SF Street Photography Workshop
I recently spent 5 days in an intensive street photography workshop led by international street photographer Eric Kim.
I signed up for the workshop with a goal to overcome my fear of photographing strangers. Prior to the workshop, I wasn’t very good about getting close to people, and I never asked permission. I tried to shoot incognito without being noticed. So if I wanted to get close, I had to be sneaky: shooting from waist level so it looked like I was just screwing around with my camera, or shooting people from behind or the side (not as interesting, generally). Or, I would gravitate towards photographing children, who are unlikely to yell obscenities at me or break my camera. My approach was obvious in my photos, and it bothered me because I wasn’t always getting the shots that I wanted.
Because of this distant approach, my street photography experiences in the past have been meditative and solitary. I would often listen to music and enjoy the experience of walking around with a heightened perception, becoming lost in my own thoughts, photographing whatever caught my eye, but maintaining purely an observer’s role.
Our first assignment forced me to become an active participant in the scene. We were instructed to ask permission to take people’s photo. Surprisingly, I had no trouble asking to take photos of strangers. I think the pressure of having an assignment coupled with the safety of having a partner with me gave me a boost of confidence, and I quickly overcame my fear. Receiving a “yes” was a delight because it gave me permission to have control – just for a minute or two – over lighting, angle, perspective, framing, expression, pose. And in those few seconds or minutes, I met people from different walks of life.
Some of my subjects had quite interesting stories to tell. Most people were flattered and even surprised that I found them photo-worthy. An elderly Latina in the Mission responded, “but why? I am ugly.”
By far the most interesting encounter was with an old hippie, Don, who was getting his VW camper van – complete with a bed in the back – serviced at the corner mechanic. He’s a 5th generation San Franciscan. His grandmother died in the 1906 earthquake.
Some of my favorite shots simply captured funny, touching, or surprising moments.
A man being swarmed by pigeons as he tried to eat his lunch, but he didn’t seem to mind.
A child spinning giddily in a swivel chair on the pier.
A grandpa carrying his granddaughter’s Hello Kitty backpack through Chinatown markets. I wish I could have captured his face, but I wasn’t able to without obscuring the backpack, which is obviously the best part of the photo.
I caught this woman by surprise outside of a restaurant in Chinatown.
Talking to people on the streets for the first time was such a different experience for me emotionally. It left me feeling more fulfilled about the work that I am creating, and by talking with my subjects and getting them to open up a little bit I was able to capture more emotion in my photos.
Take this guy. I was originally attracted to him because of the bold wall, his red shirt, and the yellow box in his hand that I mistakenly thought were American Spirits, but they are actually contact lenses. I told him this and you can that he he’s chuckling a little bit as he looks at the box.
As my partner for the morning, Mark, began to chat with him, we learned that he was American Samoan. He chatted with us for a while about American society, and how difficult it is to make a living here and especially in San Francisco. He had a lot to say and seemed to be just waiting for someone to listen. As he kept talking, I kept clicking, and was able to capture the emotion in his words with this photo below.
Asking for permission meant that often I was able to spend a lot more time with one subject, capturing them at different angles and distances. My favorite shot from the week came after many other frames. The woman was at first smiling, and finally she looked like she was tired of posing for me and was ready to say goodbye, at which point I captured this expression where she appears to look away wistfully.
One of our assignments was to focus on composition: diagonals, leading lines, groups of 3, creating triangles, figure/ground relationship. Instead of keeping my eyes peeled for colorful backdrops and interesting faces, I took a step back and included more of the environment in my photos. Shooting with this mindset felt more familiar to my meditative photo walks of the past. This approach, combined with experimenting in different techniques during post-processing, led to the creation of a body of work that felt like it was from an entirely different photographer from the previous day.
I learned so much from this workshop and it reinvigorated my passion for shooting. But even more significantly was how it changed my experience of being a street photographer. There are so many ways to interact with the streets, and they all yield such different results. Each of my classmates had a unique approach. Often several of us would shoot the same subject and have such wildly different results, not only in composition, but also in the emotional impact of the photo. Interacting with my subjects resulted in photos that were so much more intimate and human than my work from the past. Focusing more on non-human elements (geometry, composition, etc) resulted in photos that are moodier, but more detached. Different approach, different results: In a way, it’s a great example of mindfulness and intention. Your mental space affects your outcome. Isn’t that true with so many things in life?
A quick shout out to my classmates, who were not only incredibly talented but also a wonderful, fun group to spend a week with. I miss you all already.
And, a big thank you to Eric for being such a great teacher, encourager, and friend to all of us.