When we talk about Social Photography, we’re also talking about Street Photography, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism as well. We have two roads when it comes to Social Photography: we can achieve great images from the distance, or get ourselves closer to people to capture their lives in a more meaningful way. I have heard several photographers say that they don’t take pictures of strangers because they find it disrespectful – and this might be true, especially if you do it in a “spy-like” or “voyeuristic” way. But if you do it in a manner that reflects closeness and even respect for the people, there’s no reason why the work should be called disrespectful.
Getting up-close, human Social Photographs has more to do with social skills than technical knowledge and fancy gear. I’m talking about getting in touch with the lives of people. We should never forget that we’re always a foreigner in someone else’s life. We may share a culture, but we definitely do not share our lives. Here are some things you can practice to develop a more organic style of social interaction that will result in closer, more intimate photographs of people.
Try to remain inconspicuous
This is the moment where flashy gear stands out. When getting close to any social system, large gear makes you easily spottable. People get a little suspicious when an outsider intrudes on their intimacy and daily ambience with a gigantic telephoto lens. Try to get a small camera, or to not even use a camera during your first encounters with your subjects. It’s important to establish regular social contact with people before starting to shoot. Doing it the other way around is just rude, and will result in ordinary pictures that reflect nothing about the human soul.
This is a tool that has saved me many times. It’s the reason why I have achieved some natural-looking shots, even when I’ve been tagged as an outsider. Speaking the same slang of the people is a tool with a great potential. It’s like a survival trick for the street. It’s just awesome.
Care about people
Street Photography can be viewed as voyeuristic, but you need to truly care about the people in front of your lens to reflect a true meaning moment in the frame. Try to not show people in vulnerable situations as well. Images can be manipulative, and the Point of View can have a deep impact on the image’s message. For example, taking photos of homeless people or children from a high angle will make them see more vulnerable than they really are. On the other hand, a low-angle shot will portray them in a stronger light.
Talk, and listen
People have wonderful stories, and sometimes they’re delighted to have somebody to talk with – especially older folks. So talk to people. Listen to their stories, and absorb a piece of their lives by paying attention to what they have to say. Every interaction will positively affect your images.
Show your passion
Let's say you have gained people's confidence to enter a very hermetic place. Now you have to talk to them about what you do, and let them know that you do your stuff because of your passion, not for commercial purposes. Many photographers happen to keep little booklets or even postcards of their work with them. Others keep business cards to give to people who have noticed themselves being photographed on the streets. The techniques may vary, but the important thing to bear in mind is that you need to let people know that you have a deep, abiding passion for photography and that you’re doing something with meaning, passion, and importance.
Know about local news and the history
Getting close to certain communities or people requires homework. Keep yourself up to date on the news inside a city or a town. This is great advice for travelers who love to do social photography. You’re going to be spotted as a foreigner (sorry, but it’s true). Still, you can get a bit closer to the locals by keeping yourself informed about things that are happening in the town. You can get quick updates from cab drivers. They’re like encyclopedias. It’s amazing how much you can learn from them before arriving at a destination.
Respect foreign cultures and religions
What makes foreign cultures so interesting is that they are completely different from yours. But you always have to be humble, and remember that you’re a foreigner, an outsider, a visitor. You need to treat people, cultures and religions with respect if you want to keep your relations nice and smooth with the locals. If you’re an open-minded person, you need to respect hermetic, more conservative cultures. If you’re old-fashioned and square, you need to respect open-minded cultures.
This is a great trick when travelling. Try to blend in with the crowd by using regular clothes. You can never go wrong with this. Being in a crowd in winter dressed in heavy black clothes is not the same as being at the beach in the same type of clothes. The example is ridiculous, but you get the idea.
The good thing about these tips is that they work when you travel to foreign places, when you’re on a photojournalistic assignment, even when you’re wandering the streets of your city or town. The important thing about Social Photography is to produce images with meaning and elements of great storytelling.