There’s no such thing as a comfort zone at one of Eric Kim‘s street photography courses. And on Sunday morning I was beginning to wonder why I had exposed myself to a weekend on the streets of London with instructors cracking the whip at every corner.
I left Saturday’s session with some misgivings and my mood hadn’t changed overnight. Time was running out to get even one usable photo that the rest of the group wouldn’t find hilariously amateur. By the end of Saturday morning’s street session I felt I had been running around like a headless chicken desperate for one, just one, picture that I could bear to show.
As it turns out, this is not an unusual reaction and Sunday, the last day of the course, proved to be awful, stimulating and satisfying in equal measures. First I was out with Charlie Kirk who encouraged me to run up to people in the street and snap them from close quarters (and with the obligatory 35mm lens that’s too close for my comfort). I found myself refusing point blank to do this. One of my colleagues on the course had already fomented a nasty situation which Charlie had had to defuse. If this is street photography, I thought, I don’t see myself enjoying it. There has to be some pleasure in it.
Fortunately there are many facets to street photography and it is perfectly possible to indulge in a little specialisation. I am definitely not the in-your-face random without-permission snapper. It just doesn’t sit well with my rather reserved temperament. It’s ok for Charlie and, I suspect, Eric Kim, because they have the ability to get in and out without the subjects really noticing.
Charlie did his best get me to limber up and dance around the camera like a welter-weight; but to little avail. I’m just too old to indulge in this sort of activity. I’m more the type to wait for a suitable situation to arise.
But what I am quite good at, it transpires, is in chatting up people with a view to getting a consensual portrait. This was clear as Eric Kim took over for my half-hour one-to-one session at Oxford Circus, of all places. I wouldn’t have put it high on my list of desirable locations, but Eric worked it (and me) like a well-tuned Stradivarious. Get in there, cried Eric as I allowed myself to be pushed into the faces of unsuspecting locals and tourists. The challenge was to set the camera’s focus to 70cm (which just happens to be minimal focal distance with a Leica) and get a portrait. Seven-tenths of a meter is pretty close, but for a 35mm lens it is about right, if a little scary, both for the photographer and the subject.
This time, though, I was not expected to shoot without permission. Eric had me chasing after people, chatting them up and getting consent for portraits. He charmed one lady from Madrid in Spanish and she was so pleased to have her picture taken. I would not have believed this before I joined the couse, but eight out of every ten people approached were delighted to pose, be moved around into a better positions and generally act the model. At times I (and possibly they) felt part of some elaborate Candid Camera routine.
I began to experience a sense of accomplishment and my confidence was boosted by both Eric and Charlie telling me that I had a gift for talking to strangers. I knew this already, outside the photography context, but my main problem has been in breaking the ice prior to a chat. The ice is now well broken.
In the afternoon we processed the thousands of shots taking over the weekend in order to winkle out five good examples from each of our portfolios. Then, from this five we had to choose just one to submit to Eric. In the end I was proud of my lady-in-black shot which I had achieved after she passed us and Eric encouraged me to run after her and ask for a portrait.
Unfortunately I was pulled out of the group as a person with talent at chatting up strangers and had to take part in an excruciating and rather laboured chat-up-routine with Charlie who was standing in as a reluctant would-be model. It’s all part of the fun and serves to get everyone involved.
Throughout the weekend I used my Leica Monochrom with an f/2 Summicron lens which spent almost the whole time welded to f/8. Where possible I was shooting at 1/250s or 1/500s to help eliminate camera shake.
Should you take part in a course when Eric comes to your city? I think is something everyone with an interest in photography should experience, whatever the age or level of competence. Eric is a great motivator and puts his heart and soul into these weekends. The £395 I paid (this was the introductory price for the first comers) was certainly well worthwhile.
I learned my strengths, in particular my people skills and my penchant for portraiture. Along the way, I also realised that I could never be an aggressive streettog, one who is willing to take risks to get the perfect shot. In other words, I found my comfort zone and I now have much more confidence in approaching street subjects, secure in the knowledge that with the right attitude I will not get myself into trouble.