Introducing The Street Photographer Anxiety Index (S.P.A.I.)

A way to measure one's anxiety in relation to photographing strangers.

The more immersed in street photography I become, the more I find myself writing about it. Not because I want to become a master street photography guru or anything lofty like that. But I do seek clarity of thought and procedure. I want to advance in the craft (or art if you prefer!) of street photography and be able to empirically assess my skills. Simply put, I want to get better at it. And conquering one’s fear or anxiety when faced with photographing strangers is part of my plan.

There’s no sense talking about fear in street photography if you can’t measure it. Unfortunately, there is little material out there in the genre to address this specific task. In fact, I’ve found none. Most accepted work done in measuring fear and anxiety are conducted by psychologists and other industry professionals. I’ll give you one example.

Once I was researching O.C.D. for a screenplay I was writing and I contacted one of the most respected researchers in the United States working with the phenomenon known as “hoarding.” He told me one thing that I still remember from all those years ago and from among all the very technical and useful information he sent me about his research with hoarders: A condition like hoarding isn’t a problem unless it interferes with one’s daily routine. That is to say that somebody who collects a lot of “junk” may not be a clinical hoarder in need of professional help if this person can still eat, sleep, go to work, interact socially, and conduct a relatively “normal” life despite the fact of having a cluttered home. The problems arise when there’s simply too much stuff to function. And as a professional, this doctor and his team had to measure the amount of stuff the suspected hoarder collected compared to the available living space (among other factors) in order to arrive at a rating so that treatment could be recommended and progress charted.

I’d like to think the same methodology, even to a less scientific extent, can be applied to overcoming fear and anxiety in photographing strangers in street photography, less the co-pay! But first, we have to measure our fear and anxiety before we can expect to overcome it and advance down the scale to becoming less inhibited and ultimately, anxiety-free. Because if fear/anxiety is holding you back from taking the kind of street photographs you want to take, you may not be in need of medical attention but you should work on lowering your rating if you want to get better at photographing strangers so as to better your street photography.

Below is the system I’m still developing. I purposefully designed it with street photography in mind. It’s not meant to be a rating system to be etched in stone. It’s a starting point to assess where you’re at in your street photographer’s journey when it comes to your anxiety/fear levels when photographing strangers. Think of it as the “rate your fear of photographing strangers on a scale of 1 to 10 – 1 being no fear and 10 being total chickenshit.”

What my Street Photographer Anxiety Index (S.P.A.I. or “Spy Rating”) is not is treatment. It's a reference meant to be a starting point in understanding your anxiety/fear in order to become a better street photographer. It also assumes that nobody is starting from a rating of 10 nor rank in the number one slot. In fact, the ratings of 1 and 10 are theoretical extremes which may exist in the real world. Ideally, street photographers should aspire for a spy rating of 2, that of the consummate “professional.” And beginners shouldn’t be so down on themselves if they’re afraid or very reluctant to shoot strangers because it’s very unlikely to be rated 10. Nobody reading this piece can be that hopeless. So cheer up – you’re at least a 9!

As I mentioned, my S.P.A.I. rating system is not complete. There’s still more clarity needed to fill in all the slots. For instance, distance is not factored in. Do we need to measure distance to subject in street photography as it pertains to fear and anxiety? Maybe at times. But for most people this is very relative, I suspect. One person’s comfortable arm’s length shooting distance might be another person’s 100 yards. That’s why the criteria I include in the rating slots could and maybe should be modified by someone interested in lowering their spy rating. For this reason alone I’m offering the below rating system to be licensed under Creative Commons so that street photographers may freely modify, adapt, and share the S.P.A.I. system to their own liking. The only thing I ask in return is that you cite my work here.

I’m open to feedback on my rating system. More updates to come if there’s enough public interest in developing the S.P.A.I. system in order to help street photographers overcome their fears.

The Street Photographer Anxiety Index

1 No fear (NF). Possibly psychotic or suffering severe psychological conditions. You wouldn’t think twice if an assailant put a gun to your head and told you NOT to take his picture. You would take his picture! Not too many people are in this category. No one should aspire for this rating either.

2 “Pro” No operational fear (NOF). Will photograph anything or anyone, anywhere, anytime, as long as it doesn’t pose a life or death situation. The key here is manageable risk. Think paparazzi, war and conflict photographers. You don’t ever slide back up the scale. You’re rock solid. You’re a pro. Photographing strangers on the street poses no fear or anxiety whatsoever. More than anything, SPAI 2 is a “feeling” that you’re on top of your game when it comes to photographing strangers. Now, are there incremental steps between SPAI 2 and 1? Possibly. If this were true, then it would likely be in a street photographer’s best interest to actually raise his or her SPAI!

3 “Explorer” Base Line +2 (BL+2). Capable of walking into unfamiliar neighborhoods and locales, even in different countries and cultures. Street photography and photographing strangers on most days raises little anxiety/fear. You get most of the shots that you want. The primary difference between SPAI ratings of 3 and 2 is an acknowledged reluctance on the street photographer’s part for not taking pictures of strangers in certain situations when it would have been perfectly okay to do so. Street photographers with a SPAI 3 also have a strong desire to conquer the remaining “fetish fears” since experience on the streets is significant enough to advance to SPAI 2. There’s just a little bit more work to be done in the psychological department. Almost there!

4 “Novice” Base Line +1 (BL+1). You can approach strangers for shots and achieve desirable results more times than not. While there is still apprehension or anxieties in certain situations, you are perfectly fine with exploring familiar and new neighborhoods and locales. The primary differences between SPAI BL+1 and BL+2 are an acknowledged lack of experience in photographing strangers in street photography, or the street photographer may feel that his or her introversion (or personality conflict of some kind) results in a great many missed opportunities when photographing strangers. Those with a SPAI BL+1 are usually actively seeking help in understanding how to conquer their fear in street photography, although it’s not a trait unique to this rating by any means.

5 Base Line (BL0). The theoretical line between the introverted/inexperienced street photographer and those who are more extroverted/experienced. This phase is transitory and temporary. The photographer knows it’s time to make a decision to advance down the scale or remain in a limbo between worlds. It’s the rating to choose when confidence is more of coin toss on any given day after examining many good and bad days, though you probably have a stronger tendency to a + or – 1 rating. Examining one’s photos may bring clarity for a proper rating.

6 Base Line -1 (BL-1). Willing to approach strangers and shoot candid and most forms of street photography. You acknowledge that fear/anxiety hampers your ability to photograph strangers effectively. You’re most likely new to street photography and still learning the ropes. The biggest difference between a SPAI BL-1 and BL-2 is the ability to approach strangers and interact for the sole purpose of photographing them. On a good day you are Base Line or even a BL+1. But what drags you back to BL-1 is a lack of consistency in your shots and knowing that you’ve missed too many opportunities to photograph strangers for your liking.

7 Base line -2 (BL-2) . You’re willing to shoot strangers - candid and with eye contact - but reluctantly. It still feels very uncomfortable/unnerving to do so. But you will not (or cannot) approach strangers yet in order to photograph them. You tend to stay far away from the action. The BL-2 rating essentially forgoes the opportunity to shoot street portraits.

8 Base Line -3 (BL-3). You’re willing to photograph strangers in candid situations when you know you can get away with it. You miss many shots because of the risk of being “discovered.” In a nut shell, you’re a nervous candid shooter only. The primary difference between SPAI BL-3 and BL-2 is that the street photographer won’t take the shot if he or she knows the subject is watching. Now, this singular trait can be a deterrent for photographers with lower SPAI ratings. But in this case, the fear is great enough to be the difference between two ratings. In other words, even a SPAI BL+2 may not take a photograph of a stranger in certain situations. But a BL-3 never will until he or she overcomes this disadvantage.

9 Operational Fear (OF). You’re more comfortable photographing alone and in familiar environments like your home or backyard. You won’t photograph strangers – at all. You are literally incapable of participating in street photography as a recreation at this time.

10 All fear (AF). Possibly agoraphobic or suffering from other severe psychological conditions. Will NOT take a shot even if your assailant puts a gun to your head and demands you to take his picture! There’s a good chance if you’re reading this that you’re not roaming freely among us. For all intents and purposes, this is a theoretical rating (like SPAI NF) listed to cover all possible anxiety/fear levels.

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