Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Street documentary photography is a genre of photography which was pioneered by photographers such as Helen Levitt and Bruce Gilden. Documentary photography sets out to capture real life events and characters with as little influence from the photographer as possible, this often means that photos have to be taken discreetly so that subjects are not swayed by the presence of a photographer and their camera.
Morally the practice is somewhat questionable, while some regard Gilden as a genius others may look at him as an annoying man with a camera, a flash and a lack of regard for personal space. Taking photos of members of the public without consent is a bit of a grey area, while legally you can take pictures of anyone in a public space this doesn’t always mean that your subject will be happy with having their picture taken. To avoid Confrontation from a miffed passer-by it is better to take a discreet, non-invasive approach to shooting.
When trying to be discreet it is important to first take a look at the equipment you're using, ideally you want a camera which is small and can easily be slipped back into a pocket or bag. If you’re shooting film I would recommend a small 35mm camera, The Olympus Trip 35 is a camera which comes to mind due to its tiny body but any good point and shoot camera will also work. (Just make sure you aren’t using flash!).
As a street documentary photographer you may also have to slip into actor mode to throw your subjects off the scent. I will now impart on you some of my very own acting techniques which help me take discreet images:
1. “Just checking settings mate!”. This is a pretty foolproof technique in my experience, you can probably already imagine how this one works but essentially if you are confronted by your subject after taking a picture you only have to utter this phrase or a variation of. Usually this will deflect any tension and you can walk away with your camera in one piece!
2. “The Cough”. This technique is used for covering the sound of your cameras shutter as not to draw attention to yourself. Make sure your timing is correct to prevent any awkward situations.
3. “Focusing on something else”. For this one your acting skills will need to be on point. Choose something in the back ground of your subject to pretend to shoot, Walk back and forwards, look through your view finder a few times and act like your looking past your subject. While this one is a 10/10 for discreet photos you also run the risk of your subject getting out of the way of your shot.
4. “Out the bag” Sometimes when shooting discreet documentary photos it can help to have a bag to obscure the subjects view of your camera, large tote bag placed on your lap will be the best option, you can easily put your arm in the bag while just poking the lens of your camera over the top, I would only recommend this technique for extremely close quarters, like shooting on the underground, as the composition of your photo may not be ideal!
So those are a few of the techniques I've personally employed when shooting street documentary photos, use these techniques wisely! I want to stress peoples rights to privacy, use your own judgement when deciding what to take pictures of because at the end of the day your approach and subject matter is also a reflection of you as a photographer.
Street photography when done right in my mind can be a celebration of the everyday person in the street, the local characters, unsung heroes and the mundanity. It is a great opportunity to represent the people you want to see in photography so get out there and start shooting!