If you become a student of street photography, the curriculum is littered with advice and maxims on what defines and makes a “good” street photograph; I use the word “littered” intentionally – because much of that curriculum is just that… things that can be tossed out. Within that heritage, I don’t claim to be a master, let alone a division chair or associate professor, or even a teaching assistant. But I am a student, or a ‘disciple’ of the genre if you will – one that realizes that that I will never stop learning the craft, and that beyond the techniques or gear used or the aesthetic of an image I am working to create, the genre is itself as much about a process of self discovery, growth, and expression of who I am as it is about the final “result.” That may sound out of place in a discussion of street photography, but to that end, I want to state that – in this student’s opinion – what matters most in street photography is the choice and act of your presence, and shooting “who you are” in an image. Grab some coffee, as this isn’t going to be another “three essential ways to improve your street photography” kind of article.
Presence in street photography is far more than the mere choice of getting in someone’s face to “get the shot” or staying in the shadows; it is the totality of the act of being present both before and during the moment the image is made. In my last article here at Photography Life, I introduced a specific technique in street photography that I have experimented with extensively (using the Olympus and Fujifilm wireless remote iOS apps to capture street images, especially up-close images). But what I really wanted to do was introduce the idea that our choice to be “present” in contact with the person or subject in the image in an obvious way or to remain hidden is, and should be a conscious, intentional decision – one that is as much of a compositional choice as any of the camera gear or settings used.
But what I really, actually wanted to discuss was not so much whether we chose to be “present” or hidden when taking the image – but how we absolutely, already are present in the image ourselves. Your state of mind and emotional being is present in that moment. Your beliefs, and personality are present. Your physical body is present – and impacts the moment. But much of the time (and I guilty of this too) – we simply go out and start taking pictures, without considering any of the above. And although you might get some good results from this occasionally, I think images are far stronger when we are actively reflecting on and considering that choice of presence.
I am writing this partially because I want to be more conscious of this in my own work – I strive to be, imperfectly. There are days when my presence is manifest in my images as “I have a new lens or camera, and I’m way more focused on how cool it is than on the image I’m making.” Those days, images tend to suck. They lack focus, or coherence, or are just plain awful – because I’m not really present at all. I’m in the la-la-land of G.A.S. Can I get a “halleleujiah?” (Incidentally – I find myself most focused on gear and gear reviews when I am shooting the least. It is much easier to dream of equipment and how great it would be to have this or that when you’re not shooting. When I’m regularly, actively shooting and engaged in the moment of shooting, the reward of the images and the act of creation takes the focus, as it should.) Don’t get me wrong – the tools we choose can have a big impact not only on the image itself, but on the experience of making it (which in turn, impacts the image itself again); but when you’re practicing presence and bringing yourself with intentionality and choice to the act of creating something, you tend to celebrate whatever it is you have, wherever you are, and make the most of it.
1) Shooting Who You Are (With a Camera…Not A Gun)
Bruce Gilden’s work is controversial, to say the least. But it is interesting to me precisely because “he” is in it. In fact, he has remarked that he shoots “who he is.” His work is mesmerizing to me not just because he gets weird states of shock with his “flash in your face” technique, but because his very technique is an embodiment of his personality and personhood. He’s kind of crazy. You might say that “he” is a jerk. I think his process and style of shooting is a little more complex than that. If you watch him critique photos, he’s ruthlessly honest with his opinion – and that same honesty is somehow present in his work also. If someone did a pop-flash to my face on the street, I’d be annoyed or just pissed. And it will never be my style – because that’s not a part of who I am. I don’t like provoking an image or a reaction to make an image. Because I don’t go around wanting to provoke reactions in people when I don’t have a camera on me. But I absolutely am interested and fascinated that his method is a part of who he is. And what makes him unique, and original, is that he has found a method that brings his own character and craziness into this artform. I know something about him and have experienced the world through his eyes, even though I’ve never met him. For example, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t sit around reading Vogue on the weekends while sipping an Appletini. I’m also pretty sure he could care less what I think he thinks. And I’m pretty sure he’d say my work is crap (insert a more colorful word at the end). But it is his presence in his own images that tells me that, and I respect it and am interested in it, even if it is light years away from who I am and the images I want to create. And more importantly, that is something for me to learn.
The list goes on – Henri Cartier-Bresson was shy and from a background as visual artist. His work is far more distant in some way – there is emotion there to be sure, but it is observed rather than experienced directly. Vivian Meier, in her recent notoriety and “discovery” was practically a recluse, but there is an intimacy, and boldness to her images that tell me she wanted to connect with others, and maybe could not – except through making an image (which she did compulsively). We can sit around, analyzing other people’s photography all day – but what about YOU? Who are you in your photography – and more importantly, are you actually exploring that? Are you expressing it? Are you trying to? Are you learning to?
Part of what I love about street photography is that I think it can give us insight into ourselves, and into others shooting it. I can’t tell you who you are, but I can tell you what I see when I look at your images.
2) How Do You Shoot “Who You Are”
I can’t give you an answer to this question for you – but hopefully, I can give you some questions that may help you to answer it for yourself. Some important or helpful questions to ask yourself are:
- What does it mean to shoot “who I am” in my own street photography?
- How will my mindset and personality (even mood today) impact the images I make?
- How is my particular way of seeing the world visible to someone viewing my images? (In other words, what do my images tell someone else about the way I uniquely see the world)?
- How do my particular beliefs and attitudes about other people, human condition, society, culture, and truth manifest themselves in my images?
- How do my choice in tools (especially photographic equipment) change my final image, and is this an intentional decision that facilitates my answers above?
- How does the “method” I use in making my images reflect my values and answers to the questions above (what my values, beliefs, mindset and personality are)?
But wait – it’s “just” street photography – not some therapy session. Why does it matter? I think it matters because I personally believe that the answers to these questions do have an impact on your street photography, and are the key to constantly improving and creating images that have soul and artistry in them. What makes street photography close to my heart is the fact that all of this happens in a matter of seconds – and if you haven’t considered these things (or don’t routinely ask yourself similar questions) then I think it’s a much higher probability you will simply go out and ‘click the shutter’ – and never really experience the creative act. If you’re in a studio, or a scheduled shoot, or even an event where some of the ‘action’ is predictable (and this is to say nothing of producing images for a client where you are being paid, perhaps to create a very specific type of image) there is more time to be prepared for a routine or place of comfort. Street photography keeps my mind and creativity sharp. It is for me. Other photography may be for you as well, but it tends to still have more room to be deliberate and methodical. Landscape photography can require tremendous patience and planning. Wildlife photography can require the same patience, certainly – and preparedness for a moment that will quickly be gone. Street photography tends to happen in more of a “harmonious chaos” of you, interacting with a moment that is gone almost as soon as it has occurred.
3) My Own Process And Reflection
Some of this gets hard to describe. I’ll take the first step of vulnerability and try to describe some of my process and reflection, in the hope that it will help you understand and reflect more on your own. Where am “I” in my street photography? Why do I want to go out – maybe even feel compelled to go out – and take images of strangers on the street? There are a few important things here I’ve realized (or come to affirm) about myself through street photography.
3.1) Noticing Others & Life
I love people. I find people fascinating – and more than just fascinating, it feels important to me to “notice” people. To notice small things. We share this little speck of the universe with other living beings – each incredibly unique, and different, with their own stories, dreams, hopes, failures, imperfections, and glory. I will never personally know the vast majority of them. But I want to notice them, and perhaps in some way – I want people to feel that they matter, and are noticed, when they look at my images. I want them to feel that someone, or some thing, notices them – and that they matter. Maybe in this way it is my own existential experience of wanting to be noticed myself, of practicing the act of “seeing” others as a way of reminding myself that I, too, matter. I am noticed. I am known.
I also want to “notice” life. I’m a hopeless romantic – and I don’t just mean in a mushy-love sense. I mean that to me, life is full of music – for me, it is best lived in music, in fact. There is a rhythm, and a beauty, and a poetry, and a magic in everything, all around us. We are all a part of it. I want to notice it. I want to live it. And maybe photography is my way of remembering it, and remembering myself, as a part of it.
3.2) Studying People Objectively vs. Constructively
Besides being a photographer, I’m also a career educator, and currently a Ph.D. student. One of the things that has been a source of reflection in my street photography in that journey is related to my role, and growth, as a researcher. In research, much attention is given to the “lens” of the researcher – the acknowledgement of bias, beliefs, agendas, and even more fundamentally – epistemology (or how we know what we know). It’s an easy metaphorical jump, but the theoretical lens that you bring to research is not that dissimilar to the physical lens (and choices) you make in the creative process of photography – and perhaps especially street photography.
There are different approaches to research, but the main categories (quantitative and qualitative) are ideally related to one’s epistemology and understanding of truth. Without going into all of the specifics, and acknowledging in advance I’m throwing out some big generalizations here (for the sake of brevity, and to not risk losing your interest and attention completely here), we either understand and seek to study our notion of the truth objectively, or constructively. Objectivity requires us to hold the world (and what we are studying) at a distance – lest our interference in the event influence the results we find. Constructionism, by contrast, acknowledges that truth, or at least our perception of it, is socially constructed. We create or interpret it ourselves, or in the course of relating with others. We build, or construct, reality, in a context of our senses and perception – and even if truth exists ‘objectively’ outside of it, what we can know of it and how we experience it is what matters most.
I want to capture the way I see that music in life around me. Maybe this is one of the reasons I like to shoot closer to wide open – because although bokeh can be a crutch in photography, it lends itself to showing some part of the way I see things that is meaningful and faithful to my experience of it.
In street photography – I think we have a choice of expression in this. Do we stay at a distance, and try to only capture ‘what the moment is’ candidly, or do we capture a moment that highlights our presence, and involvement in it? Much attention is given to street photography needing to be “candid” moments – observations of life as it occurs, so to speak. Many purists claim that street photography has to be candid – or in some sense, objective.
I say hogwash – the line is fine between the two, and more importantly, I don’t really believe that a truly ‘candid’ moment exists in photography – let alone one that you are interpreting or presenting objectively. Everything from your choice of tools to your choice of location to your method impacts both the moment itself and the “recording” of it for someone else to observe. I want to notice people and life and relationships around me, but I want to do so acknowledging that I am a part of that moment, and that I was a part of it. I can choose to do this to a greater or lesser extent, but either way, I am there. Even in sharing images, I want to bring you into a moment that I experienced, and show you what I saw – in other words, I want to study the truth of that moment with you. I think there is inevitably an element of social construction in my experience of making the image, and sharing it with anyone else that sees it. All of these things, for me, are part of the reflections I go through, am going through, and growing through in my own photography. What are yours?
4) Where the Rubber Hits the…Street
Beyond ‘self reflection,’ how might this inform practical choices in your street photography? It means that even in something as simple as the gear you choose to shoot with, you are making a choice that impacts (and sometimes, radically defines) the moment you are capturing. Where you choose to stand, your demeanor, your choice to force interaction, or remain passively visible (without trying to draw attention to yourself) or remain hidden, shooting from a distance, or from the hip, or whatever – it changes the moment and the image. This is to say nothing of other critical choices you make that bear your interpretation and ‘mark’ on an image related to composition: framing (what you exclude is just as contextually important as what you include), exposure, medium (you shoot differently on film than you do with digital, if for no other reason than you don’t have virtually unlimited shots, and if you want to get up close, you’d better get there before hitting the shutter and wasting a frame. You also can’t chimp…)
Or consider the fascinating reflection Ming Thein makes about quantum physics and photography: your very presence alters the moment (if not the direct movement) of everything around you. Someone would probably be walking through the space you physically occupy were you not there. It may be subtle, but just being physically present alters any given moment. Have you ever noticed how sometimes, the simple act of lifting a camera to your face in someone’s general direction is “sensed” by that person – they just changed. Especially if they definitely saw you and flashed a “wasssssuuuupppp” sign. Making those choices intentionally matters.
5) Some Examples Through Illustration
Lots of articles in street photography talk about whether it is better to use a wide angle lens (24mm), or a medium-normal lens (35mm-50mm). Some talk about how using a telephoto lens is inappropriate for street photography, or it is for wussies who are afraid to get all up in people’s business. Personally, I don’t give a darn what lens is being used. I just give a darn that you are choosing that lens intentionally, and understand what impact it will have on the image you are creating. Beyond this, gear doesn’t matter. It impacts things. Just know how and why, and chose it (or use it) with intentionality.
Take these images, for example. They were shot at an equivalent focal length of 150mm. Oh NO! Beyond being an unforgivable sin by street photography “purists,” what does using a telephoto lens do? For one, it physically increases my distance, and connection, with the subject. When you look at the image, this distance can be felt. You are not so much drawn into the moment as you are asked to simply observe it, from a distance. Compression is another result, and inherent with all telephoto lengths: the perceived distance between the subject and background is smaller. This can be effective – but I am emphasizing my distance (and especially in the last image, the isolation of being “watched”). There is no eye contact here. There is no interaction. All of this is influenced by my choice of a lens.
6) The Choice of Interaction and Engagement
Another important, conscious decision to make is the effect of engagement and interaction. Some people want to make street images that are truly “in your face.” But to claim that this is the only way to do street photography is more a statement for that person that this is the only way they feel can do so authentically. Your mileage may vary. And I’d encourage you to experiment and discover that part of the “who you are” in your images.
Contrast the telephoto images above with the following:
Above, I’m using a 35mm equivalent lens. Perceptually, there is far more “contact” with these images. A huge part of this is because the main person in them is making eye contact, and part of the reason they are making eye contact is because I am about 6-8 feet away from them (or less) – they see me taking this picture. They engage with me in a different way. I could have framed this similarly from 25 or 30 feet away with a telephoto lens, but I doubt they would be looking at me – and it would be a completely different image because of it.
It’s actually a discussion that is useful for all of your photography, in my opinion – but street photography has a special “need” – or perhaps opportunity – because your control in the moment is relatively limited to many of these choices… unless you want to stop people on the street and pose them. At which point, we’re changing genres…
Your presence (physically, emotionally, rationally, and philosophically) is a part of every street photograph you make, but you have a conscious choice in the degree to which that presence is made manifest in your images (and often, we do not consciously choose it at all).
I want you (and myself) to be conscious of the decisions we make about our presence in street photography. The why, the how, and the ‘so what?’
I want to provoke intentional choices of how that presence can be (or should be) an extension of your beliefs, personality, worldview, understanding of truth, and relationship to the world. I don’t want it to just be a physical click of the shutter.
7) More Thoughts on Objectivity vs Social Construction
One of the qualities of street photography that you will often hear is that the moment captured has to be “candid” – with the implication being that if it is not spontaneous, or capturing some slice of real life, it magically skips into some other, lesser medium. It goes back to the discussion of objectivity. But is there really such a thing as a truly candid moment in street photography? Is there really such a thing as an ‘objective’ portrayal of any image? Isn’t it a relative concept that you exercise a degree of choice in, while acknowledging you are never really completely objective in portraying an image, and capturing an “honest” moment?
Take the following images, for instance: what do they share in common? To me, they represent more influence from an “objectivist” perspective. They present something (still something I found interesting) in a somewhat distant way – the moment is held at arm’s length away from me, and as a result, I think they way they are viewed is different. But my interpretation is still in them. You are not so much invited to participate in the moment as you are invited to “observe” it with me. Why did I choose to capture these moments in this way?
By contrast, the following images are, by definition, more interactive (relational) in a moment of time with a person. It changes the way the image is experienced by the viewer. You are invited to experience a moment of connection that I also had in that moment in time with a total stranger. It changes the image, and it changes your experience of it, dramatically. Why did I choose to capture these moments in this way?
To play this out even more by example: in the image below, I probably stood in that spot for about 30 seconds. First to compose. Then to change shutter speed. Then, to wait for a look – and interaction – the glance.
And you can stand in my shoes, in that moment, and experience some part of it as I did. It’s not objectively the way I saw it – people didn’t blur. But in my memory, they kind of did. And I remember that moment of connection, and the smile and wave afterwards (that was not a part of the moment you get to share here). And if you try, you can feel it too. The “he and I” socially constructed or impacted one another’s reality in that instant. And the power of photography (like research, like art, like so much of life) is that you can share some part of that too. It doesn’t have to change your life. But you just shared my experience in a unique way.
8) On Other Opinions in Street Photography
The more you become involved in street photography, the more you’ll eventually be exposed to the WIDE range of opinions, techniques, criticisms, and celebrations there are of it. I don’t know if there are more nutjobs in the genre of street photography than any other, but anecdotally – I suspect there are. It is more prone to people making claims about the purity of the craft, or that a good image needs to be this or that. “Get closer! Use a wider angle lens! Use a normal lens! F/8 and be there! It’s got to be ‘tough’ as an image. Wait for the decisive moment! Hide and pounce on the instant! Get in that moment’s face and provoke it into a glorious and repulsive and beautiful everything all at once!” It can be exhausting. Just get the hell out there and shoot.
But don’t just go click the shutter… stop and reflect for a moment, and do it with an intentionality of how “you” appear in the final images. And then come back and do it again. And go out again. And reflect again. And discover something about yourself, and share with me and us and anyone that sees your images the you that experienced that moment in time as you perceived it. I don’t care if it’s a frickin’ flowerpot or what – what I care about is that it was meaningful to you, and did the work of putting yourself in that image through your choices, and I can experience a part of that. Photography itself is just a tool as an artistic medium. So it’s not even just about photography – it’s encouraging you to explore photography as a craft of expressing your connection and presence to a moment and place and truth in time.
So to add my opinion to the mix: street photography, above all, should be a reflection of you and your experience of a moment, place, and possibly interaction with another person/people. And there are all kinds of choices you need to be consciously aware of in inserting something of yourself, your personality, your biases, your perspective, into an image.
9) Getting to the Point & Final Reflection
YOU (the photographer) are a part of every image – and despite the definition of being something inherently candid, your presence and interpretation is a critical part of the street photography you make. The inclusion of your presence (and acknowledgement of it) is a critical composition choice. You alter the image with technical choices (lenses, gear, size of camera, exposure, DOF, etc.) but you alter the image with your very presence. The most obvious form is inclusion of social interaction or exclusion of it. But it also includes the choice to be in that particular place at that particular time. In includes the choice of what to shoot. It includes the choice of relative discretion, or obvious visibility, of interaction before or after with the subject, etc. It can be a deeper reflection of your personality, and your unique perception and experience of truth in a moment in time. This all alters an image. This all alters your experience and expression of yourself in it. And this all impacts what I experience with you when viewing it.
To me, street photography is powerful precisely because it is NOT meant to be some kind of documentation of real life, but because it is a documentation of real life from MY perspective, interpretation, and choice. You are standing in my shoes at that moment. I am inviting you to share in the interaction I had with that moment – and possibly with that person. This happens in all photography – but street is perhaps the simplest form of it for me, because the whole point is not to intricately construct an idealized scene, but to create a perspective of a moment in life that you are experiencing. Think of why certain images are powerful to you. Try to stand in their shoes, in that moment in time and history (even if it was not a particularly ‘historical’ moment).
Again, one can argue that all photography includes this reflection – but some other genres (primarily formal portraiture, or some wedding photography, or commercial photography especially) automatically make us assume that something (or everything) in that image was planned, created – we see and accept from the beginning that the moment was not candid, or naturally occurring – and we interpret it differently. We experience it differently. It doesn’t mean they aren’t, or can’t be powerful and compelling images – but they are different. And your process in making them is different.
10) Future Value
In a parting note, some complain that street photography is not really art; it just captures the mundane or the banal. Sometimes, it’s just capturing something clichéd, or amusing. And there is a lot of this. Most will appreciate the “masters” of street photography if they take the time to study them. But as for the “unknown” street photographer – they just take ordinary stuff and call it “art.” Some may be better than others (subjectively) but I believe it IS art IF you are aware of your presence as the artist, the instigator of a creative act. Aware of your presence – and the you in every image.
If you look at the same picture in 100 years of what is mundane now, it will have a different meaning, probably far more than it does now. Because being mundane is temporary, and what is ‘mundane’ will change in the future. But far more so: at the very least, when my children, or grandchildren, or any person that I have shared my life with views my photographs, I want them to see a part of me in them. I want them to know a part of me. I want them to experience, with me, those moments that they were not there (physically) to experience with me. I want them to share some small part of time and existence with me. I want to experience the same when I see their images (or anything else they create, or choose to give their time to). In street photography especially, I shoot in the hope that some small point of connection with a place, or person, or people, in that moment – will outlive me. My own presence in a moment is what I care about most in my work, and in yours.