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How to Approach Your Subject

Lesson 12 from: Street Photography: The Art of Photographing Strangers

Ashley Gilbertson

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Lesson Info

12. How to Approach Your Subject

Street photographers can approach subjects in three main ways. Work through each situation to interact with the subject while keeping the interactions unposed. Ashley also shares insight about getting a variety of angles to increase the chances of getting good shots with the right perspective. Go behind the scenes and watch Ashley interact with real subjects in Seattle.

Lesson Info

How to Approach Your Subject

When you start identifying people within the scene, I might be looking for groups I might be looking for individual people depends who looks interesting, who's moving in a compelling way who looks like the no more emotive like just finding somebody who was basically interesting. Um, I I found that sometimes I'll be working so intensely that I'm not conscious a sort of creating a range of pictures of these people once had actually introduced myself or not introduce myself some cases drawn on coal for and I'll be editing and I'll say I wish I had something wider of this or I wish I had something tighter on one of the things that we do is photographers is we shoot wide on, we should tight of the same person of the same scenes. Um so there's a there's a famous quote attributed to robert capper, which is if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough, but she's definitely got some truth to it, but I've always felt like he was talking about emotional closeness rather than physi...

cal closeness. But when I was younger, I thought it was physical question, so I'd be like up in people's business all the time until I saw an exhibition in europe by a photographer, an american photographer called david burnett and david's exhibition was called if your pictures aren't good enough, you're too close um and he had these amazing photographs that totally balanced out like this work that I have been doing where he pulled back so you could see you could actually see the news photography is in the scene like he had photographs from iran in the and the ayatollah was like up on this sort of up in this window and there's all the photographers underneath him and then all these people in the security on the outskirts, and it made these really beautiful photographs, but he had an alternative sort of approach, an alternative vision of looking at these situations, so I think that, you know, pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough in some cases, true, but I've taken that, too, to be understood now is emotional closeness rather than you know, I think once I saw david's work about being too close, you know, there's a lot to be said for that as well, but in each situation I'd like to try to come out with something that's wide and something it's tight. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes you've only got a few seconds, but if the person gives the opportunity to work it, then you know you start, you start shooting when you're close, then you stop pulling back all you start, you start faraway and slowly work closer and closer until you're you know in inside their personal space and you're talking to them so the three main ways that I interact with people that I'm photographing is asking permission before I shoot I'll see somebody you know sitting and chatting with a friend at the station I'll approach them and tell them what I'm doing who I am the second way is non verbal permission non verbal permission is a weird one it's really hard to describe except except it's all in the eyes when when you were photographed me before um I saw you out of the corner of my eye as soon as you put the camera down and then you came over you had made eye contact when we were talking in a lot of situations you walk up to somebody you've you're wearing hammers you know it's pretty clear that you're a photographer you make eye contact with them and then you put your camera and start working and they'll tell you nonverbally if they don't want their picture taken or not they'll shake their head they'll put their hand up and say no thanks um all they go back to what they're doing and that is go they understand that you're trying to do something and that they're in the picture so they represent themselves and they clear there is a clear interaction between you and the subject with your eyes and there's a magic to this you know it's just it's just practice lots of practice and like I say, it still feels weird when I do it today except you know, this is so this is such a recognized an acceptable form of permission when you're taking pictures there's a major ngo and non government a shin that works on dh you know, occasionally you have to drive from, you know, like a refugee camp to an aid station, and on that drive, a lot of ngos will say don't take photographs from the car because you can't get permission from the people on the street and that's against what we stand for, whereas this one very large organization says get make eye contact and get non verbal permission so you're hanging your on the car window looking and the camera's up a little bit you make eye contact with somebody and there's there's a moment that happens and you know that it's okay? And I think usually it's, right, but to this organization it's that's completely acceptable as a way to actually get gain permission. There's ah, portrait photographer that I worked with in italy in two thousand six I think it wasin a guy called philip rebelling, um, he's doing a little ripple taj now, but he used to specialize entirely and portrait, and he was presenting his work one day and he said when his subject entered the studio when he first met his subject he's in an instant of looking at the person I'm meeting the person and making eye contact he knew if they were going to create a good picture or not when he said that I was like yeah like smoke and mirrors and nonsense but now I completely believe it now I understand you know, in that first moment of meeting somebody and making eye contact whether or not you're going to collaborate because this is a collaboration you know like do you want to set this person up into some sort of environmental portrait do you want them to be as they were, you know and it's in that moment that you have to be completely vulnerable and bear it sounds totally weird and old like it is a bit hocus focus I know but it comes with practice and it's I think a pure intention comes out and it is clear to people yeah, I think that that's what kind of comes to the heart of this interacting with strangers it's what a lot of people are asking about like kathy shoal says nonverbally how do you let them know to go about their business if you don't want them to be posed you drink you don't talk non verbally that's when you have the opportunity you could be making eye contact and you can say hi has going on, they'll stop what they're doing or you could make the eye contact and put the camera back up to your eye and start working again and the person more often than not we'll go back about their business occasionally I'll stop and say we're doing but very often they will just continue they'll look atyou and then let's continue what they were doing like you know, okay, so it was a guy in the telephone that we're talking you know that I was shooting on don't they often don't have a problem with it? I mean, if you linger too long without talking at that point it gets weird like you do need to engage at some point, but you khun you gonna hold off on that? You're gonna hold off on it, you know, interjecting yourself into the situation by you shoot, you got maybe thirty seconds until you have to say something and then you can say, you know how you did it and they'll say I'm pretty good, but they see that you're working, they see that they're doing their thing, you're doing your thing, you get another thirty seconds you say I'm almost done I'll tell you what's up uh, what I'm doing and they'll be like, yeah, no rush like it's the longer you put off actual conversational engagement, the more opportunity you have to photograph his person in their element, okay and then there's the last, which is where you just don't engage a person at all, and that happens like really busy scenes. The train station is a pretty good example, and people like hustling and trying to get to work when it's street scenes of movement when it's the widest sort of photographs that you're looking at, sometimes you don't sometimes you don't have to engage with the person. Um, I think in my case, I like to try to engage as much as I possibly can mean, for reasons that I said like, I'm just curious and I want to know what people stories are, but sometimes they haven't got time for me, which is totally fine if it's not about me it's about them it's about their days in their lives and if they haven't got time than okay. Um, so it's it it's okay not to necessarily engage and just waiting for, you know, there might be a great situation on a street corner with this fascinating elements in different layers of light on dh shops and cars and people, and you just wait for people to walk through it and there's nothing wrong with that. All right? So before the next video, ashley, we probably have about a hundred different versions of this question, but when do you need a model release? And how do you go about asking for it? Is it before is that after other languages is now a good time to kind of tio I don't get more releases I'm a photo journalist I don't need model releases for the work that I do I'm not a release is only used by photographers in the case of ah commercial photography where you're profiting off the photograph of the people you know in advertising form um very occasionally a client will require releases but back in my case I won't really work with clients who need that I can't work I will not expect one of the people that I photograph to sign away the rights to their image you know in advertising campaigns when I put it up on the street white health should they however um like working for television if you're shooting for television they often require releases so it's another complexity of like working across different mediums today um when I do have to get releases I always ask after I work first and I ask after um I don't want to introduce myself and say hi can you be signed your life away on this thing sound it's it's mercenary it feels off it feels awful I think the exchange is awful and it colors the rest of the exchange you know, like you're asking me to do something for what in the case that you needed I always ask afterwards and as we had to do with this footage you know we had to explain what it wass and what it was being useful they were usually accept but I definitely don't push it if they won't accept I won't try to justify it and I just I just feel dirty I don't like it but again in street photography like that's beginning to change as well like I've been working in france and germany recently on this refugee story and there was ah moment in berlin where I was photographing the security guard he was rough handling the refugees and I was photographing that and he got really upset he's like you can't photograph here said I could do anything I want I'm a photographer you're in public so screw you andi like aim to go after me and the refuge as soon as he moved the refugees all pushed into the spot he was enemies I have to go back into it and it was like so he couldn't even get me I was like, yeah great safe right um he ended up shouting to me is like we have a law in germany that protects the personality of people that you're photographing the likeness of people that you're photographing on dh in order to do like a medium to type portrait of somebody you actually need the permission of the person on the street legally same thing in fronts so if you're shooting a wide shot if I'm photographing like the people in the audience here I can photograph all of you that's fine, but if I start coming in and getting closer to you I need your specific permission I know it hasn't come up yet in a successful lawsuit, but I'm guessing that at some point what's gonna happen is a newspaper guy or a journalist is going toe take a picture of somebody who gave permission and then the person doesn't like it in the end and sews the person and then we're going to start having to get releases some type of releases you know, to even publish a picture the newspaper we're not there yet thankfully and hopefully we never get except these privacy laws which are designed to protect celebrities from papparazzi being put into place and that in turn are affecting the entire industry, industry or discipline of street photography. So I think that in that case like my work around is going to be I will create I will write a release which doesn't signed somebody's life away and like your rights to compensation in the case that rolex pies you're your picture to use in a campaign or whatever I would create a document it says I acknowledge that I've been photographed by this photographer I acknowledge the photographer we use it in, you know, digital and editorial formats with proper context and caption and I acknowledge that in the case that it's used in anything else the photographer will contact I mean that's pretty harmless and that's the agreement that I have with all of the people that I floated off today but these big, long like, insane releases that they sometimes give us, like the easy release that's online it's a great app but it's a really intense release. Can I ask a few more questions on this matter? And because I know again it's a big one. So if somebody is just a photographer out there, they're traveling. What have you? And they're getting beautiful images of people and then they want to sell that print. Is that considered commercial use? Know? Okay, no, it's not okay. So it's, mainly again, if it's, um, something that you are going to be an ad campaign or what have you? And it happens, you know, like I use a rolex example because a friend of mine photograph he likes specializes in photographing people building yachts. Will you specialize? It's like his bread and butter. Right? So we're showing his shooting some guy's gonna harbor on a yard on guy. I made this picture and he put it into the photo agencies archive teo to sell us an editorial image and rolex love the picture the rolex got in touch with him and then got in touch with the people in the picture because they needed a release um ended up hanging out the people who you know what in this photograph as essentially models which is crate you know, the ad money should be uh should be spread around like that but um they weren't allowed to use it unless they had releases and that's you know, that's considered very commercial I mean, you can argue the newspapers of for profit as well, you know, good half and like like that like that present just that selling princes commercial as well except I think from a I think we're addressing any other time I think from a practical perspective it should be clarified that photo journalism is not something which is really commercially viable is a human being you've got to find other ways in orderto you know, underwrite like t to be able to go out in the street and shoot pictures as you wish whenever you feel like it you've got to do some pretty good jobs selling us a little bit um unit a devil of advertising in orderto fund that sort of stuff you know you work for a major newspaper, you get two hundred bucks for a day it's not it's not um it's difficult to make a living so so this still goes for say, if you put something online and getty images wants your image so it still goes for that and they make money off your image in it as long as they're selling in an editorial right then it's ok if they if like it was a creative and they're trying to sell it to advertising agencies then you need to release and just another statement that you know you're not a lawyer we're not lawyers that if you really do what the full definitive ah answer of course because it is different in so many different countries and states and what have you certainly there's research out there for that but it's wonderful to know how you work and the party was great thank you um okay, so this these guys are amazing so we're going to edit all these like the pictures that I made yesterday uh yeah yes today will be editing in session for a swell so editing and toning and showing you how I capture and things like that so you actually got undeliverable file but this is shooting hi guys. Uh my name is actually gilda cinema photographer um brian nice to meet you. Michelle nice to meet you. I'm just doing photographs like downtown seattle on dh I mean from new york I'm wondering if you guys would mind while you're sitting here like chilling out if I would take a picture of you guys just as you were all right thank you like as you uh don't worry about where I grew up in australia and I've been living in new york for the last thirteen years for better or worse I guess welcome to see adam thank you I will I'm gonna get your contact information so I love to email you guys a picture after I finish no no as like as you want like when I walked up and you guys were chatting just like that it was really nice wait your names down thank you so much so the cool thing what was fascinating about that is you know we started writing their names down and getting their contact information and swapping phone numbers and michelle the woman who was there said o'brien's being photographed before great by who she said oh, he was really young but he had a gun and he's with this kid killed rat and they wait you're talking about like this famous picture by mary ellen mark like that classic from life magazine one of the one of the classic images of photo journalism that I was brought up on I like what you're that guy he's like yeah yeah that was may have you seen the picture? I've been looking for all over the place looking for it for years and I will really want to see it here being in jail have been in the military and like he heard about it from friends that it was really famous and so I texted the picture to him later and he's like yeah yeah that's it like is this the picture of you it's crazy if you're in it and he wrote back and said yes all right that's insane make how how absolutely fascinating right it's blocks away from where it was taken so I said um he said you know what like if you want um I'll give you a little tour seattle like sure you're different seattle and so I texted him later and said yeah let's go let's go for a walk so I took a couple of hours walking around like we met outside the courthouse again and he took me and took me to his old haunts like when he was a street kid he was like working around pike place there was apparently some doughnut shop there that was like the hive of all of the crime that was down there. So all the street boys in the street man on the street women, the drug dealers in the burglaries and the robert like all this stuff what happened down there so he took me there which is now place selling these like seattle shirts he took me to a place where they used to shoot up on some corner that was run by an indian guy who had no legs because he got shot hey, it was like he was the most interesting guy you know he's clean and he cleaned up is that since the prison time and since the military he's spent twenty years clean um and occasionally relapses back into smoking heroin and some alcohol um so it's been a struggle his whole life has been a struggle but given how many friends of his from that period have died it was it was really moving to see how he's winning mostly in this struggle that he's going through the not to stay alive but, you know, enjoy life hey seemed really together he was a pleasure to walk around with and it was it turned into this insight into seattle, you know, just bumping into some guy in the street who happens to be the subject one of the most famous pictures of old time and then not getting ah tour of the city with him. So it was really like I love things like that you just re fall in love with photography and, uh yeah, I just want I mean that's just such an incredible moment and story and what I really admire and have learned from you is that you do just take those opportunities tio ask and go and you said you dropped everything to go and go around with him and that is really like you have to have that as this street photographer or or that is how you get really get in there yeah, absolutely that's that's where I get still street photography following him around or taking pictures you know, I think there's this perception of street photography photographing strangers where you have to be on the street all the time and you know the cartier bresson approach of just, you know, different people the time like sometimes it can just be following somebody around and you bump into somebody and you start engaging with them and they're really interesting and if they want you to hang out they don't mind you hanging out hang out you know, go deeper see how deep you can actually get with them and see what you can learn they might be a period where it naturally finishes and you have to leave or it might go on on and on and on and you might end up you know, shooting a documentary about this person but is that curiosity like that's? What drives me it's moments like that I go back out there for that it is so interesting. Can I ask you a quick question before we get to the next one people were wondering about you had two cameras and you shot with both of them they saw you do but what what is that about? Why too one time is one of them is an ex one hundred s that has a fifty millimeter converter so is shooting like mid range with fifty standards and the other is the x one hundred t that it has just the fixed twenty three but the equivalent is a thirty five millimeter so I switched between those two so like I said super telephoto and super wide according to danny wilcox fraser great so those are the two sort of focal links that you work in and too so that you don't have tio he tryingto conway's time it's a lot of this a lot of this is about speed and being ready like I said you know like just the idea of going in and changing explosions to change lighting situations it's the same thing you know, the only reason to have two cameras two different focal length um so it's fifty and thirty five yeah, thank you. S oh, I think we covered the well the luck is pretty obvious right um and then being engaged and open so that people can actually invite you back and seeing different elements of the person's life like there is one version of the person that you see when you're on the street but then when you start taking them around with brian yesterday we walk to that corner outside what used to be this doughnut shop and he's like this is just I avoid this corner you know I don't come here um with my family I don't come here with my friends because it brings back so many memories um I was like, well, we don't need to be here, we can move on he's like, no, no, no, no, I like it because I have the I don't normally have an opportunity to talk about what happened back then, so I think you're, you know, by your presence in there lives you're actually giving them, you should be creating a space in which they can talk openly and freely, you know, I think that this, you know, it's, it's, difficult things that these people have been through that people we meet have been through it's really normal to not want to talk about it, like I was just photographing with the refugees in europe and we got to a orphanage or an unaccompanied minors camp in germany, families volunteers that they only he's doing a great job don't get me wrong, but I sat down and interviewed all of these unaccompanied minors, and I said, you know what? What is being the most challenging part of this trip this journey and, you know, like some of them would say it's, when I lost my parents and I don't know what I'm going to see him again, others would say, like I missed my family, that back home they sent me ahead because I was going to die if I stayed there and what is really troubling and moving difficult stories that they were talking about except they all wanted to talk every single kid in this room wanted to talk and afterwards the volunteers said I'm glad that we were there to be able to listen to this because we've been playing football with these guys and cooking with these guys we never asked them what they went through and I think that we have to I think that we have to be open as people to actually ask these difficult things like we want to talk about these traumatic moments in our lives because it softens it it's we start sharing the burden a little bit um so if they start volunteering stuff like that, then you know don't say, oh, it must be too hard for you let's move on because you you're quite likely to be talking about yourself this is too hard for yourself if you're getting into this, you got to go all the way in and accept it. Andi you saw how I was talking to those guys like I said, I think three or four times like as you were just as you are, people don't realize that often they think that they have to pose for a picture and sometimes you just have to say it once like you as you are and they'll be like all right, cool whatever doing this other times you know, you you repeat it until they actually do go backto as they were and it's standard for a little while because you've broken the exchange that those guys that brian and michelle were having but eventually let us get back to being normal and start chatting as though you're not there they started talking about the defamation case that brian was going in there tio like filed against somebody else because he wanted to shut that guy's mouth about something um and it was like I wasn't there and that's what you want you know you want to get to that point what ability? What? Okay, great e that's amazing big questions in life like say it's pretty this's yeah, yeah love love front on your details as well. Thank you. So what is your name? Leslie l e s l e y that's. Why? I asked l e s l e your last name? I can even let you have this fine jewelry to send you a picture something like an email you haven't. Okay, so that's asking soda while you're shooting and then engaging like often, people will be talking to you while you're shooting and that can happen for some time but work with it I could commit actually really cool and I think that was my favorite picture from yesterday that we'll get to in second floor where? At the end, she's. Like actually my lunch break's over right now we got to go and she started laughing. And the laughter was really beautiful. Like in that space that she was talking in. So does work with it, like that's, if that's what it is and that's what it is, you know, you just goto you have to work with the situations as they come to you, like it's, never going to be perfect, but that's one of the beauties of working on the street working with strangers is that there's this, uh, there's this theory that the iranians, iranians, when they're making carpets, they would always get one stitch wrong intentionally, because only god is perfect, and I feel like that with commercial pictures versus the type of work that we do with, you know, on the street there's always some imperfection on the street, but that makes it human, you know? It makes it really so that was, um so what we're about to look at is the second approach, which is asking permission nonverbally. So as I said, like you making eye contact is you're moving towards the person you want to take a picture ofthe, like, if you're touching your camera, it makes like that could be a little thing that you might want to try is you're learning how to do this like make eye contact at the same time is taking your camera actually start framing something up because then it's it's so clear what you're doing like I'm usually walking around my camera's like in my hand when I'm walking and I might have one around my neck so it's it couldn't be more obvious what I am um so again you might be greeted in which which happens sometimes that is not talking and you work with that you might be ignored which is great although they'll say that they don't want a picture and then after you're finished working then you start engaging on getting the information that you need in learning about the person is shot so this is one of my favorite examples of how to do this I learned so much from this and I still think about it when I shoot today so you guys have pretty familiar of show with dorothy lang's um uh say picture um this's the contact sheet of how she got the picture so you can see on the bottom right how she started really far away from the scene and then she starts working her way closer and closer to the scene until she actually gets to the picture that we know so she was doing the same thing is what we're doing today she's starting a little bit further away making eye contact like you see on the on the right hand side in the top left picture the mother the migrant mother is I think she's called um is looking directly into camera so the photographer is engaged with her and as I don't know whether she spoke to her or not accept there is definitely a type of consent that is taking place there were at least an acknowledgement until you get to that last really amazing image so when I shoot that's that's my framework I'm not by any means comparing myself to that amazing photography by the way wait wait so my name's ash and the photographer I work with in a photo agency called seven I'm just doing photographs around seattle of people who live here in the streets um I was just taking a picture of you great on the telephone or like happy and laughing it was a really nice picture I'm wondering can I write your name down for the photo caption so what is your name friend e f r I n I have a con okay frane okay what are you doing in seattle what do you think you're working great um so that on the telephone you were talking to your friend your wife no just friend okay so you you work in seattle what you work in alaska what do you do processing like meat uh great. Um any this is my, uh, I'm just visiting seattle. But you, you're you're on holiday. Uh, great.

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Street Photography Pitch Kit

Ratings and Reviews


I have taken more than a few of the Creative Live courses. I have, in general, found all of them to be very good and I have learned something important from them all. Not always enough of exactly what I was looking for, but something useful and important. This course was absolutely amazing. The best I have taken. I would like to download it and see it again and again. Ashley's style was authentic, humble, yet confidence inspiring. The information he gave was focused and totally useful. He shared both philosophy and thinking as well as real tools to learn - whether they be soft stuff (like how to approach someone) or hard stuff (like gear and settings and such). I cannot recommend this class highly enough. If you want to learn to do "humanistic photography" (his term which resonated with me), this is best I have ever taken!


This was a terrific and wonderful class. Ash was superb. His stories were awe inspiring, his passion was evident and his ability to teach was flawless. I would take any other class by him and actually can't wait for more of the VII agency programs eminating from Ron's class during photo week 2015. A great great addition to Creative Live's orbit.


Wow, I loved this course - I watched the whole thing, and most of it twice, during the first run. Ash is is intriguing, a good teacher, honest. I found this class to be so inspirational. I especially loved his encouragement about talking to strangers, asking to take their picture- "what's the worst thing that could happen?" And the videos watching him in action were motivating- you saw him make connections but also saw him get rejected too, but he keeps such a positive outlook. Love this class, please more photojournalism!

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