoubtedly an important dynamic between personal calm and powerful portrait photography.
In that barbershop, I was filled with feelings of guilt and anxiety about imposing on the subject, which led me to take a hasty and lacklustre photograph. Concentration is, as anyone can tell you, hard to master within stressful environments. Gazing over at Mathias, patiently working with a subject towards the back of the store, I noted his easy manner of approaching and interacting with people. Throughout his work, Mathias’s calm filters through to his subject, and his confidence brings a sense of purpose to the engagement, leading to a more genuine photograph. Anxiety can kill off creativity in the moments we need it most.
I took this thought with me on assignment to Nepal, where portraits were a key part of my creative objective. By virtue of acknowledging that the subject-photographer dynamic was an issue for me — and one I wanted to work on — I was already able to stay calmer and more focused. It took the edge off my fear of overstepping the mark with a stranger. The feeling of tension was still present though, meaning I was over-eager to move on from a subject once I thought I might have a decent shot.
Fast-forward a few months and I’m back home in London, but that same feeling of anxiety encroaches on my work as I photograph people around the capital. To combat this, I decided to head to the streets, specifically to observe — and practise responding to — the reactions of subjects when confronted with my camera. Not only did this familiarity with photographing strangers appease the pre-shot anxiety, it also allowed me to assess how people react, and therefore rationalise what can be expected when photographing in public.
In reality, it took me 20 minutes of standing aimlessly amidst the ebb and flow of a Soho crowd before I even approached my first subject. I asked 50 people that day, and of the people I asked, only six declined; two waved me away while the other four politely said no (one, by chance, an incredibly mannerly Eddie Redmayne). I even approached a few people based on my assumptions that they were likely to say no, and most turned out to be the most open to having their photo taken.
As an exercise, this was beneficial to my travel photography in a number of ways. Firstly, when abroad, things are easier; your anonymity is comforting, and in some more remote regions, subjects are less familiar with the sight of a camera, which can make it a novel experience. The opposite is true of approaching people on the streets of London, so conquering it directly feeds into the fluency and confidence of my portraiture in foreign arenas. Secondly, I found that once I had a subject engaged and in front of me, I was able to focus on trying to stay relaxed and really take time to frame properly, check exposure and even move them to a nearby area with better light if necessary. Through practise, I realised that you don’t need to rush, instead just relax and get the shot you actually want. They’ve already agreed to be your subject, so make it worth their while. And yours.
Looking at the results of my Soho exercise, I was reminded that as travel or street photographers, the reason we take photographs at all is because we see beauty in the banal, we see something worth documenting in the everyday experience of those around us. This is a just cause, and communicating this to subjects is a challenge, but remembering this for ourselves, as we photograph the world around us, is even more important.
If you’re on a similar journey, if you feel the same tension I did, I urge you to go out on the streets and dispel your own preconceptions. Focus on approaching the people that you’re scared of most, and take note of their reactions. Be confident in your skills and your intentions. Trust in your own understanding of why you’re taking a photograph. Your confidence will translate to your work, and the subject will better understand what you’re doing. Self-assurance gives you the space and time to frame properly, and to focus on the light and background details without distraction. Actively strive to overcome your inhibitions and watch how your travel photography reaches new levels — it’s definitely helped mine.
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Published in issue 8 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine