To be fair, it was a different start to a day: the news of my Aunt’s death was on my mind. Walking a new route from the exit of a downtown parking garage in brisk weather, I caught a glimpse of the mobile office you see in the photo below. Heavy foot traffic forced me to rush the shot, taken with whatever lens I had attached, which, in this case, was a 21mm Voigtlander — superior for the effects of a wide periphery but not for framing an interior from a longer distance than normal where truth tells the story with just the right amount of data.
I fumbled to get this picture, then fumbled to switch lenses. By that time the driver had approached, entered, and set to plan the next delivery on his list of corporate courier clients. My instinct said move on. I crossed the street, headed to breakfast, but, knowing that I missed the opportunity due to my natural inclination to avoid conflict, returned to engage him in the interview.
He sped off.
There were two problems here: one having to do with technical readiness, another with socialization.
It pays to have a reasonably good idea of what you're walking into so that you can be in sync, nimble, and/or prepared to bolt if necessary. Having the right tools for the job, ready-at-hand, frees your mind and saves time, an element that won't be on your side when doing street photography or fieldwork. The amateur photographer is often lured by the mechanical romance of numerous focal lengths, a costly mistake that leads to lumbering around with bricks in bag. Bresson shot with one lens for a lifetime (35mm), then later switched to another (50mm) and settled. This isn't wisdom to me, having used a Elmarit 28mm for most fieldwork of the last two years whether mounted to a 3/4 or full-frame camera. I know better.
This one’s trickier. The mindset of a researcher can be set before entering the field. There is often enough time and space between you and the job to have an internal dialogue that covers the basics of who, what, when, where, how. You anticipate the social interactions and the exchanges, figure out how to “enter” a situation and start a meaningful conversation about something that the participant probably doesn't think is that interesting to begin with. But, when you’re in the midst of walking to work, or on your way to a lunch meeting and opportunity presents itself, your mind is set on something, someone, somewhere else. So, you must be able to pivot — internally (in your head) and externally (in the social world). For the extrovert this is afterthought and energizing; but, for the introvert it can be an awkward maneuver every time. He has to switch gears, summon and deliver a pep talk to himself, then consciously devise a way in. By that time, it's often too late. He needs a technique that will enable him to switch on beforehand. Since I’m that introvert, here’s one that works for me: social currency.
Don’t Take, Give
Taking a photograph is risky business. Unknowingly, you’re a member of club “Camera Fiend” and up against a long history of cultural norms that have evolved as a defense mechanism against the intrusive act of photography (a dedicated topic of a future essay). You need to understand this and reframe the act of “taking” a photograph to one of bargaining for it. To do that, you need some kind of currency on hand that’s relevant to your audience. If your topic includes transients, street conditions, or public acts then any one of the following might work: a breakfast taco, a dollar, sharing the photograph (often just in-camera will suffice), or a story about why you want to take it and what you’ll do with it. And if you use a camera of some distinction — for example, it looks old/iconic — then you can use that as an access point by letting the participant see the camera, or even hold it. Indeed, socialization takes more planning, effort, and ongoing skill development than the technical demands of photography ever do.
To sum up:
Consider the act, reaffirm intent, carry your currency, negotiate terms, and earn the shot. This social exchange will also produce “story” which is the icing on the cake that you get to eat too .