Paranoid Android: Street photography in 2017


by Michael Nguyen /

2 min read
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Paranoid Android: Street photography in 2017
「おい!何やってんだよォ!」translates as “Hey, what are you doing?” but tone trumps words in Japanese, so it was more like a “what the f**k do you think you’re doing!?” This was lovingly shouted into my left ear by a bystander after snapping a photo of a boy in a school uniform walking down the street.

A few weeks prior, another woman was confrontational after I shot her crossing the street awkwardly in too-high heels. Yet another man was angered at me shooting him a couple months ago looking at a store window in Ginza with his wife (which in hindsight I surmise wasn’t as she seemed quite younger, hence getting vitriolic).

Japan has generally been a photo-friendly country but the paranoia culture we’ve seen escalate in recent years in the West seems to have creeped over to the land of the rising sun as well. And the recent explosion of pedo allegations storming the news can’t help the situation, making it even more difficult to innocently shoot children at play in public. Before anyone starts, yes, I ask for permission as well and I find the rejection rate increasing as time marches on.

Without getting too deep into the legality vs. ethics and relevance of street photography, I wanted to hear everyone’s thoughts on the matter. Have others witnessed an increased difficulty in candid snaps?

A photographer friend of mine has suggested switching to digital; you can instantly show your non-malicious intent and delete the image upon request. The question begs though, “Why should I change because of a few bad apples and the hyper-sensitivity induced by the social media revolution?” The line between curiosity and creepiness is blurred upon recognition to me.

It is my hope that this question is not somehow misconstrued as condoning children stalking or making light of the importance of protecting one’s identity. There are without a single shred of doubt deplorable predators of innocent children, perverted upskirting losers, etc. out there but something is amuck with the way things are.

The Japanese have a saying, “Don’t be KY”. Not to be confused with hanky panky lube, “KY” stands for Kuuki Yomenai or “can’t read the air”. You can’t ram your camera in someone’s face ala Mr. Gilden a good majority of the time these days but it’s perfectly possible to keep a respectful distance, not make subjects feel uncomfortable and still obtain some very intimate candid images of normal every day life.

But when bystanders automatically assume you’re accumulating pre-pubescent kid pics for your own nefarious means and you can’t prove your innocence until your film is developed…unfortunately these are the times we live in.

As always, your thoughts and comments are encouraged. But remember, please keep it civil. We are all human beings.


21 comments on “Paranoid Android: Street photography in 2017”

    stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski November 30, 2017 at 6:05 pm / Reply

    How stupid it got. In the society studded with surveillance cameras on every corner, with palm size action cam fitted to your bike or your hat, with billions smartphones everybody holding to their ear and being able just to push a button to take whatever surrounds them, with small bridge cameras with 20x zooms, with thousands of 150-600 lenses on 42MP cameras around, people get concerned if some smiling friendly shutterbug takes a snap of a street scene.

    Greg November 30, 2017 at 6:19 pm / Reply

    You should just print a fake press card, and show it when someone has problems.. make up a good story too…

    Mike Calcagno November 30, 2017 at 10:50 pm / Reply

    Been shooting street photos in Japan, China and Korea since 2011. Korea has always been a difficult place to shoot, and I mostly shoot portraits now (with permission) when I’m there. Japan has a long history of street photography, and generally street photography is respected as an art form. That being said, things have evolved in the last couple years to the point where I get challenged much more now, along the lines you describe (and I almost never make photos of children, they don’t interest me). Street photography has always been more social than technical, and photographers have to adapt socially as society’s attitude towards being photographed evolves. We may think people are being unreasonable, but they feel what they feel. It is valid. One tip I can offer is to try to build trust, even if your interaction with your subject is short. Lingering in one place a bit, making your camera’s presence known, being transparent about your intentions, being respectful of others, these all serve to build trust. Keep shooting, it’s an important art form.

    Frank Lehnen December 1, 2017 at 12:18 am / Reply

    Always carry a small book I made of my photography to defuse the situations. I’ll not change to that digital thing (whatever that is) though.

    But it’s true that I come to feel like a criminal when I make photographs in the streets. What’s more, here in Luxembourg (France too I think) you theoretically don’t have the right to photograph a public building without the consent of the architect! That is if the building is the main subject of the photo. There have been cases where overzealous private guards people harassed tourists photographing the rather appealing buildings in Luxembourg City.

    I don’t know what’s the solution… I thought about a series of street photographs with the heads cut off on purpose…..

    Tadeas Plachy December 1, 2017 at 12:33 am / Reply

    Times they are changing… But to be honest worst I got in Czech Republic was semi curious semi annoyed questions… Russia was bit tough, but street/documentary photographers ate kinda respected there so if you explain yourself its all good.

    Globaly speaking the “vibe” definetly changed.

    msmlska December 1, 2017 at 1:26 am / Reply

    I struggle with this everytime.

    i ask permission when in is quarters, and I find the no’s are more frequent than yes’s. sometimes I can pursuade them.

    i got in the most tense situation in berlin. it was a wide shot if a market and one guy barely in the frame came at me. no logic could pursuade him to calm down.

    I’ve also had some good experiences shooting film over digital. people say no, then I show them it’s film and that I won’t “put it on Facebook” and then they’ve agreed.

    Mario F. December 1, 2017 at 1:26 am / Reply

    I’d actually argue that this might not be so much of a “Japan” thing as it is a “Tokyo” thing… I’ve always been a bit terrified of having to explain myself for taking snap shots of strangers in the event of confrontation, but it’s also never actually happened to me yet.

    After having left the Tokyo area and moving to Okinawa, I’ve noticed quite a difference in basic interaction with the local people. They seem a bit more warm and inviting… Curious even…

    I’d definitely have to agree with Mike Calcagno above though… Establishing trust and making your presence clear is probably the best course of action to avoid a misunderstanding… I’ve often noticed that in doing this, people are more concerned about not ruining your frame, and apologizing as they pass through than they are of being in it. Obviously this presents a bit of a challenge depending on what types of photo’s you’re looking to take, but over the course of my brief photography career, it has certainly worked for me.

    In our current environment, and being in Asia particularly, I’d say taking pictures of children (unless you clearly know them/ or have a connection to their family) is always going to raise some flags with certain types of people… I think to a certain extent this can’t be helped, and regardless of what the intentions are behind the photos, it’s probably reasonable to expect someone to eventually be confrontational about this. To be honest, I could easily find myself being concerned with someone taking photos of children especially being unaware of both the context and intentions. Judging from the sample photos, these concerns would clearly have little to do with the photographer, and everything to do with the fact that there are just some weirdos out there, and you can never be too careful.

    Paul Rice December 1, 2017 at 1:39 am / Reply

    I’m not a street photographer but I’ve had my best luck at public events when I’m the opposite of incognito – when I wear a photographer’s vest and occasionally a name tag. People think I’m “official” or the media and I’ve been asked several times “Will this be in the paper?” Sadly, my wife and daughters have now barred me from wearing any of my beloved vests – something about fashion of the lack thereof. (“Daddy likes vests”. “No, Daddy likes pockets – they come with the vest”)

    Drew Rhodes December 1, 2017 at 4:29 am / Reply

    I’m with the guy who says he dresses the part, except I dress very fashionably. A nice blazer, some dress boots, we’ll fitting dark jeans, a slick hair cut, and a cool looking camera- my favorite is the original Contax T. Not to sound pretentious, but I look the part of a proper artist. I look like someone people WANT to have taking their photo. Someone who’ll get an amazing photo they can use for their Instagram or Facebook. I think the trick to overcoming paranoia is to stick out, to not blend in. To proudly say, I’m here and I’m the best, damn it. Carry business cards with your IG and contact info. Tell them to email you in a couple days for a free digital copy of the photo. Turn them into a fan. That’s what I do and I don’t have any problems.

    cdembrey December 1, 2017 at 8:05 am / Reply

    #MeToo. In the 1960s we had a sexual revolution. The same women who were empowered by roe v wade and the pill, have finally figured out that it’s OK to reject rich and powerful creeps. The general public is seeing powerful men like Lauer and Franken outed as creeps. Because of this the general-public now knows that they too can fight-back against perceived intrusive creeptographers. If you’ve seen one bag-lady photo or one jailbait shot, you’ve seen them all. Forget about the law, that cute schoolgirl with the katana, could turnout to be another Gogo Yubari (Google her) ;-)

    Olli Thomson December 1, 2017 at 8:55 am / Reply

    I’ve only visited Tokyo briefly a couple of times. On the second trip I went on a photo walk with a few others and I was surprised at how tolerant and accepting people were. Most people seemed totally uninterested in me. I expected a more ‘first world’ attitude which I encountered most strongly when I lived in Munich. On one occasion, when out shooting with a few friends on the U-Bahn one guy walked the length of the platform to challenge one of our people because he thought our guy had been taking pictures of him and his girlfriend a hundred yards away at the other end of the platform.

    The best place I ever shot was in Manila where I lived for a few years. Here people were most likely to get offended if you didn’t take their picture. It was also easy to get permission to take pictures of kids playing in the street – a nod and a smile to nearby adults was usually all it took. Once the shot was taken the most likely reaction was that they would thank you for taking their picture.

    OF course, when I put the camera aside, I sympathise with people who don’t want their picture taken. In an era where cameras are ubiquitous and the means for distributing images to vast audiences are freely available the sense of intrusiveness into personal privacy is much greater than it was in the era of film and print.

    Eric December 1, 2017 at 10:00 am / Reply

    I recently did street photography in Japan for two weeks this month and I didn’t have any problems. I walked all over tokyo and kyoto and felt very welcome to take pictures everywhere. I did on a few occasions notice people try to avoid walking by an area i was waiting at to take someone’s picture and another time had a guy look at me intensely for taking a photo of a wide open street he happened to be on, but im not easily intimidated so I just shrugged it off. I try to be casually tourist about photography when I’m abroad and I think if you act relaxed and normal people generally ignore you. I tend to think that people who get angry about you taking photos are the weird ones, not the photographer. Think about how many selfies you’re probably in by accidentally walking in front or behind someone, probably millions. Photography is as normal as playing video games.

    My guess is sometimes you encounter people who don’t like the idea of being photographed, and it’s more noticeable now with smartphones everywhere. Whether it’s shyness or just the idea someone else wants to photograph them, I think the issue is overblown. The moment you’re in public in most first world countries there are a million security cameras filming your every move, so the idea someone with a camera is up to no good is hogwash in my mind. Paranoia doesn’t belong in the public sphere, and although there are bad people everwhere, it shouldn’t detract from the majority of good people.

    stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski December 1, 2017 at 7:50 pm / Reply

    There was one a guy in so called third world who approached the photographer and said- please sir, take a picture of me, I don`t want to be forgotten. But it was so long time ago

    Dan Castelli December 2, 2017 at 11:04 pm / Reply

    Wow, what a kettle of fish being served up. Everyone relax, take a deep breath, exhale. Done? Good. Now, some random things popping into my head…

    1. There is go guaranteed right anywhere in the world allowing us to do ‘street’ photography. We rely on our wits and winning personalities to operate.
    2. Fake ID? Don’t go there. You just might run into problems, and you make it more difficult for those who do carry real press ID’s [too much ‘fake news’ allegations in the US already.]
    3. Dress to blend in or dress to be outrageous. No middle ground. When I travel, I don’t look like a slob.
    4. Show respect, but make you point of view understood. Let people know you feel your work is important.
    5. Be curious & engage in conversation, then snap your pick. Show your work.
    6. Smile, learn a few phrases in the local language (please, thank you…)
    7. Don’t be threatening or obnoxious. Ask permission, and keep working until you’re asked to stop, then say “So & so said I could take some pics…”
    8. You might need to buy something if you’re shooting in a market…
    9. Locals know you’re an outsider. Hang out for a bit, let them lose interest in you, then spring into action.
    10. If there are four big guys in black suits, wearing wrap around sunglasses, looking in different directions, standing next to a Rolls, don’t take the shot. Unless you’re on a movie set. It won’t end good for you.
    11. Don’t stop, just move to someplace else and resume shooting.
    12. Everyone has a bad day, you just may have photographed that person.
    13. Be aware of religious restrictions, some things you just won’t get.
    14. Wear good shoes, avoid anything hanging off your clothing, and plan a route of exit. As you run like hell to get away, you don’t want someone grabbing a loose strap hanging off your jacket.
    15. If you snap a pick of a busker or a homeless individual, drop something in their cup/bucket/hat. You owe them that.
    16. Know how your equipment operates, don’t be fumbling to make the shot.

    In 45 years of shooting candid’s, street shots, city & country people, I’ve used or practiced all of these points. I’ve learned from others. Best that works for me? I smile, I shrug, I talk to people. I find common ground between myself & my subject.

    Good luck & good shooting.

    Wojtek December 4, 2017 at 5:19 pm / Reply

    In Poland you are (theoretically) legally obliged to ask for consent if the picture you want to make will be published in any way. And to give up if the person you want to photograph openly disagrees. Maybe the same rules are in Japan?
    On the other hand, if you’re photograping a bigger bunch of people (more than 5, I believe) then you have to do with so called gathering and that means you can make and publish pictures. Of course, there are limitations regarding commercial use and still if someone feels his personal rights (image rights too) are violated you can be sued. But legal suits (or at least legal disputes) are rather rare, except of celebrities or criminals (or suspects) on one side and paparazzi or press photographers on the other.

    Jon Herr December 9, 2017 at 12:29 am / Reply

    I typically avoid shooting people because I am not one for confrontation. Early on walking around I had a couple bad experiences with either security guards or people not even in the shot give me more trouble than what it was worth.

    And I get it, i’m not the most outgoing person and usually avoid getting my picture taken, so I see where people are coming from, but I have found a couple things that have worked for me. I have asked people if they mind if I hang out by them and maybe get a couple photos. I dont say “Hey can I take your picture?”, I tried that but it never seemed to work. But if I’m just hanging out they people dont seem to mind as much, and I tend to get forgotten.

    Or if i dont feel like approaching people (like i said, I’m not the most outgoing person), I found that a waist level finder pretty much makes you invisible. I can stand there and look down at the finder or light meter app on my phone and I pretty much look like anyone else standing around texting, and once I get a feel of the focus and field of view, I have gotten away with just tapping the shutter without even looking.

    Pete Myers December 12, 2017 at 1:55 am / Reply

    I am a fine art photographer by profession, and have been photographing the American West for nearly a quarter of a century. During that time period, I have been intercepted perhaps six times by property owners with concerns. I dare say, at least one of them was well armed, but did not brandish his weapon. In all cases, I managed to turn the intercept into an invitation to continue the work, but that does not mean it was easy, nor that I have forgotten about the difficult experiences.

    Since the economy crashed in 2009, the welcoming nature of rural American has diminished. There was a lot of theft during the low points of the economy. I have seen historic ruins, ruined by people scrapping for metal, brick, stone, timber, etc—no regard for ownership or the beauty of the structure. It just turned into a “free” source of income to them.

    My work is not in street photography with humans, but it does share the lack of trust that is so prevalent these days. Curiosity has turned into fear—a fear that something will be lost or compromised from our viewing reflected light.

    I am much more careful about my work then I was in the past. The worry makes it difficult for me to get out and do my work. While were I live, there are many abandoned properties that are legally not posted and might entertain my work, the mood of the locals comes into play. I often work so remote that it would take hours for law enforcement to show up, so me and my gear are on your own.

    My only bit of advise is to be boldly obvious with the intention of your work. Uncertainty seems to breed confrontation. Also, as silly as it sounds, if you don’t move, you are often “invisible” to people no matter how overt you are to the scene. They simply do not see you.

    Too many people! It is our number one problem on the planet, and overpopulation leads to confrontation.

    John Kossik January 15, 2018 at 1:47 pm / Reply

    For all our faults here in the US we do have one part of our Founding Documents that is viewed with almost religious like reverence. That is the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, the guarantee of Free Speech.

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    Creating images in a public place has time and again been considered as a form of “speech” and thus fully covered by the 1st Amendment.

    This covers very plainly what you would call Street Photography. As long as the subject is in a public place with no assumption of privacy anyone can create an image of anyone with no restrictions. There are some limitations like photographing a military site with a long lens, but these are very limited. One could say that it is this very right that has led to the increase in documentations of police misconduct in recent years, as police in a public place have no right to not be imaged (as long as you stay at a safe distance).

    One thing that does work in the US, the 1st Amendment.

    I do not know how many other countries have a similar right.

    Mako February 16, 2018 at 4:03 am / Reply

    I was testing a new camera at the horse jumping arena down the street. A Mom threatened to call the cops … even after I showed her the nice photographs of her daughter jumping, and offered to send them to her. I was photographing another woman jumping, going through the various options on the camera, when she finished and the younger gal “took her place.”

    Mako Koiwai February 16, 2018 at 4:04 am / Reply

    I no longer photograph at our local market because Mom’s we’re complaining even though the cops would explain to them that I was completely within my rights to photograph anyone in public.

    Stefan April 19, 2018 at 3:01 pm / Reply

    Maybe people get upset because every punk (sorry) with either a Leica or a Contax thinks he is a bloody Street photographer. This term is used so much, that it makes me want to throw up when I hear it ;) everyone is shooting boring and not interesting street scenes and considers himself an artist. That’s why people are pissed. There are 1 under hundred who can be called real street photographers. All others are just fauxtographers. Just my two cents, no hard feelings :)

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