Monday, 29 June 2009

The Invisible Man in the Street

Many who have tried their hand at "street photography" have surely, at one time or another, wished that they could find a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak at their local photo dealer, nestled in alongside the wibbly tripods, card readers and tobacco grad starburst filters. I say "many" rather than "anyone" because there are of course those who go out of their way to influence the scene before them. Like an old-school, tweed-suited wedding photographer, they will not be happy until they have stage-managed the people in shot, getting them to pose and smile. They are probably the same people who, as children, endlessly rearranged their Airfix 1/72nd scale commando platoon in height order by hat size. This type of invasive approach is "portraiture" in my view, not "street photography".

Those of you with a scientific background ( I know you are out there, I can hear your test-tube bubbling) will understand the "Hawthorne Effect" - a form of reactivity (it says here) whereby subjects improve an aspect of their behaviour that is being measured in direct response to the fact that they are being measured. In photographic terms, this is the equivalent of someone noticing that you are framing them up and pulling their stomach in, either voluntarily or involuntarily as a result, in order to make themselves "look better". In so doing they may very well no longer be as "interesting" as they were in the first place, and indeed may no longer be worth tripping the shutter.

So, in the absence of magic cloaks, what is the answer for the photographer who wants to capture life as it happens, without changing, or being a part of, what's going on? The natural coward has a couple of options - use a long lens (which is great if you are in a hide of some sort shooting wild birds, but is still likely to attract unwelcome attention if spotted in your local high street), or, in the finest tradition of the Wild West, shoot 'em in the back. The latter is not a bad technique per se, but if it is the only approach used it does call into question the photographers' motivation, let alone his ability to look people in the eye. No. Unobtrusive discretion is the keyword... er, words. Cartier-Bresson was a big gawky Frenchman, and he got away with it for years, so surely it can't be that hard.

Can it?

Then there is a whole school of thought that theorises that the size of one's equipment has a major influence on whether or not one is noticed. Whilst this may have some truth in the porn movie industry, it is far less relevant to the budding street snapper than many would like to believe. In all honesty, sticking tape over the red dot on your Leica is more likely to arouse curiosity of the "When did you break your camera?" variety. It does not make you look more "street" - it does make you look like an obsessive nerd with issues and too much time on your hands. Of course at the extreme there is a point at which your kit will get you noticed. One of those nice big white zoom lenses for SLRs with a front element the diameter of a Starbucks' super-grande soya latte are hard to avoid - I know, for I have been clouted by one in a crowd in the past.

My personal preference is to blend in, plant myself and keep movement to a minimum. Let the images come to me, rather than go seeking them like a demented ninja. Like any good fisherman you do have to choose what the military would refer to as a "target rich environment", of course - it's no good stationing yourself on a deserted country lane and expecting a decisive moment or two within the lifetime of the average snail. In a busy street the way the human mind works is that you will rapidly become part of the scenery. Even if you are wearing a yellow jerkin of the sort favoured by road-sweepers and lollipop ladies, this will be the case. You are there, and therefore you fade from direct consciousness.

You can enhance this effect by dressing appropriately. Going out in a "photo vest" and a pair of zip-off Rohan trousers, with a camera suspended around your neck on a strap that screams "CANON DIGITAL" in big friendly day-glo letters will make it that bit harder for you to convince people that you have just parked yourself there for a quick cappuchino and a biscotti. In general, people see what they expect to see, and disregard the rest. So if you are at Henley, a stripey blazer will help you to blend in. If you are in the City, a pinstripe suit will probably be more helpful, and so on.

There is also an interesting reverse effect, that relies upon what Douglas Adams christened the "SEP Field", where SEP stands for "Someone Else's Problem". Again, this is a bit of mental sleight of hand that relies upon the laziness of the human brain. People do not tend to look - really look - at certain types of people - "Big Issue" sellers, charity muggers, street workers and urban inhabitants in general. The ubiquitous yellow jerkin previously referred to may make you feel conspicuous when you first don it, but put on some old jeans, a tatty sweater, heavy work boots and said jerkin and notice how quickly you fade from people's consciousness. They will actively go out of their way not to make eye contact, or to "take you in".

There are two other factors to consider in our lexicon of unobtusiveness. Firstly, movement. In very simple terms, a jerky, rapid movement catches the eye, while a slow and deliberate one does not. Don't blame me for that - blame our cave-dwelling ancestors and your primitive "monkey brain". Ug and Og realised that a sabre-toothed tiger tends to move faster, and more belligerently, than a three-toed sloth, so their descendants are hard-wired to this day to notice, and react to, sudden and possibly threatening movements. Swinging your camera to your eye as if you are about to launch a grenade in someone's direction is far more likely to cause a negative reaction than a slow, gentle swing up to your eye and away again. I also have a theory, by the way, that people are getting more and more habituated to the mobile 'phone stance for picture taking - small device held in portrait fashion, up high at half-arm's length, peering at a screen - than a small camera raised to the eye. I have no scientific proof for this, but if you try it out let me know.

I think I was spotted...

Last, but far from least, comes the power of "assumed authority". Con artists rely on this all the time. If you look like you know what you are doing, and that you should be there, people will accept that as the status quo. Again, it relies on the laziness of the human brain - if it looks right, it must be right, and we will look no further. Try wearing a reasonably smart suit on a Saturday and standing still with your hands clasped behind your back in a branch of Austin Reed (or Brooks Brothers, for transatlantic readers). I guarantee that within two minutes someone will come over and ask if you have a shirt in a 14 and a half collar in the stockroom. Similarly, if you handle your camera about as if you know how to use it (I am assuming that you do) and make no effort to hide, or look even remotely furtive, you can get away with murder (and the shot).

My most extreme example of this was at a convention in Brighton for the most ardent followers of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". I was there to shoot the fans, some of whom go to the most extraordinary lengths to dress and make themselves up as their favourite characters. Because I was dressed and looked like a security man's idea of a photographer rather than a fan I was not challenged when I unintentionally passed a "no-entry" sign and found myself in the presence of some of the stars of the show. I quickly asked them to pose, which they did without demur. I got off at least half a dozen shots before my lack of ID badge was noticed and I was politely asked to "buggeroff".

The pictures? Well, I would love to show you, but strangely enough, they were mostly blank. I suppose it must be true what they say about vampires...



- All images on this blog are copyright Bill Palmer and may not be reproduced in any format or medium without permission.
- Why do all cameras, on film or tv, sound like a Nikon F3 with a motordrive?


  1. Bill, thank you for a great post. the SEP syndrome is a wonderful effect, though I agree with about simply looking like you belong there seems to work just fine.


  2. This was one of the best reads I've had in a long time - and very funny!

    You know me from over on Serious Compacts. ;-)

    Many thanks - I'm going to show this to my daughter a budding photographer.