Is Fear Your Art Director?

f/1.8, 1/2500 sec, at 85mm, 250 ISO, on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

This will be a short post. It’s really just a reminder to take advantage of the moment. This morning I went to Georgetown (Penang, Malaysia) scouting out some locations for an upcoming photo walk. As I was walking through Little India, I stopped and went inside a Hindu temple. These temples have always been inviting and friendly and I thought I might take some photos. I was quickly told by the very stern and very grumpy temple curator, I could not take photos in his temple.  Having never been turned away from photographing inside of a temple, I double checked that he was indeed the curator. This seemed to make him all the more upset. The poor guy definitely got up on the wrong side of whatever he sleeps on. Feeling somewhat dejected and frustrated I left. As I walked outside I thought about the very large painting of a lotus on the ground in front of the temple, a mandala of sorts. I had an idea. I wanted to leave, but I made myself stand there and wait for a moment. I could walkaway, upset by the grumpy curator or I could wait for a sari clad woman to walk over the mandala and get my photographic satisfaction.  My patience was rewarded and frankly I felt better not letting my emotions rule me.

f/2.8, 1/160 sec, at 16mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I walked on. Only a few feet further I saw a Muslim gentleman standing in his butcher shop doorway. He had a very stern and somewhat intimidating look on his face.  With the curators voice still echoing in my head I assumed this man’s expression meant, “Keep walking. There’s nothing for you to see here.” So, I kept walking. But, there was another louder voice in my head that said, “Just go talk to him. Don’t let fear rule you.”  So, I went back and greeted this man. Immediately his face lit up and he smiled. Before long we were old friends and he began telling me the history of Indian Muslims in Malaysia. How, according to him, many Malay call them, “Mamas” or “Mamak” but they see themselves as simply Malaysian. I asked him if I could take a few photos and he quickly agreed. Granted, these are not great images. I don’t post them here because they’re my best work, they certainly are not. I am posting them as a reminder to all of us, myself included, to slow down, take advantage of the moment and don’t let fear direct your photo shoot.


f/1.2, 1/400 sec, at 85mm, 200 ISO, on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

About Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer.

In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

View All Posts

Learn more about these fantastic workshop opportunities:


Your Name*

Your Email*

Your Website


Your Message

CAPTCHA: Please enter these characters in the text field.


FaceBook Comments


24 thoughts on “Is Fear Your Art Director?

  1. I’ve been working hard on overcoming that fear this year. It’s been my on-going New Year’s resolution.

    With persistence, the voice that tells me to keep going, keep trying, keep approaching, is finding it easier to drown out the voice that just wants the easy way out (i.e. move on).

    I sometimes get told ‘No’, but more often receive a welcoming ‘Yes’. And I keep building on the confidence that the friendly people are giving me.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Matt.

    I had a similar experience in Egypt a few years ago. I had a situation , when after having had a number of requests to photograph people turned down, I decided to go safe and do a detail shot of some shoes on a stall.  I’d no sooner done my shot when the stall owner came up and started ranting at me. He was pretty het up and it took a while  for me to realise that he thought I was trying to copy the design by photographing the shoes.  Must have slept on the same side of the bed as your caretaker.

    My initial thoughts were that I was going to put my gear away for the trip and give up. Then I thought, imagine if you were on assignment for a tour company and had to come back with the goods … what then? So I decided to persevere and just accept that these things happen. It worked and I came back with some decent images after all.  It just shows how emotionally attached we are when taking images. We care!

  3. Thanks for sharing, it is something I often come up against. Didn’t think you pros had it too! Seriously though, just knowing we all face similar challenges helps. I love the sari and flower picture – well worth it. Look who is smiling now?!

  4. Good point.  I needed this.  I need to pull out the poem my daughter gave me a number of years ago called, “Don’t Quit.”  The next moment could be the one I’ve been striving toward.

    • Is the poem by Robert Service? I’ve loved his stuff since I was a kid.

      “It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
      So don’t be a piker, old pard!
      Just draw on your grit, it’s so easy to quit.
      It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.”
      ~ Carry on!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this because I’ve been faced with this, too.  My basic nature is to be shy but with camera in hand, I go to a different place and find it much easier to talk to people and not take anything personally.  Thanks for the wisdom of this post.

    • Helen,

      Your lucky. With most people, myself included, once I have a camera in hand I become overly shy. Otherwise, I am a crazy extrovert! Without a camera I can talk with anyone. This is why it is important for me, to keep the camera down (if possible) and draw myself into a relationship, then bring up the camera. It is respectful to the people I am photographing but it is also a way for me to build courage stick this monster in their face.

  6. What a great reminder Matt, thank you!  It makes me think of all the people I could have photographed had I just had the guts to ask permission or strike up a conversation, but I am usually afraid to bother them.  That fear usually comes from viewing people as subjects to be photographed rather than a person with a story…hard when I get caught up in the technical aspect of shooting.  Totally guilty of that sometimes as a newbie trying to learn but getting overwhelmed by information!  You always remind me to shoot from the heart.

    • Kristen,

      You put it very well. If we can remember our “subjects” are people and slow down and speed time with them, we will be more apt to photograph something special. Like the Steve McCurry quote, “If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”
      Thanks for coming back to the blog. Hope you’ll keep dropping by.

  7. Wise words, Matt. I’m getting there with baby steps. It takes all my courage to ask permission to take a photograph of someone, but I’m almost always disappointed because the images have no life. What I need to practice is having the courage to engage with people, ask them questions, get them to open up a little before I try to take their picture. Up to now, I am nervous and they are uncomfortable and the resulting photographs show it. There really does need to be some sort of connection.

  8. That is my philosophy, too! I spend a great deal of time in Georgetown, scouting out fabulous photo opportunities and I like to do the same – take my time and wait for the golden opportunities. A smile and a chat can work wonders 🙂

  9. Matt, thanks for putting yourself out there so we can learn from you–and we can also take heart in knowing we aren’t the only ones to feel this way. My biggest problem with street photography perhaps isn’t fear so much, but rather I feel it is so one-sided: I’m taking and they other person is giving. It feels like such a lopsided transaction, especially for someone like me that obsesses about not inconveniencing or imposing on others in any situation. 

    When I’m traveling it’s usually for work and I don’t have the luxury of time to really engage my subjects so I either grab a really quick drive-by shot (with predictably so-so results), or just lose the shot (which is frustrating) I found that one thing that helps me feel better is to give something back. And since I don’t have the time to stop and print out a photo with those nifty travel printers, I’ve started carrying around pencils (the colorfully-printed ones you can buy in bulk) to give to kids or photo postcards I’ve printed with one of my own photos taken of my hometown (nice because it’s Washington DC) that have my name and an e-mail address on the back. Both items are easy to pack and carry around with me. They also give me more confidence and a way to quickly thank my subjects for giving of themselves.

    • Shelly – Thanks for the encouraging words. As for giving and taking, we’ve talked about this a lot on this blog. Instead of giving out trinkets I would strongly advise your give to gifts be related to your photography. Sort of “quid pro quo”. You took a photo now you give one. I like the post card idea, creative. But there is something that might be even better than post cards. Even though you can’t go to a lab and then come back. You can travel with a very small Polaroid type camera or the little printer from Polaroid. Both of these can give a small photo in minutes and are not that much of a financial investment. This will keep kids from running up to strangers and shouting “One pen!” or in your case “One Pencil!”

    • Please, please – stop trying to play Santa Clause and give away things to feel better, I got almost killed in Yemen by some kids throwing stones at me (down the steep slope, causing small landslides) because I didn’t want to give them some gift.
      And in areas when there’s not so many tourists like this coming all people are usually friendly and genuinely happy to be on pictures even without the payment – especially kids. It’s always great fun for them, and there’s no reason to “pay” them additionally – no matter if with money, sweets or pens (contrary to popular belief, pens are cheap everywhere, and if kids are not attending schools, it’s never because of lack of pen).

Comments are closed.