Street photography: Facing my fears

It was sometime in March 2021 that I first headed out, camera in hand, with the sole intention to photograph the streets. I carried with me my dad’s old Canon DSLR – it was heavy, chunky and loud, but it served me well and gave me a taste of what practising street photography is all about. I quickly learnt the importance – and my ignorance – of composition, light and subject. I learned how knowing your gear is key, and that only stealing one acceptable photograph from the chaos of the street can be called a success. I quickly came to recognise my own observational skills and appreciate my patience and persistence. 

It was a time of great learning, but it also alerted me to a fear I hadn’t really anticipated. It was a fear that I only realised when I stood in a quiet street and pressed the old Canon’s shutter release. The loud clunk of a 15-year-old mirror flipping up, the shutters of a long-unused lens snapping shut – it sounded like a firecracker. People looked, and at that moment their eyes terrified me. I turned around and dashed down a side street, ashamed of myself. I wanted to go home, but somehow I managed to force myself to stay out for another hour. But I only kept to the empty backstreets. My photographs were awful, and I felt useless. 

On the whole, I’m introverted but independent and comfortable with who I am. I know what I’m about, and don’t tend to put much stock in the opinion of strangers. As it turned out, my casual aloofness disappeared with a camera in hand. But I didn’t want it to beat me. There was already something in street photography that compelled me – a fascination, nearing an obsession.

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I live in Peterborough, a small city that, despite its rich history, isn’t a place for tourists. Nor is it a city with a reputation for open-mindedness. Other than the odd trainspotter and bus-spotter at local transport links, there aren’t many cameras found in the markets and high streets. 

The city has one local street photographer of note, Chris Porsz, who is known mostly for shooting candid and posed portraits of local life and subcultures back in the 1970s and 80s. I own a copy of his first book, New England, and it’s a great document. Porsz appears in the local news now and again, often when searching out his previous subjects for reunion shots. But it’s been a long time since he was on the street, obsessively photographing the city centre of a weekend. 

Long story short, Peterborough’s population isn’t used to people in the streets with cameras, much less when said camera is being pointed their way. Of this, I was – and still am – acutely aware. 

After the incident with the loud-shuttered Canon, I was tempted to keep my distance. The kit I borrowed came with a 90mm-300mm lens, so I tried hitting the streets with that. Not only was it cumbersome, but it was also incredibly conspicuous, and the photos lacked intimacy. It was a no go. After this, I had a couple of attempts with some extreme cropping in post, but quickly realised that I was just putting off the inevitable. So, I invested in a compact mirrorless camera and 50mm prime lens and took the plunge. 

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It was the right decision. I don’t intend on being the next Bruce Gilden, but the street photography I respond to – in both my work and that of others – has a sense of proximity and connection. Heading out armed only with a prime lens month after month, I’ve found myself edging closer and closer to my subjects. My confidence has grown tenfold. I’ve switched from 50mm to 35mm, and I’m even eyeing up a 28mm lens as my next addition. 

I’ve come to realise that most people don’t notice that there’s a camera nearby – everyone is too busy being the main character in their own life. What’s more, I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t care if people notice me (unless it ruins a good stealthy photograph). I realised this on a recent trip to Cambridge where, without even thinking about it, I lined up a shot and waited for the subject to look up. I was waiting for eye contact, not six months after fleeing from exactly that. You can see the result below. Sure, it might not be the best picture in the world, but can’t help being proud of what it represents.

I’m still very early in my journey, but if street photography has taught me anything so far, it’s that with time, fear falls away. And after that, things really start to get interesting. 

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Thanks for reading. I’ll go a little more into how I trained myself to take photographs in public in the next post.

Published by William Lobley

Writer and street photographer

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