After spending some time thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that street photography – I prefer to think of it as ‘reporting on life – is an increasingly popular genre of photography for several reasons:
1. It’s easy to do, and accessible to all – the barriers to entry are low. Wildlife or say automotive photography, for instance, is not. There isn’t any setup involved beyond remembering to take your camera with you when you leave the house, no matter where you live.
2. The definition of the genre is extremely broad; to the point that you could probably almost say there was no definition at all. This means it’s both open to much creative interpretation, and also an excuse for anybody whose generic images have no specific idea or subject in mind.
3. As humans, we are psychologically drawn to other people: no man is an island. Street photography lets us get our fill of humans without having the tread the social minefield of heaven forbid, actually having to interact with them. (It’s a bit like the internet in this regard.)
4. Everybody likes to play documentary photojournalist once in a while.
5. Building on from #4, some photographers have a burning need to record everything and everybody around them – I’m one of these people – and sometimes we just shoot out of compulsion, because our compositional minds just simply do not turn off. Having trained yourself to see workable frames in the most unlikely of places, it’s difficult to un-learn this skill (or curse, depending on whether you’re the photographer or the one waiting for the photographer to hurry up).
I believe the sum of these things is that street photography falls into one of three categories for the vast majority of photographers and audiences – diversion, documentary, or nuisance.
For the unafflicted photographer, it can be a nice genre to experiment with when you have the desire to shoot something, but you have no clear subject in mind. Taking a walk with a camera allows you to go in with a blank but receptive mind, and just wait for an endless parade of subjects to pass you by. They’re all time-sensitive, however; if you don’t react fast enough, they’re gone. This doesn’t matter, however, because there are always more subjects where they came from, and you weren’t going out shooting with something specific in mind anyway. Serendipity is probably the best way to sum up your overall attitude towards it.
Similarly, for casual viewers, street photography can provide an interesting window into the lives of others; an unusual or otherwise missed moment preserved for posterity. You see it, appreciate it for a little longer than the actual fleeting instance of the moment, and move on. It doesn’t really stick in your mind.
Of course, this all depends on the strength of one’s compositions; of chief importance for all images, street or otherwise, is having a prominent subject and a clear idea of what the image is supposed to achieve or say. Purely aesthetic images are fine, too; but the execution must obviously support the idea.
Those who take street photography a bit more seriously start to tip over into the documentary category – they view the images they capture as preserving a slice of life, or singling out an interesting instant from the constant flow of life around them. This is of course a continuum; you can be looking for just that little bit more over your normal street photographer, or you could be very, very serious about the decisive moment like HC-B. These photographers don’t always have a clear idea of what they want in an image, but they recognize an interesting scene when it happens and are ready to respond and capture the shot.
I think I fall into this category. Whilst I still make some images that I consider to be aesthetically pleasing rather than saying anything strong or documenting a particular moment of life, I do look for something out of the ordinary in my images; I think it’s probably the natural progression for all street photographers as they eventually land up with far too many ordinary looking images. This leads to seeking the common theme that separates out the strong images from the weak ones – and it always comes back to idea, subject, and execution (which covers framing, light, processing etc.)
To some extent, as a competent photographer, I feel that we have a moral duty to record life for posterity – especially so in fast-changing environments such as developing countries. I’ve lived in the same neighbourhood of downtown Kuala Lumpur for the last seven years; in that time the landscape and flow of people has changed so much that there are things I don’t even remember seeing, much less capturing, in my old images from just a few years ago. If we, the first hand observers, don’t even remember – how are any future generations going to manage? I’ve shown images to fellow residents, and will inevitably be told at least once or twice something along the lines of ‘I’ve never seen that before’, or ‘Where’s this? So nearby, really?’.
The observer must therefore be an impartial one, with an abstract but fixed idea of what is ‘ordinary’ in their minds. This is something that gets harder and harder the longer you live in a place, or the more familiar you get with it; the foreign soon becomes the commonplace and soon you won’t notice anything at all. Observation and recognition of differences is an innate human skill; but continuous observation and attentiveness is very much a trained one.
In trying to be both observers and recorders, we must endeavour not to become public nuisances. In a previous article, I talked about the ethics of street photography and the importance of maintaining basic human standards of politeness and courtesy; something that many modern photographers choose to ignore behind the pretence of anonymity, or simply choose to ignore. It’s true that we feel less inhibited as photographers when we are not in our own comfort zones or cities of residence; at the same time, this is when we are also at our most observant and probably least culturally sensitive state. It’s worth remembering that what we might not find culturally offensive at home could well be the opposite overseas.
Often, the most interesting things happen well within the boundaries of polite personal space; intruding that makes me (personally) feel uncomfortable; it’s important to remember that we as photographers have both our personal and group reputations to maintain – it certainly won’t help anybody if street photographers are eventually perceived as being at the same level as paparazzi.
So where does this all leave us?
My personal opinion – and I stress this is highly subjective – is that those of us who have the ability and inclination, should go beyond the realm of causal snapping and treat street photography as social documentary/ reportage; try to say something with every shot, but at the same time, do this in an ethical way that doesn’t intrude on the privacy, rights or personal space of the subject(s). The overarching goal should be to preserve these little vignettes on present-day life for posterity; this also means making the work accessible and viewable to as great an audience as possible, which is one of the reasons why I use flickr.
I’ve noticed that my personal street photography style has evolved over the years from – get a worthwhile composition, to get people in frame, to get as close as possible, to cinematic style with plenty of OOF areas, to get close but retain context. It seems that today I’m working towards a style that documents man in the context of his environment, natural or built; I don’t specify a man and his individual, personal characteristics as much as use that figure as an abstract for the idea of humans in a particular situation. Where you choose to take it (and if you even bother with street photography or reporting on life) is very much a function of personal style – something you will have to discover and define for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I just thought it might be interesting to throw another perspective out there. MT
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