Many interested in Street Photography are very interested in Street Portraiture. Here I interview Zun Lee about his portrait work in the Streets and also asked him for a few tips for those wanting to do the same.
Zun, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I’m a bit of a nomad in that I’ve always been on the move – born and raised in Germany, lived in the US (Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia) and now based in Toronto, Canada. I’m a management consultant but originally trained as a physician, so I’m very interested in the human condition and dynamics of direct human interaction. I am also very visually oriented, meaning that I see the world as a collection of stories and images. Visually representing these stories is something I’ve always gravitated toward.
I started photography in earnest about four years ago. I’m traveling quite a bit for work and wanted a hobby I can take with me on the road. After a few months, I quickly realized I am passionate about human beings as my main subject matter and decided to focus on that, without actually knowing that there was a “classification” called street photography for my activity of choice. So, for a while, I would call myself a street photographer but the term really didn’t satisfy me. Given that I’m really interested in storytelling, I prefer “visual storyteller”, but the reality is I’m content at this point with even just “photographer”. I dislike boxes and categories.
What inspired you to be a photographer?
I used to draw and paint when I was younger – so creating visual stories was something I was involved in from an early age. I haven’t painted in decades, and I don’t think I have the time and patience to sit down and paint the way I used to. Photography for me represents a way to recreate the passion of image creation on the fly.
What attracts you when doing street photography?
I think everyone has a story to share – some wear their hearts on their sleeve, and others guard their story like a best-kept secret. I’m really interested in getting access to someone’s story and getting someone to share of themselves however much they would like at any given moment. And in order to get that story respectfully, “stealing souls” doesn’t work for me; it requires a give-and-take process where you make yourself equally vulnerable to your potential subjects as you expect them to open themselves up to you.
In that sense, I explained in different conversations what my take on “candid” means. In a nutshell, the most precious moment occurs for me when complete strangers respond to your energy and begin some kind of interaction but they’re in a bit of a twilight zone of whether to trust you or not. They know they’d like to, but they’re not fully there yet. That energetic exchange can yield a lot of interesting moments and expressions, where subjects reveal a part of themselves that they may not readily show to the outside world in other situations. Of course, that requires a lot of work on your part, too – you cannot passively wait for these moments to happen, you play a role in allowing the subject to get there and be comfortable.
When it all comes together, either in the form of a portrait or a scene, there’s a definite story there for me and to the outside viewer. The story someone else constructs doesn’t have to necessarily coincide with the story I felt coming together for me personally. As long as the viewer engages with the image in a way that triggers a cascade of questions (“Who is this person? What are their circumstances? What is happening between this person and the photographer? What is their life like?” etc.), I feel I have succeeded.
Where's the main location for your street portraiture?
Usually wherever I happen to be with whatever camera that’s on me. I do have my favorite locations: New York, and San Francisco are my most favorite. These places seem to correspond to my approach and energy the best.
What attracts you to shoot a portrait and not another?
On the surface, there has to be something visually interesting about a person, their appearance, their energy, their sartorial style – something that I notice instinctively. There’s no real formula here – I know it when I see it. On a deeper level, it’s a vibe or energy, something I feel when the encounter happens. Something that let’s me know there’s a story here somewhere.
What do you mean by “energy” and does it have any religious connotations for you?
I’m not a religious person but definitely spiritual. For me, energy is a certain level of connectedness one experiences that is not just the result of a visual stimulus. Often that connectedness can occur at the subconscious level. That’s when we tend to say “I can’t put my finger on it but something made me gravitate to this stranger”.
Whether or not a stranger on the street would make for a great photograph – that is something we can pick up with all senses, even if we can’t logically explain it. Call it “chemistry” or a “gut instinct” but it’s something that works both ways: How a subject responds to you as a human being, be it positive or negative, is often also the result of something visceral. If that connection between a subject and me transfers onto an image (i.e. if both subject and photographer are able to attune to this energy to “make” such an image), the result can be magical. It rarely happens the way I envision, but that keeps me on my toes to keep at it.
What are your usual settings -if any- for Street Portraiture?
It depends on whatever equipment I have on me. I don’t have a preference, sometimes I go full-frame DSLR or I carry my trusted Ricoh GR(D) street blade – as long I as consciously prepare for the day, anything goes. Size, shape and color of equipment doesn’t seem to make an outcome difference in terms of how successful my engagement with strangers is.
I tend to want to go close – 28mm or wider lenses are my preference – sometimes I want to isolate the subject, sometimes, I want a larger DoF because the surrounding background is as much part of the story. From a compositional perspective, I like to focus on the face and eyes, so it’s usually the full head/face or head and shoulders, with whatever background action I need to tell the story.
According to you, what should readers watch out for in a portrait in order to tell a story?
I’ve never had to spell out what goes on in my mind or what comes together for me when trying to pull a “story” together but I’m going to try. As soon as I establish that there’s a certain energetic connection with a subject that I want to explore, and I have a mutual understanding that it’s OK to go ahead and make a picture, it all happens really fast. I assess the person and what compels me about their vibe, look at the surroundings and if they are conducive for a good backdrop, the source, direction, and quality of light, and if I have the correct settings on my camera.
That’s a matter of a few seconds. If there’s a very specific moment, I make a picture as soon as I can to not lose the opportunity. If I believe I can coax more out of the subject, I engage in a conversation that gives me what I want. If there’s a more compelling background for the “story”, I position the subject there and let them settle into the scene. It all can be over in a second or two, or it can take a few minutes. The longest I spent with a subject was three hours, I think. I know that’s really extreme.
In terms of the “story”, what I am looking for (at best) are specific micro-expressions (to use a neurobehavioral term), because these tend to be difficult to fake and have a certain universality or shared meaning to them. I want some authentic connection to manifest between me and the subject, so that the viewer can then experience the same visceral reaction as I or the subject had. that forms the basis for the “story”, which each viewer should feel free to make up their own take as to what went on. It doesn’t need to exactly align with my personal story.
You see me coming to you from afar, I look interesting to you, you have your camera in hand. What goes on from there? Flash, no flash? Ask, do not ask? What's your process?
There’s no standard answer here, either. Looking back, it’s been all of the above. On one extreme, I simply walk up to someone (I’ve been known to run across the street and yell “… wait!” if I see someone compelling), or strobe someone without asking and immediately walk on. On the other extreme, I can engage someone for minutes or sometimes hours in a conversation without taking a picture, until the moment I’m after arrives. As a rule of thumb, I hate to ambush people or take someone’s picture against their will, so more often than not, I ask. However, “hello, can I take a photograph” usually does not work. Honesty and transparency about your intent is the best policy, not just to get permission but also to get to a level of trust so people relax and work with you.
“I hate to ambush people or take someone’s picture against their will”
A close-up of an angry, mistrustful or stunned person is just not attractive. Specifically, if there’s something about the person that’s striking, tell them exactly that: “Hello, I noticed your snazzy wardrobe / you have a beautiful energy about you / your eyes are really attractive,… would you allow me to capture that?” Not to flatter them per se, but it’s about your own sense of vulnerability, too. And finally, it always helps to tell folks what exactly you’re going to do with the picture you made. Will you post it on your blog? Email it to them? Print it and mail them a copy or give it to them in person at a later date? Transparency builds trust.
The reality is, most people will reject you, some with an understanding smile, some with a flat-out “no”. Taking that into account is key so you’re not overwhelmed by a sense of failure.
Some fear making photos of complete strangers, what are your tips to not fear?
I think there are several levels of fear: Many are simply afraid to approach strangers and make contact. I myself am very shy. And I’m an introvert. I don’t usually get a high from wanting to reach out to other people. But my desire to get “in” on someone’s story is bigger than my aversion to strangers and usually ends up winning. On another level, there’s the constant fear of rejection, which has to do more with you, not the stranger. Finally, there’s the fear of making oneself vulnerable, especially if you’re seeking to engage people in ways similar to mine.
Fear is natural. And it won’t ever go away nor do I think it should. You can actually use the adrenaline surge to drive your creative process. It’s stressful but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And one successful moments usually sparks a desire to go for the next one. It’s highly addictive. For me, having sweaty palms and a fast heartbeat is part of the fun.
Regardless of your level of fear, I think practice is key. If you’re thinking about approaching and engaging strangers, practice your conversation. Have an elevator pitch ready. Rehearse it to the point where it no longer sounds rehearsed but natural. My favorites are standing in front of a mirror or better, grabbing a bunch of friends and using your lines on them. If they’re not buying your game, you know you need to keep working at it.
Yes, fear is mechanism that's there to protect you…..ultimately you can either act on it or override it. How do you make strangers open up to you? How do you make a stranger trust you when you've just met each other?
The first thing I remind myself of is that nobody will have 100% conversion or agreement. Not even 50%. Facing and dealing with rejection is key. Nothing is worse than beating yourself up over all the “no’s” that accumulate over the course of a shooting day. The best approach to trust-building is to be completely open and trusting yourself. Don’t hide your gear. Don’t try to be “conspicuously inconspicuous”. I see a lot of folks dressed in all black, with their gear wrapped in gaffers tape. Great, if that works for them. It doesn’t work for me. I’m most comfortable, when I act and dress the way I do every day. “Yes I have a camera and yes, I very much would love to photograph you” – I telescope that intent when I’m out on the street.
“Never disrespect anyone’s choice”
Once someone begins to be curious or interested, I find a way to generate interest and keep that person interested. And I’m prepared to push harder or walk away if your efforts don’t go anywhere. Where to draw that line – that’s difficult and depends on the individual situation. But over time, you get a handle on what types of subjects warrant a more persistent approach than others, and for whom you’re better advised to keep it moving. Regardless, never disrespect anyone’s choice. There’s always another subject around the next corner.
Don & I talked about making vs taking a photo in a podcast episode. You say that the portraits are a reflection of you as well as the subjects….How do you make a portrait of (where it's a two way street) instead of taking a portrait?
Very much agree with “making rather than taking”. Perhaps because I used to paint, I always feel like it’s my responsibility to “create” a frame, not the equipment’s nor the subject’s. For me, street portraiture is a meeting of the minds that you and your subject both agree to, so when you press the shutter, it’s more than just the light(ing), composition, DoF, etc. that you decide upon in a short amount of time. Making a photo for me is about “does this image tell the story as I had envisioned it? If not, why not?”
I never ever let the “interestingness” (there’s a flickr word for you!) of a subject drive whether to make a picture or not. It’s always a matter of if what’s in front of the lens coincides with your vision. I often walk by colorful, expressive and “interesting” subjects without even flinching because they “don’t do it for me”. So, articulating your artistic vision, taking it on the street, and making a picture from that mental space – all that goes hand in hand. Otherwise, you’re just taking pictures of people. You’re capturing, but not telling a story.
How do you handle negativity?
I think I’m a little more used to it because of my day job but the best policy is to simply thank the person and walk on. The more you get used to engaging people, the more you’ll get a sense of where you have a potential opportunity to turn a “no” into a “yes” but when in doubt, keep going. No need to risk your own safety or health for the sake of making a picture.
Negativity used to bother me a lot at the beginning. But since then, random street shooters have come up to me and taken my picture without permission, which was very upsetting. I knew they were doing something perfectly legal but I still felt violated. So, keeping in mind what it feels like on the other side of that lens makes things easier to deal with. It’s never the subject’s fault.
Another aspect is persistence, especially when roaming in the same streets or neighborhoods again and again. People do notice you and over time, they develop a certain familiarity with you. You’re bound to run into the same people again, whether they agreed to work with you or not. Often times, a person that initially rejected you in the past will come around when you run into them again – another reason to always say “hello” and “thank you”.
Any anecdotes? I know you must have at least a few
There are so many 🙂 I’ll just mention two.
There is a lady in Philadelphia I kept running into on a pretty regular basis. She intrigued me because of her distinct way of dressing and the way she carried herself as a result. Our encounters were always cordial and we always said hello to each other, but she also steadfastly refused to be photographed each time we met. It almost became a routine running joke.
One day, she happened to be surprisingly curious and she asked me “what do you take pictures of anyway?”
“I only take pictures of beautiful people. But clearly, that’s not you”. I smiled in passing and quickly accelerated away from her. “You better come back here and take my picture, boy!” was all she yelled. And I happily obliged.
Another encounter I remember well occurred in Washington DC. It’s an example of energy working the other way – when a subject you met recognizes you and seeks you out. I was walking along U Street and turned around when I heard a gentleman say “… You're back!”. He continued with “We met two years ago” when he noticed I didn’t immediately recognize him.
He had lost a lot of weight, walked with a limp due to a foot infection, and I could barely understand him because of ill-fitting dentures and because he was also a bit delirious with a fever; I could feel his body heat radiating even though it was a warm and sunny day. My heart sank a bit thinking about in how much better shape he'd been when we had first met, and I definitely was not prepared to photograph him.
But it was him that encouraged me to do so… “Don't you want to take a picture, like last time?” I could barely lift the camera. “C'mon, son, you can do better than that!” I managed to take one shot. We hugged, then I dropped him off at a nearby ER. I personally didn’t feel comfortable posting this image at first (photographing the homeless is a whole topic unto itself), but when I finally did, people really responded to his expression and the story they saw.
Photography is also about being human. Some forget that. Any closing comments?
I feel that anytime a genre becomes a discipline with “rules”, it constrains rather than expands creative possibilities. Especially with the revival of “street photography” as a buzzword, people hang on to certain master photographers and/or approaches as immutable axioms etched in stone. Or they focus on the “right” gear and technical aspects of the work.
All of this is important. But photography is not a technical discipline. At the end of the day, you’re a visual artist. And beyond copying a past hero, or mastering your equipment, I strongly believe in developing a unique perspective regarding one’s work. Call it “vision” or “point of view” or “brand” but it’s important to develop a personal angle to your work that makes it immediately recognizable. It’s not about being distinctly “different”, but more about being distinctly “you”. By all means use established formulae to guide you, but adapt them to express your own voice. Don’t get caught up in endless debates about what is “candid” versus “posed”, what is a decisive moment and what isn’t, etc.
“It’s not about being distinctly different, but more about being distinctly you “
Just go out and shoot, then return home and do some soul searching re. why you gravitate toward certain subjects or themes, what certain situations make you feel, and what personal dynamics may play a role in that. Who you are as a human being informs your image-making much more than anything else. Conversely, if you do not have an artistic vision (or if you’re not ready to expose your vision to the world), it’ll show in your work, no matter how technically perfect it may be.
That quest for artistic vision is a never-ending one – you never “arrive” at a perfect end point (and I don’t trust those that claim they have). One’s vision is a living, breathing thing that keeps expanding, changing, evolving, and you stay hungry and strive to get better because you know that you will approximate but never fully match the image you made in your head.
Thank you Zun, for a most interesting conversation! I hope you've learned a bit from Zun's approach to portraits in Street Photography, and hope it helped you out. You will hear about him in another round on the blog and in a future issue of our Photography Magazine.
[highlight]About Zun Lee[/highlight]
I'm a self-taught photographer who picked up a camera in 2009. I have been an artist and storyteller since I was little but then life got in the way. Making pictures is my way of reclaiming my artistic side.
I’m the quintessential nomad. I was born and raised in Germany, have lived in various parts of the USA and am currently based in Toronto, Canada.