Earning your dinner – how to ask for permission to take a photo.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (7)

I’m going to tell you guys a little photography parable today, because who doesn’t like a cute little story with a moral lesson at the end? Every now and then it’s nice to have a peek inside the mental process of a photographer in order to see how certain pictures are made. In this case it’s a pretty simple story with a simple lesson but sometimes those are the ones we need to pay the closest attention to.

Anyway, one of my favorite portraits of the year so far was shot with absolutely no preparation or foreknowledge of the subject’s existence. I’m in Fukuoka, one of Japan’s major southern cities and one of my favorite spots in all Japan. I’m there for a magazine photoshoot, which, as an editorial photographer is a rare treat. Traveling for photoshoots is significantly rarer nowadays so anytime I get to go anywhere to shoot portraits I get super stoked.

Anyway I digress. The magazine shoot was wrapped and in the bag, and I decided to stick around in Fukuoka because I had a personal shoot scheduled the next day for my Artisans project (which I’ll write about in the near future). That means I had an evening to kill in a cool city with no plans, I’ve just finished shooting and I have some serious post-shoot munchies. There’s this cheap hole-in-the-wall eatery I’ve had my eye on that’s supposed to serve the best gyoza in all of Fukuoka, so I know where I’m headed.

I dump all my gear except for my Domke with my Sony mirrorless kit and despite my great craving for delicious gyoza I decide to walk across town to the restaurant, which turned out to be a very good idea because on the way I walked past a shop and caught a glimpse of this:

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (13)

And here’s first thing I did – I walked straight past. I wasn’t even thinking about photos – I was thinking about fat juicy gyoza and the sign for the restaurant was just ahead. It only occurred to me twenty meters down the road that I had just seen something pretty cool, which then triggered the ages old internal debate for introverted photographers like me:

“Wow, that looks really cool, I really want to take some photos.”
“Nar, you’re busy and he’s busy, better stick to the original plan of going to eat gyoza.”
“Well the gyoza can wait, I’m sure…”
“Sure but you’re going to look like a real idiot turning around and walking back to that shop. Plus what if he tells you to piss off?”
“Yeah that would be pretty embarrassing actually…I wouldn’t want to look foolish…”
“You will definitely look foolish. Better leave him alone and go do what you were going to do.”

And so on. Some of you will know how this internal dialogue goes, and I find that even after years of walking up to strangers and asking their permission to take their photo, I still get that little devil voice inside my head telling me no, no, better not bother them, leave them alone, you don’t need to take a photo of them.

The thing is however, the more excuses you make for yourself to get out of interacting with people who might turn out to be scary or unpleasant, the better you’re going to get at it. And the better you get at making excuses for yourself, the fewer photos you’re going to make, which doesn’t really bode well for making a career out of photography. So let me share with you the golden rule in photography for what to do when you want something: ask for it. You don’t ask, you don’t get. Simple as that.

So what did I do? I screwed up my courage, turned around, marched purposefully back to that man’s shop…and walked straight past it again. And then I turned around and did it again. And again, until I felt I had built up enough momentum or courage or whatever I thought I needed to just walk inside and introduce myself and talk like a normal person. Because that’s what we are – normal people doing cool things, and everybody likes it when someone shows genuine interest in what you are doing.

So I guess the rest is history – although it could have been a completely different history if I had let that little voice in my head win out and just gone on to eat gyoza. These cool images wouldn’t exist, for one thing, and the next time I want to approach a stranger for a photo I’m going to find it that little bit much harder to do so. And guess what?? I went and had that gyoza afterwards, and it tasted bloody good! So I guess you really can have your cake (or gyoza) and eat it too.

All shots made with the Sony A7rII and the Carl Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 or the Batis 85mm f/1.8.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (12)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (11)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (1)

Bonus photos! Here’s the gyoza restaurant that I was crapping on about all post, and as you can see it’s basically just some old lady’s kitchen with a counter – she was eating her own dinner right in front of me! Anyway if a place like this gets a reputation then you know it’s going to be good, and hell yes it was! 10/10 would go again. Tasted like victory.

For the curious, the store is Asahiken, in Haruyoshi.
Address: 2 Chome-13-22 Haruyoshi, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka
Phone: 092-761-3819

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (5)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (4)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (2)