Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, I got in my little purple car and started driving around this behemoth of a city.  On the afternoon I’m recalling, I didn’t have time enough to head down to the beach, nor to go to the really vibrant East LA neighborhoods that I scouted the week before. But there’s a little stretch on Fairfax that is “Little Ethiopia” — colorful, good eats, and not terribly far from my place.  So I headed that way.

I got out and started to shoot — but I felt really uncomfortable.  Which was how I felt each time I’ve tried to shoot on the street in LA.  I felt voyeuristic.  And the presence of that feeling was most unwelcome — I had gotten over that in my street stuff a long time ago.  Suddenly, I felt like an outsider and an imposter.  To escape that feeling, I ducked into a thrift store and started framing shots in the cramped confines in an effort to spark my creativity.  After nabbing a few interesting shots, I was felt like the whole outing wasn’t a complete bust.  So I decided to get some dinner.  For ten bucks, I was treated to an amazing plate of Ethiopian stews. While waiting for my food, I talked to the waitress and her father.   During dinner,  I made funny faces at a baby and smiled with her grandmother.  But the whole time, I was vaguely preoccupied with worrying about why I wasn’t able to shoot.

But when I went back outside after the meal, all of a sudden I could.  By then, it was dark and then lens I had with me was too slow to get much of anything.  But this time, I could see the shots and try to take them.  That was enough improvement for me to know that something substantial had shifted.

But what?

I think the crucial factor is that I had connected to the community.  I supported a local business – I talked to the people there.  I involved myself.  I had given a little and so I was able to receive a little.  Shooting otherwise feels like stealing. I needed to earn the right to see a place as it really is.

The more I thought about this concept of connectedness – the more sense it made.  I recognized that I’ve had this experience before.  For example, while road-tipping last summer, I rolled through all these incredible small towns, but I’d rarely be able to shoot street candids worth a damn.  That all changed when I arrived in a tiny northern Montana town.  There, I talked to local artists about their work, chocked down a (potentially-toxic) meal at the local diner, laughed with teenagers in a tee-pee shaped coffee house, and stayed in a family-run B&B.  I had no problem at all shooting street scenes in that town.

This happens a lot when I travel.  No matter the destination, no matter the scenery, I can’t just land and shoot.  I’ve got to connect. Build a relationship.

Later that evening some kids (who were likely up to no good) spied my DSLR and started shouting: Girl, you a photographer?  I said yes and agreed to take their picture when asked.  They went from being vaguely threatening delinquents staring at my new car to being giddy kids who were really excited to have a “real photographer” take their photo.  Sadly, the photos came out like crap.  It was SO dark and they wouldn’t stand still! Not the point, though.  The kids liked them.

And as for me:  Well, I got in my car — feeling more connected to my new environment — and hungry to find ways to deepen that connection.  I started to wonder, what good comes of a few crappy photos taken on the fly?  And why am I really doing any of this candid street shooting?  I realized that what I wanted to do was buy those kids some fast food, talk to them about their lives and then shoot with them.  I want to start photo essaying, too.  But to really do that I’ve got to 1) get involved with the community  2) establish a connection and 3) earn trust.  I realized that I’ve been putting the cart before the horse: looking for the photos before making the connection.

I’m going to challenge myself to change my approach.  I want to identify a group that I am interested in or cause I care about but haven’t had the time for.  I plan to primarily participate and connect. I will hope that an idea for a photo or a series presents itself.  Then — and only then — will I inquire about shooting, with the intention of giving back to my subjects by documenting their stories.

Now, do tell, what do you do to connect with your subjects? (on the street or off!)

Note:  Photos in this post were not taken on the night in question.
These simply represent subsequent outings during which I felt I implemented this lesson.