A Lesson in Street Photography, from the Man in the Blue Hat

Last Monday, this small town girl from Chicago walked all over Lower Manhattan trying her hand at some NYC street photography. It was already mid-afternoon and I was standing on the corner of Prince & Broadway waiting for something to happen. (And, of course, secretly hoping I'd bump into Dave Gahan.) The sun had been hiding all morning but was finally starting to light up the west side of Broadway. I spent about 30 minutes darting from one corner to the other in this intersection, trying not to get run over by the massive rush of people, bicycles and pure-breds. I decided I was going to hang out and watch a certain patch of sunlight when I spotted a man in a blue hat and scarf crossing the street. I thought I had seen him a few minutes before but wasn't sure. I snapped a quick photo and moved on westward down Prince.


I stopped to talk to a man selling t-shirts who loved film photography, and took his portrait. He was set up next to a lady selling hats and I took her photo as well, not knowing I was being watched. She asked me not to take her picture, so I kept walking, feeling a bit discouraged. I stopped at the next corner, turned around, and again saw the man in the blue hat and scarf. He was leaning there just smoking his cigarette and watching. I took his photo. He saw me, shook his head and started to walk away. I took it that he didn't want to be photographed either and moved on to the next corner.


I was snapping away when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was the man in the blue hat and scarf. He asked me, "Can I ask you a question?" For a split second I thought that he was angry with me for taking his picture and that he was going to ask me to delete it. But instead his face cracked into a smile and he said, "Can I take a picture of you…taking pictures?" “Yes”, I said, “Of course! But here? There's not a lot of people.." He said not to worry, he'd photoshop some people walking by me. I got a kick out of what looked like a seasoned, local photographer squatting down taking photos of ME, a total newb.


Then we chatted for a bit. His name was Hirotsugu, and he told me he liked to hang out on street corners and take photos of people walking, especially in front of nice backgrounds. He showed me with pride the giant viewfinder that he had somehow attached to the back of his digital camera. I asked if I could take his portrait too, and to my delight he said yes. He asked if he could post his photo of me on Facebook, to which I said yes, of course. We exchanged emails and he later sent me my photo and a screenshot of his Facebook post.

In street photography there seems to be two types of shooters: ones who ask their subjects to pose and ones who do not. I'm still figuring out my approach, but I'm learning that people tend to appreciate conversation and getting to know one another first. We put on an exterior for others, whether we do it consciously or not. When we are photographed candidly we open ourselves up to vulnerability and some folks don't like that. They want to know how they are being portrayed or how their image is being used. Some cultures believe that a photo will steal a part of your soul. That is another conversation to be had. But this interaction showed me that most people are approachable. We are never alone. There is always someone willing to open themselves up to you. You just have to ask.