The irrational fear of people in public places.

Image from Rome. The Pantheon in the background. Circa 1994 ©2009 Kirk Tuck

My wife will tell you that I spend too much time reading photo fora on the web. I've begun to see that she's right because I keep reading the same stuff in new disguises. This morning a fellow posted a photo at the Strobist Discussion group. He was amazed to find that Cabella's sporting good store might have used an off camera flash to create one of their ads. Amazing. As though we advertising photographers had never used an off camera flash or taken lights outdoors!!!

But the thing that struck me recently is how cowardly people have become about their gear. I've seen ten or fifteen posts in the last week from (mostly Americans) people who want to know how to safeguard their equipment in such dangerous places as: Paris, France and Rome, Italy and even, gasp, Copenhagen, Denmark. The thing that strikes me as funny is that each of these places has a much lower violent crime rate than just about any major city in the U.S. And each of these cities is a pedestrian city where, even in the unlikely event of a crime being perpetrated, you are surrounded by helpful people ready to jump in and help ensure social stability.

The idea that your Canon Rebel needs be locked in a hotel safe or secured to your body with a special strap containing unbreakable wires (what a good way to be decapitated should your camera get stuck in a train door......) is laughable. If you are dragging that much paranoia along on your vacation you may need to invest in other things. Therapy comes to mind. More wide ranging travel is another.

The second kind of post that seems to come up, with annoying regularity, is the idea that, to shoot in the street, you must become a stealthy ninja and your camera should be so small that it becomes all but invisible at any distance beyond five feet. The idea being, I guess, that a hulking American, complete with baggy cargo shorts, a promotional T-shirt for their favorite NFL team, white athletic socks, and day-glo Nike running shoes (never used for that purpose), topped with a baseball cap, will be able to sneak through a crowd of well dressed Europeans and will be able to position themselves in just the right way to SECRETLY take startling good photographs.

Their ideal camera is silent with an incredible zoom lens and a very small foot print. Either that or a Canon/Nikon/Sony/Olympus coupled with a bag full of lenses. Which they are deathly afraid some grandmother from Provencal will slit their throat to own.

Face it. You'll probably stick out. Face it. People will see that you have a camera in your hand. And unless you are doing your tourism in the Sudan you'll see when you look around that almost everyone else has a camera or a cellphone with a camera, or a video camera. They're everywhere. They are ubiquitous. Believe me, people in the European community also buy and use cameras.

Back in 1994 Belinda and I headed to Rome for a few weeks of vacation and photography. I brought along one camera. A Hasselblad 500c/m and a 100 mm f3.5 planar lens. That, and a few one gallon ziploc bags of tri-x 120 film. I spent most of my time walking along shooting whatever caught my attention. If a person looked interesting I'd ask them to pose. Sometimes I'd just smile, nod and shoot.

Books on travel caution newbies to be constantly aware of their surroundings. Hypervigilant if you will. I discarded all that advice out of necessity. After every twelve frames I'd have to stop and reload the 120 back on the camera. Since I was using a waist level finder I often had to stop as the light changed and take incident meter readings. No one cared. Every once in a while an older gentleman would ask about the camera. Younger people ignored it.

After a long morning and the better part of an afternoon spent poking into the nocks and crannies of Rome (and there are many) I sat down for a moment,at an outside table, at the closest food vendor with a direct view of the Pantheon. The restaurant was a McDonalds. The couple in front of me was having an animated conversation. I looked into my viewfinder, framed the shot, adjusted the exposure and fired the shutter. It was not a silent camera given the size of the moving mirror..... The couple turned to look and I smiled and nodded. They smiled back and with their tacit approval I shot several more images where they looked into the lens.

No one was fearful. There was no conflict or even a hint of animosity or aggression from either side. And this is the way it has gone for me and other street shooters for decades and decades. If someone doesn't want to be photographed they'll let you know. If you don't push it they won't either.

I like the image above. With billions and billions of images swirling around out in the attention-o-sphere there is a very small percentage that are relational. I like images that either speak directly to the viewer or show relationships.

The first (and probably only) step is to conquer your irrational fears that: A. Someone is always trying to rip you off. B. That everyone who is photographed instantly turns into a serial killer and they are aimed at you. C. You won't have people's willing complicity.

If you are calm, relaxed and see other people as, well, just other people, you'll probably do just fine. You might want to practice photographing strangers by becoming a tourist in your own town. I find that a nice weekend of street shooting in nearby San Antonio is just the right "warm up" before a trip abroad.

Get comfortable outside your comfort zone!

Bon Voyage. Kirk