Photographic Sniper
August 13, 2006 3:53 AM   Subscribe

How do I overcome camera shyness as a foreign photographer? Much

I live and work in China... which means two things as a foreigner. The first is that I stick out so much that people stare at me. In conjuction with that, these staring people are the most populous people on the planet. There are few places I can snap a photo and not be stared at. I'm OK walking the streets, buying food, and whatnot being stared at, it's just the way China is... but not not while trying to produce art.

Today I went to an old antique market to do a photoshoot and I couldn't do it... I left after about 20 shots. Everytime I took out my camera I felt like a sniper - shoot quick, hide camera, look normal. Even good shots were blury because I was jerking the camera back into the bag or to the side during the exposure.

Because of the crowdedness, urban landscape is next to impossible [or is it? suggestions?] which is what I'm used to shooting, so I've decided on focusing on the people in the streets, particularly the colorful street vendors.

I guess at core I feel like I'm an unwelcome intrustion, that they think I'm degrading them somehow. I don't have enough language down to schmooze or converse at any level to make them comfortable with my pressense.

Open to any suggestions, ideas, and reading [online, not books for obvious reasons]...
posted by trinarian to Law & Government (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: put it in the wrong category accidentally... is there any way it can be changed to Media and Arts?
posted by trinarian at 4:19 AM on August 13, 2006

I suggest you learn a few basic phrases so you can ask for permission. You live and work in China. To put it bluntly, it IS poor form to not work on basic coversation skills. So get learning.

Get a local person to have a frank discussion with you about the social norms and privacy expected, so that you do not inadvertently offend people. Ask them if it is considered rude to take someone's photo, etc. Armed with that knowledge, you should be more confident about taking the pictures.

Also, just try to remind yourself that after a certain point (ie you're not offending people, having established this through the techniques above) what you do is your business. People will be curious, especially as you already stand out even when doing something 'normal'. As you do it more and more, you'll gradually become less conscious of people being conscious of you. You might even get some volunteers to be your subject!

Good luck!
posted by Lucie at 4:36 AM on August 13, 2006

Since you can't, stop trying to blend in. Don't think of yourself as a "sniper," as it makes you appear sneaky and perhaps dangerous.

Making eye contact with strangers in China follows a different "dance" than it does in Western culture, but Chinese are not so averse to making eye contact as are Japanese and Vietnamese. Learn to do this easily, without being rude or intimidating. Don't use hand gestures when speaking; it is easy to do something rude, and the Chinese are put off by hand gestures.

You might have some cards printed up, saying that you are a Western photographer, and are asking permission to take pictures. You might have some other cards printed which give details of how you may be contacted for prints, or other follow up. And you might keep some small gifts (candies, cigarettes, etc.) on your person, to give to those who allow you to make several shots, or otherwise help you. Once you have taken a few pictures at a market, you'll have overcome your initial shyness, and the awkwardness of getting out your camera in the first place.

Successful photojournalists are never shy, and shoot lots of pictures. Even shooting digital, you need to be making hundreds of photos in a working day, since you'll never be able to control lighting and exposure as a studio photographer can.
posted by paulsc at 4:45 AM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: I've taken loads of street pics in China before. I'd imagine that good street photography, where you're shooting at a wide-normal perspective and you're up close and interacting with your subject (as opposed to "candids" where you're sniping pics hidden behind a bush with a telephoto), is MUCH easier in China than any Western country. I haven't done much street photography back home, but I've found in China that people are incredibly friendly and open and natural if you've got a camera on you. It would be extremely rare to see someone get angry at you for taking their picture.


I think, if anything, your inability to not blend in helps your street photography more than it hurts it. People will want to interact with you, and I think that makes for better street photography. Chat with them at first. When they see you have a camera, sometimes they'll want to pose. I'll snap a pic of that (even though 90% of the time I don't want a posed pic) simply because they'll go back to doing whatever they were doing in the first place. And at the very worst, if you're trying to get all artsy with some weird angle (lying on the ground, etc.), they'll just attribute it to ordinary laowai weirdness and won't bother you.

Where are you in China? I've found the more rural you get, the easier it is to get people to open up. Travelling in rural Guizhou or Hunan, I've found myself drug into being treated to dinner or baijiu drinking contests because I smiled and said I loved China.

I've also found the ethnic minorities to be even friendlier. If there's a Uighur or Tibetan area of town, you should check that out.


And people are very willing to let you take pics of their kids. I'd imagine if attempted the shot below in the US, I'd end up on a sex offender registry.


You've just got to get up close and chat with the vendors for a bit. They'll ask the same few questions at first (Where are you from? 你从哪里来的? How old are you? 你几岁? Are you married? 你结婚了吗? How long have you studied Chinese? 你学中文多久了?) so you should at least learn to answer those. If they say even the smallest thing in English, compliment them heartily on how good their English is; that gives them face.

But you'll just have to develop a tougher skin. Walking around an area that's not the Bund or Beida's campus, you will be the center of attention. You've got to learn how to phase out the stares and "Laowai! Hello!" It's gotten to the point where I've walked around with Chinese friends and they've remarked how people are looking at me and I didn't notice it at all.

And lastly, just smile. 99.9% of the time, you'll get a hearty smile back.
posted by alidarbac at 6:52 AM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Make friends with a Chinese photographer, then go out shooting together. Perspective and partnership might do the trick.
posted by cior at 8:23 AM on August 13, 2006

Shortly after 9/11 I went with a friend of mine when she took street photographs in a middle eastern/south asian neighborhood. When she spotted subjects she wanted to shoot, she stood in the middle of the sidewalk and took 5-10 shots as the subject walked past; when the person had passed her, she continued shooting for several shots, and never acknowledged her actual "target". Every time I saw the same monologue play out on her subject's face. "Hum de hum. That person just took a picture of me! Did that person just take a picture of me? What is she doing? Oh, I guess she's taking a picture of something else. Ok."
posted by xueexueg at 9:01 AM on August 13, 2006

(Assuming you have a camera with an LCD viewfinder)

Hold the camera out from your body as though you were fiddling around with it, navigating one of the menus or something. In reality, you're snapping away. Everybody can see the camera, but you don't look like you're taking their picture, you just look like some dumb guy who can't figure out how to use his camera.
posted by Hildago at 9:06 AM on August 13, 2006

Best answer: The general rule that I've found for photographing street scenes, regardless of culture, is:

When you are comfortable with yourself taking the photograph, people will be comfortable with you.

How you view yourself is expressed in your body language and people take cues from that. Once you loosen up, you are communicating to them that, 'This is ok'.
posted by jazzkat11 at 10:38 AM on August 13, 2006 [3 favorites]

Buy a big lens, snipe from afar.

For kids, assuming you're shooting digital, snap a few quick throwaways of them from any angle. Show them their photos on the little screen, and 9 times out of 10 they'll suddenly become the most enthusiastic models you've ever seen.
posted by gottabefunky at 5:14 PM on August 13, 2006

Oh, and get an image stabilizing lens for those times you do have to shoot quickly.
posted by gottabefunky at 5:15 PM on August 13, 2006

No experience in China, but a lot in remote Aboriginal communities in Australia. I'm not sure if the poverty / class / cultural issues translate from one to the other, but can be hard to obtain genuine consent to take photographs, particularly if you're perceived to wield any kind of influence, power or prestige. People will say "yes" because they see your genuine question as a command, as creating an inavoidable social obligation or as an implied threat.

For example, "May I take your picture?" is interpreted as "I will now take your picture, so stand still". Strangely, the more you ask, the worse it gets:

"Are you sure?" > "You don't look happy enough about this. Smile."

"It's OK to say no." > "But I'm going to tell somebody in authority just how uncooperative you've been. I expect you'll be beaten and/or banished by sunset."

"You don't seem OK with this. It's cool - I'll move along." > "And I'll just make sure your community doesn't get any more funding. All the money goes to happy kids who do what they're told."

Sorry - this is all probably really obvious. Just thought I'd mention it because I still wince when I see visitors to remote communities who think it's OK to snap whomever they like because they (or even just one person) said "yes".
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:35 PM on August 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had a photography teacher tell me that you don't need permission to take anybody's photograph. You as a photographer, exist outside of manners and protocols. If you want that perfect shot, you're not gonna get it if your subject is aware of being photographed.

So, just take the pictures and don't be sorry.
posted by CrazyJoel at 7:09 PM on August 13, 2006

Well, the exercise we did in class was that you had to go out on the street and take pictures of people and not ask them. fill up a whole roll of pictures. By the end of the roll, you're used to it.
posted by CrazyJoel at 7:11 PM on August 13, 2006


Oxford blue: "Man dancing with wife---two upside down y---pregnant women with toboggan---robot---power line---Shrimp duelling?"

Chinese person: "再见"
posted by oxford blue at 11:27 PM on August 13, 2006

For art pictures, you are better off getting the permission of the subject and posing them how you want. Taking snapshots or good photojournalism can be accomplished with people looking at the camera as alidarbac so aptly demonstrates. If you want "people-less" photos in a crowded street, use a slow film speed with a ND filter and shoot with a tripod at a slow shutter speed.
posted by JJ86 at 6:12 AM on August 14, 2006

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