I’ve always found street photography to be one of the most Important genres of photography (“Important” with a capital “I”, obviously). It’s certainly been the most interesting for me. When I’m shooting people with tough lives, in tough neighbourhoods – anyone on the margins of society’s cracks or who’ve fallen through, really, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. Based on the incredible work of people like Diane Arbus, Brassio, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier, I know I’m not alone. And if you’re reading this you clearly have at least some interest in the subject. So how do you survive the street half of street photography? Well, read on.
Know the Area
I’ve shot in rough areas of New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland and a few others. I’m a short, slight white girl and have yet to be jumped, robbed, stabbed shot, assaulted, threatened with death or otherwise molested by any of the locals. There are a few good reasons for that. Chief among those: my recognition that people are people. I don’t know how many times some concerned colleague, friend, resident of a nicer section of the city, etc., has told me, “You can’t go there. That place is a nightmare. The gangs/hoodlums/bad guys run that place!”
And I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to those places and met a lot of decent people, 90+ percent of them, who go about their lives, working hard and never complaining, in places the rest of us avoid at all costs. You have to be careful, know where you’re going, what you’re doing and have some modicum of street smarts, certainly. Although I’ve never been roughed up, I have definitely run into dangerous people, drugged and drunk people, those I’d never want to encounter alone at night in poorer places.
To keep away from as many of the latter as you’re able, learn the layout of your target district beforehand. That’s really important- check out a map, Google Earth, landmarks and so on before you ever go through. At the very least have a rough idea for an escape route – “If things go bad, I can just keep heading north until I’m out of here.”
Know the Gangs if There are Gangs
Because of the time I spent in inner-city spots, particularly LA, I’ve become something of a gang expert. You don’t have to be a gang expert certainly but it’s good to know the lay of the land. I’ve also heard a lot of people say things like, “No matter what you do, never go into —— wearing blue/red/yellow and black!” It’s not necessarily bad advice but it’s also not necessarily necessary advice. In my case, certainly, as a short, slight white girl, if I’m wearing a reddish t-shirt or blue jeans within a gang neighborhood with my camera hanging around my neck, I’m probably not going to be mistaken for a trespassing gang-banger. Gangsters are people, not color-shooting robots but it’s always wise to be on the lookout.
Quick gang primer: a tremendous proportion of the nation’s gangs are broken up into “sets” with loose or tight allegiances to bigger syndicates. The West Coast (and a lot of other places too) Latino/Latina collectives are the Sureños and Norteños. Sureño means “southerner” and designates a gang with allegiance to southern California-based gangs – they wear blue. The sureños have cartel connections and probably represent the biggest gang collective in the country. Norteños are “northerners”, they wear red and also have cartel connections and while there are fewer of them, they’re no less dangerous.
Most people are familiar with the Bloods and Crips – the largest black gang syndicates (probably). Blood (AKA “piru”) gang members wear red, while their more populous rivals the Crips wear blue. In the Midwest, South and on the East Coast there’s a better chance of running into “People Nation” or “Folk Nation” gangs. People Nation gangs include the Vice Lords and Latin Kings. They wear yellow and black, and sometimes red. Folk Nation gangs include the Gangster Disciples. Any “… Kings” or “…Lords” sets are probably People. Any “…Disciples” gangs are probably Folk.
Know the People or Get to Know Them
It always helps to have someone that can introduce you to an area and its residents. If you decide to stroll into Boyle Heights, Salinas or the South Bronx and start snapping shots of gang members and gritty-looking characters, you’re gonna have a bad time. Particularly if you’re in an area where anything illegal is taking place. If you don’t know anyone, talk with the locals in the shops and businesses in the area. I’ve found police to be helpful a few times in pointing me toward some good guides/contacts.
Always conform to the “treat others the way you’d like to be treated” dynamic. If some stranger showed up and started shooting you (with their camera), you’d probably be nonplussed at best. Same goes here – when people know what you’re about, even gangster types, they’re far more likely to share their image and stories with you. They may even be eager.
What it comes down to is – use your head, do your research, have a plan, get to know people, always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, be respectful (never attempt to match somebody’s patois or dialect – it makes you sound ridiculous and disrespectful) and remember that we’re all the same. Some of us have just had a rougher go of it.