Street Photography: a personal reflection
This is a personal reflection on my own experience shooting “street photography”*. It is neither a how-to, nor an attempt to promote a certain view of the world; take it as an informed opinion. There is a lot of “I” in the following sentences, but the intention is not to rant.
I like shooting photos of human life, in all its dimensions – call it reportage, to use a slightly old-fashioned term. I am fascinated by the simple, everyday actions of others. I have nothing against the more staged, rehearsed end of photography, but what drives me to photograph is people is an ongoing fascination with human life. I like stories. I always have.
On the Ground
Human life, by the way, is not devoid of context. People exist in places, people exist in relationships. This means that where I am – where the people whose stories I try to capture are – has a bearing on my photography.
When I am back in Portugal, in the small town where I come from, my photography lives off the beautiful light and the somewhat chaotic interaction between a barely-tamed nature and the notion that planning is optional.
When I am in Manchester, where I have been living for almost four years now, I am confronted with a dark, grey metropolis, a former industrial city complete the hangovers of Empire, the dreadful quasi-soviet architecture of the 1960s and 1970s Britain, post-modern notions of being “hip” and “alternative” and aggressive marketing and branding everywhere. Subdued colours and simple monochrome tend to carry the day.
The examples go on and on. For example, when I visited New York in 2012 I found I couldn’t help myself from looking up all the time, and I kept trying to capture that sense of height and majesty.
In short, don’t forget that where you are shooting influences your results. What should photographers do? Do you want to try to develop an individual style and apply it regardless of place? Or do you prefer to let the surroundings dictate what you do? The answer is up to you. I find that I am very much in the latter category. Roll over, let the water flow and all that.
On the mind
Building on from that idea of rolling over and going with the flow, I find reportage to be mostly a mental activity. Contrary to others, I can’t listen to music when I am out shooting: I find I cannot focus my mind. To me, photographing in the streets is a good example of what the Tao describes: that the best work is made when you detach yourself from it, when you are barely conscious of actually doing any work. When I manage to concentrate so much on my surroundings that I forget I am trying to take photos, that’s when the good photography happens. I use the expression “happen” advisedly; it’s not that I am not aware of what I am doing, but I can almost see the world as a succession of static shots, so I merely select the photo I want among the several future possibilities.
Never mind time travel: reportage photographers can see the future, choose an appropriate setting, and position themselves to capture it.
Now, this might strike you as some new-age codswallop. Fair enough, but I hear similar experiences from others. People talk about their fingers finding the settings without them thinking about it. I remember an interview with London-based street photographer David Gibson where he said he felt that, when he is in the right frame, he is almost invisible. I subscribe to this entirely: if you’re not thinking too hard, you don’t hesitate. The camera comes up, the moment is captured, and everyone goes on heir way.
In the Flesh
That last sentence sounds a lot like yet another modern euphemism for Henrie Cartier-Bresson’s evergreen definition of the objective of photography: to capture “the decisive moment”.
You gotta love Cartier-Bresson for coming up with that one. As a definition “the decisive moment” it as accurate and holistic as it is insubstantial. It is motivational – it makes you believe that you too, my fellow photographer, can go out there and if you’re good enough, you’ll be rewarded with a winner. And that may well be the case; but what does it say about you? I have seen people referring to street photographers as hunters and people photographed as prey**. I have caught myself talking about “using” people in my shots to impart a sense of scale – really, Carlos?
I propose instead that we start talking about street photography as “the intimate moment”. When I am out photographing, I am sharing precious moments of people’s lives, and in doing so I am telling their story. There needs to be a degree of respect, because it is an intimate moment that I am provoking, in which the other person (or people) enters without informed consent. There is a degree of power in this fleeting relationship, and it is for the photographer not to abuse that power. Examples? I shirk from people sleeping rough, but the topic seems to be quite popular***. Is it not an abuse for me to point a fancy SLR with a lens worth a few hundred quid to a person who cannot, for whatever reason, afford the minimum dignity of a roof over their head and knowledge of where the next meal is coming from? Can you imagine the shame those people feel, day in day out, exposed in the street as outcasts? They should not be fair game for street photographers.
In the same vein, if like me you are a man you might find yourself tempted to photograph women: on average women are easier on the eye than men, and much less threatening. Well, one question springs to mind: why don’t pick on someone your own size?
By all means, photograph anything and anyone you want****. But avoid the pitfalls of forgetting what you are doing for the sake of a cool shot.
*I’m mildly irritated by the term. Street photography, to me, is just photography. But let’s leave that discussion for another time.
**Quoted from Tanya Nagar’s otherwise great little book, “The New Street Photographer’s Manifesto”. Do yourself a favour and get it. I have no commission, promise.
***There are exceptions. At least one street photography collective, Photographers for Hope, actively seeks to photograph these men and women as a way of making their plight visible and finding help for them. This cannot be commended enough.
****Subject to legal constraints, good sense and good manners.