How to Get Street Photos


It’s no secret that I speak Spanish about as well as I can shoot awesome wolverine-like adamantium claws out of my knuckles.  But my complete metal retardation in the understanding-Spanish-when-it’s-spoken-to-me realm comes in great handy for photography in Colombia.  Especially street photography.

I decided to bring Diego out with me as a translator, because I knew I wanted photos of people doing things, and not just of the backs of their heads.  I wanted their permission to photograph them, so I could get some real interaction shots.  This is not something I usually do.  I’m usually going for scenery, and shots of people are either of bands, or I luck out with one person bringing me around to photo a large group (Fishermen of Juan Griego).

So this ‘let’s actually get photos of complete strangers” thing is a little unnerving. Especially in an area that is not used to tourists.

The first place we stopped, Diego and I, was a purse making shop (pretty sure they are openly making knock-offs…but they are  handcrafted, made well, and cheap…so really, who cares?).  I had Diego ask the owner if I can take photos.  This big burley man, leans over the counter, and I swear to God he was going to start punching us in the face and take us in the back to ‘teach us to mind our own business’.  He was not having it at all.  Finally, Diego was able to convince him I just needed photos for school or something, and he agreed…but there was a definite feeling of ‘hurry the fuck up and get out of here’ vibe thing going on.  The workers wanted nothing to do with me, and the owner just stood outside and starred at me.

man cutting leather, man in purse factory, making bags, seamster


So the next place I stopped, I decided to talk myself (and by talk I mean massacre Spanish, not really understand what they were saying, and just smile a lot while doing the Sullivan nod (oh thank you 10 years of food service.  You actually taught me something useful).

“Por favor” and I point to my camera.  Slightly disconcerting looks from a hairdresser and his middle-aged female client.  ‘Why.  What for?’ – something along those lines they ask.

“Yo queiro un foto.  Es bonita”.  (“I would like a photo of you working because it is really cool looking!)

The man says yes, the woman (whose hair is still being worked on) of course says no.

Please.  This photo is not for the internet or magazines.  I need street photography for a job I am applying for, and this photo is beautiful! I promise, it is not for Facebook.”

is what I said in my head.  In reality, my Spanish came out to about

“Please. No for internet. I am trying job. Ask me urban photos. This pretty. Please. No Facebook.”

but it worked.  In about 1/3 of the time of Diego with his perfect Spanish explanations.

hairdresser, getting hair done, at the hairdressers, blow-dry, getting pretty

Every time, I spoke bad Spanish and smiled sheepishly. Diego just stood there like he spoke no Spanish either.  The victims subjects just gave up and said yes, or felt bad and said yes.  Hell, the homeless dude (Frankie or Freddy, can’t remember which, but I’m pretty sure he is a local homeless person) who was burning tree stumps out of the ground started posing for me, told me where to get some more cool photos, then gave me a welcoming hug goodbye.

homeless man, friendly homeless, happy neighbourhood homeless person, burning trees, tree burning, burn stumps, fire, city, street photography, colombia, medellin, urban fotos, belen, barrio, guy burning trees in city

So what have I learned:

In Colombia, it seems a lot easier to get street photos of people when you barely speak their language (or speak it worse than you really do).  Also, Colombians wont pose like the USA.  If you tell them you want a photo of them working, they’ll keep right on working like you aren’t there.  Maybe they will stop and give you one cute pose, then keep on working.  It’s great!