While traveling across and photographing Italy for four months in 2017, I only knew enough Italian to pass as someone who was severely intoxicated (or, more realistically, a clueless American with bravado). For that reason, I had plenty of time to learn how to shoot street photography on those occasions when I didn’t know the local language.
Not everyone is used to being photographed, so my subjects often approached me to ask what I was doing. Most of the time, they were friendly and intrigued, but occasionally, they confronted me with anger. Some people felt their privacy had been violated, while others simply wanted their portraits deleted — both of which are understandable reactions.
As a photographer, it’s your job to placate people in these situations. But doing that is a whole lot easier when you speak the same language as your subjects. So, with that said, here are my tried and true tips for photographing the streets of foreign cities. (And remember, I learned these the hard way.)
Get some more tips on how to practice street photography here. Check out awesome examples of street photography in China, Hanoi, and Armenia.
Let Your Subjects Come to You
Some photographers like to find interesting people and follow them around, constantly shooting pictures. I call this the “paparazzi technique,” which is disrespectful and often leads to confrontation that your minimal linguistic knowledge won’t be able to handle.
I like to turn this strategy on its head, finding a good backdrop and then waiting for interesting people to pass by it. I essentially set up the portrait ahead of time and just let my subjects walk into it unwittingly. Since I’m already situated with my camera, most subjects won’t suspect that they’re being photographed — and most won’t even notice me at all.
This strategy works well in areas full of pedestrians, and all you need to do is anticipate the flow of foot traffic so that people will naturally walk into your frame.
Depending on your luck, the shot could come together when the fifth person walks through, or the 50th. But, your backdrop will always be excellent with this technique because you’ve scouted it out specifically, and if you’re patient, you’ll end up with a great subject to match! I sometimes wait as long as 45 minutes for the perfect subject to come along, but it usually doesn’t take quite that long. Note that this technique also works at home in places where you speak the same language as the people around you!
Warning: If the location becomes too quiet or you’re too close to your subjects (less than 10 feet away), your desired subjects may walk around you or wait to pass until you finish shooting — i.e. you’ll be killed by kindness.
The Friendly Approach
Smiles, handshakes, eye contact, and other friendly, nonverbal cues go a long way in any language. But sometimes, you’ll want a more intimate photograph that requires approaching your subject and actually speaking to them.
To be prepared for these instances, learn how to say “hello” and “Can I take a photo?” in the local language. Even if you suspect the subject can speak English, attempting to speak in their language is a respectful gesture. If your terrible accent doesn’t give away your inability to speak the local language as soon as you say hello, it will when you ask to take the photo. This can work to your advantage, as your subject will understand there won’t be any further conversation, and they can either agree to a photo, whip out their English, or walk away — all in all, it’s perfect for avoiding conflict.
Just remember to thank your subject after you grab your shot! And if you prefer to get to know your subjects better, go for it! I’ve had some quality conversations using Google Translate, so you might want to give that a try.
Brace Yourself for Confrontation
Without adequate language skills, you can’t exactly talk your way out of unpleasant interactions. To keep your photography amicable and conflict-free, never photograph the following subjects without asking:
- Young children — I’ll photograph them without asking if they pass through my frame, but you have to make your own judgment call on this. Be mindful that parents can be extremely protective of their children’s’ privacy.
- Inebriated individuals
- Homeless people — these shots are cheap and disrespectful, in my personal opinion.
Inevitably, you will be caught by the subjects you’re photographing, and you should be prepared to deal with this when it happens. Whether the person is friendly or disgruntled, saying, “Sorry, I don’t speak [insert language here]!” should neatly wrap up the exchange. But just to be safe, apologize again and show them that you deleted their photo if necessary.
Legality and Ethics
Know your rights. In the United States, it’s legal to photograph in public, but you can’t shoot through the windows of anyone’s private home. If you’re visiting another country, look into their specific laws.
Regardless of legality, you should develop your own code of conduct for the photographs you’re willing to shoot and publish. Which subjects do you find too invasive or intimate? At what point do you feel as though you’re invading someone’s privacy? Is anyone doing something illegal in your shot? How would you feel if someone took the same photo of you and posted it on Instagram?
If you’re not prepared to wax philosophical every time you press the shutter, that’s fine. Shoot now and contemplate later. I have a whole collection of beautiful, intimate street photos that I’ll never publish because they violate my personal code of photographic conduct.
Remember to learn how to use your camera’s manual settings so that you can make adjustments when necessary. If you need additional help, be sure to watch my comprehensive video about Street Photography for Beginners!
Although street photography is invasive by nature, if you approach the process with a friendly attitude and common courtesy, you’ll end up with photos that are as incredible as the subjects in them.