My wife gave me an article from the December 2016 Discovery Magazine that was adapted from “On the Nature of Creepiness” published in the December 2016 issue of New Ideas in Psychology. A graphic portrays a creepiness scale from one through five, five being the creepiest. The scale is used to rate behaviors that people find creepy. The list of behaviors includes six that can apply to street photographers:
- Watches you before interacting (4.55)
- Asks to take your picture (4.11)
- Opposite sex (4.01)
- Significantly older than you (3.72)
- Tall (3.08)
- Has facial hair (2.89).
It is also significant that the study included 1,341 people and over 75% of them were women, that the age range was 18 to 77, and that the average age was 28.97.
Coincidentally, these are all my behaviors as a street photographer, at least some of the time. Before I take a photo, I sometimes study a person or a setting, basically watching people. Although I haven’t been in the mode of asking to take pictures, I have done it and I’m sure that for some street portraits I will do it again in the future. At least half of the time I will be of the opposite sex, I am retired (old), I’m 6’-4” (193 cm) tall, and I have a short-cropped beard.
I have given this some thought since I don’t want to be unintentionally creepy when I shoot street photos. You certainly don’t want to be walking around someone trying to figure out how you want to frame a photograph or following them to get the shot. That’s creepy in a big way. I have at times felt like a stalker, even when my watching isn’t so obvious. There are ways to watch and to set up a shot without being obvious. Standing in one place or sitting are ways to be less active and, hence, much less threatening. When the moment happens, you need to be prepared to raise the camera and shoot with a confident and deliberate motion, take the shot or multiple shots, and be done with it.
Asking to take a picture is a personal act where you make contact with a total stranger. For those cases I decided to hand people my business card with the URL to my Flickr photostream. I invite them to download their photo for free should I decide to post it. I will not ask them to send me an email or to provide any personal information although my card gives them some of my personal information. I may mention that I do not take unflattering photos of people and theirs will not be posted if it turns out poorly.
There isn’t much I can do about the other items on my personal list of creepy behaviors. Being opposite sex, being old, being tall, and having facial hair are things that I can’t or will not change. I can mitigate the effects of those by using other factors of my appearance. I can dress well and dress appropriately. I avoid denim pants and t-shirts or mysterious looking hoodies. On a recent shoot I wore a flannel shirt, insulated vest, and tan cargo pants. I try to look like grandpa with a camera rather than a voyeur. That said, there are probably few things that a female street photographer can do to be creepy. I will concede that some of the problem comes with being male.
There are times when being intrusive doesn’t matter and you do not risk being creepy. That often happens in a crowd where people probably feel anonymous. There are times when people do not care that you are shooting pictures that include them. Sometimes when you aim the camera at a person or at a group, magical things happen that give you the gift of a great shot. For me it is an intuitive thing that I can’t describe except to say that you need to put yourself out there and get some experience before you can feel those moments.
Everybody has their own style and their own way of rationalizing their street behavior. Just be aware of the things that may make street photographers creepy. You will be more comfortable with the process of street photography, your subjects will react better, and you will get better results.