The Anxiety of the Street Photographer

I sometimes get the impression that photographers — even a few street photographers — never feel anxiety when they’re shooting. They look so comfortable, strolling around, casually glancing to the left or the right. They seem to be waiting for the perfect photo opportunity, perhaps a two-headed cow ridden bareback down the High Street by a naked dancer.

The other day I saw a man, camera in hand, looking for pictures on the right side of the street while a delightful two-second scene was being played out on the left. The light was perfect, the gestures demonstrative, the woman captivating. But the photographer was still checking out a minor architectural feature and wondering whether to record it.

Going Offline
Personally, I was not in shooting mode at the time. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t carry a camera “at the ready” at all times; only when I’m seriously hunting for pictures. It’s the only way to do it. You need to have total alertness or just be content living a normal life without constantly taking pictures.

Along with “total alertness” — the state of readiness needed on the street when you’re shooting — comes anxiety. It’s part of the Faustian bargain you make with the devil (so to speak) when you take up this occupation of street photography. You sell part of your soul, or at least your peace of mind, in order to get decent pictures.

It’s not just me who feels anxiety on the street.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said in an interview (you can find it on YouTube): “It develops a great anxiety, this profession, because you’re always waiting: what’s going to happen? What, what, what?”

That’s it precisely! You become worried about what’s going to happen next. Or rather, you start to worry that nothing whatsoever is going to happen for the rest of day. You’ll just be stuck in limbo, wandering aimlessly around the streets, feeling — knowing — that all the action is going on elsewhere.

You start to wonder: “Why am I doing this? Couldn’t I be sitting at home reading a novel, or having a drink with a friend? Why do I feel compelled to tramp the streets of this goddam city when it would be so easy to get a flight to Peru and take some great photos of people wearing peculiar hats. A trip like that would yield sure-fire results.”

Only the voice of experience can calm your fears.

Good Days, Bad Days
The fact is: there are good days and bad days on the street. Some days I’ve gone out in my home town when the light has been great, only to find nothing to inspire me whatsoever. I return with a few desultory images that are barely worth loading on to my computer.

By contrast, I popped into London a few weeks ago — with the lowest possible expectations — and returned with around thirty shots that I wouldn’t mind showing.

Perhaps I respond more readily to life in the big city. I lived in London for many years and I know the feel of most of the streets in the West End and all of its surrounding areas. It’s possible to be both anonymous and invisible in London whereas neither is possible in a small town. It’s harder to photograph strangers in the street when you’ve seen most of them before.

Now you’re wondering: can you turn a bad day into a good day by using a different strategy or by trying to change your mood? Maybe it’s your anxiety that’s actually causing the lack of photo opportunities. Perhaps there are opportunities happening all around you, but your negative mood is preventing you from seeing them.

The Best Tip of All
I don’t subscribe to the view that anxiety is negative. It’s quite the opposite. It’s what induces the state of “total alertness,” when you’re able to take in everything that’s going on around you and respond to it quickly. Getting some potentially good pictures reduces your anxiety; failing to get them increases it. Fortunately, I do have a tip that may help you keep your anxiety level down to manageable proportions.

It’s simple: just move to a busier area where there are more opportunities.

While it’s true that you may get some of your best images in the quieter streets, especially when the light is good, you’ll find it frustrating to work in these areas for long periods. As Cartier-Bresson says, “you’re always waiting” — and it’s the waiting that causes frustration and anxiety to build.

So when that happens, give yourself a break (and if necessary change your style) and move to where there’s more action.

This is what I did after taking shots in the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. It’s a great spot: a confluence of streets with attractive buildings such as pubs, restaurants and vendors of theatre tickets. However, there’s only a trickle of passers-by, making it difficult to compose meaningful shots in which people play the major role.

Time was marching past quicker than the pedestrians and I was becoming increasing aware of my lack of success. The solution was to walk the short distance to Tottenham Court Road, a major artery heading north, where I found some building works causing chaos on the pavement. Pedestrians were having to walk around the trucks that were pulling out on to the main road into the path of oncoming buses. You can see one of the shots I took just above this section.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I was able to head back towards the quieter areas and continue the day’s shooting (such as the featured image, at the top). I found that alternating between backstreets and main thoroughfares was a good way to engineer a positive outcome. The build-up of anxiety in the quiet areas made me bolder in the busy areas, resulting in better pictures.

My message is this: don’t worry about anxiety. Just use it to your advantage.

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