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A Guide to Overcoming Fear in Street Photography (And in Life)

First things first. For me, street photography is more than just taking candid photos. Street photography can also be asking strangers permission to photograph them or photographing empty streets. Whatever it is, the common nominator is that you go on the street and take photos of the “street life.” That’s how I see it.

If you want to take a photograph of a building, it’s very predictable. You can sit there with your camera all day long and compose the shot and think and wait. The building is not going to react to you taking the photo, nor is it walking away.

Taking pictures of people is what most street photographers like to do as people are certainly one of the most exciting subjects to photograph. No doubt.

No doubt as well that people are very challenging to photograph. They move quickly and are unpredictable. Unpredictable in a sense that everyone can react differently. Every situation is different.

This is what makes photographing people interesting but also causes fear. Whether taking candid pictures or asking permission, the fear is there. We want to make a certain photo, but then again we often don’t do it. Why is it? Why is it that we want to do something and then we don’t do it. It’s as if there’s a wall that creates this massive block.

Have you ever walked around the street with your camera afraid to take pictures of strangers? So that you miss opportunity after opportunity. Or you see someone cool and think that you should ask them if you can photograph them and you don’t. I have been there many many times.

In this article, I mainly focus on the fear of asking people permission to take their photo and taking candid photos (especially from close), but because the principles are universal, a lot applies to anything else you might be afraid to do in life.

The Fear

The first thing to understand is that the fear you have won’t go away. It’s hard-wired into our brains, so we can’t just get rid of it. What we can do is to learn to manage it. So instead of not doing the thing you want to do, you do it anyway.

Getting rid of the fear wouldn’t be advisable either. It’s what keeps us alive. Imagine not being afraid of jumping off a cliff. That wouldn’t end very well, right?

We also often think that some people are fearless or in some way different and it’s therefore easy for them. That is not true. We all have the same brain with the same “hardware.” Yes, of course, we’re all different, but we all eat, breathe, walk, have sex, and acquire our mother tongue the same way. So the core characteristics are the same. Just the details vary.

Back in the caveman times doing something out of the line, like confronting the wrong person could end up us being thrown out of the tribe which was the equivalent to a death sentence. So, naturally, our brains keep us from doing anything that puts us in the spotlight. It wants to keep us safe and the best way to do that is to keep a low profile and do the safe things like everyone else.

Street photography can put us in the spotlight. Taking pictures of people without asking their permission from close, is in a way, confronting them. You are entering their personal space. Some people might not like it and take it as a sign of aggression or mocking.

Even asking permission can be scary, and therefore, our brain doesn’t want us to do that. Again, back in the caveman times, approaching strangers put us in the spotlight, and this potentially might not have ended very well. Our brain wants to minimize the risk as much as possible. It tries to keep you alive, no matter what. It doesn’t care about your artistic endeavors or self-development at all.

Nowadays, in our modern society, things are very different than they used to be thousands of years ago. We don’t live in tribes anymore, and therefore we can’t be thrown out of one. Having a “bad” interaction with someone doesn’t mean anything either. Most likely we’re never going to see that person ever again.

Our brains don’t know that. We still have the same mind as we had in the caveman times. Evolution hasn’t caught up with the rapid developments of human society yet. This is why we can binge eat chocolate or other high-calorie foods. Thousands of years ago high-calorie foods were very scarce, and if you found one, you ate all you could as it might have saved your life (literally).

I wrote all this because I think half of the battle is understanding the “why.” Just by understanding why we’re afraid, already lowers the anxiety as whenever we feel the fear, we realize that “oh, it’s just my brain doing its thing.”

The “How To”

There is no magic pill, but I’ve found out several ideas and concepts that can help a lot to overcome the fear, especially if you combine them.

It’s excitement

First, we need to realize that the fear we’re experiencing is not a real fear. It’s excitement. Yes, excitement and fear have the same symptoms, but we often misinterpret excitement as fear.

We get excited because we want to take a photo. It’s our mind telling us that this is what we have to do. It’s not really fear. There are no tigers attacking us. Our life is not in danger, so it can’t be a real fear. It must be excitement.

Look at it as a compass. When you feel the so-called “fear,” it’s a sign that you have to do it. I know it’s easier to be said than done, but try to think of it as a positive thing, not a negative thing. Steven Pressfield calls it the “resistance”.



August 2020
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