Street photography in context: diversion, documentary or nuisance?

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The Police are everywhere. Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

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.

The nuisance
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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  1. Terrific discussion Ming.

  2. I really enjoy both your insights and photographs. Thank you!

  3. A thought-provoking post Ming. Thanks!

    I tend to classify street photography into two realms: when subjects are aware of the camera (photographer as participant) and when they are not (photographer as observer). The emotional difference between the two realms are often quite striking, in the same way that walking down a street and establishing eye-contact with a passerby/stranger is emotionally different from not establishing eye-contact as he passes.

    • Thanks Don. I think you’re talking about the classical quantum mechanics problem 😉

      Not being observed or not having the subject notice you is almost voyeuristic, and definitely more natural. But the latter can be stronger. I think both styles have their challenges and times of best use…

      • Ah, but of course, you already covered it! Schrodinger’s Cat and all. (Yes, I have to find time to get to your archived postings.) I hadn’t thought of photojournalism being related to quantum mechanics before…

  4. I always had a hard time defining “Street Photography”.

    For myself it is more about the fact that I do not know the subjects. I have been shooting “street life” or “moving life” or whatever you like to call it (as opposed to “still life”) since the 80’s and I find that I capture vacation photos the same way I capture “Street Photography”. These are moments that are in some way striking to me, the observer, and not necessarily known to the subject or many time the people in the shot are just part of the aesthetic, not specifically the subject. They always end up being the favorites of my family later on, much of the time because they look so natural and un-posed. So maybe I would describe these shots as “Improptu Photography”, focusing on the lack of set-up rather than the place or subject. Isn’t that what these photos are about? Capturing something that you did not set out to capture, and without the benefit of control, but in the moment you saw something that just came together, or aligned itself.

    Then when you look at it that way, your three points above become different. The first two describing intent and depth, and the last a level of incidental interaction with the people on the other side of the lens that crosses that line between capturing and creating a moment. When you turn into “The nuisance”, you become the subject, albeit indirectly. Like taking a picture of the sheep from the wolf’s perspective. Or in this case the victim from the perpetrator’s perspective. Or is that too harsh?

    Anyhoo, just my two cents.

    • I think you make some good points, Andrew. I think we’re defining the genre from different points of view – yours is more about the content and subject, mine is more about how one goes about it. Still, you’ve given me some interesting thoughts there for a future article – what is street photography exactly?

      • The two perspectives of the subject leave lots of room for future articles. And I am sure we could find a third or fourth perspective. Probably almost easier to describe what it isn’t, than what it is. Like that colloquial expression “I know it when I see it”.

        Thank you for your wonder pictures, articles and passion. They inspire me.

        One of my “Street Photographs” – – just wish I had more time to frame it, but then again, it wouldn’t be a Street Photo by my own definition if I had the time, and that young lady was moving!

        • No problem. I think by definition, every genre of photography is necessarily ill-defined; it is meant to be art, and art is subjective and interpretative. So pinning it down is going to be impossible. But perhaps the bigger question is, why do we need to define it at all? Why does it matter if an image is ‘street photography’ or not?

      • FYI – noneedtopanic = Andrew 🙂 just forgot to change it…

  5. Reblogged this on Photography Re-Blogger.

  6. I enjoy your brand of street a lot because I can see composition, light etc in it. Most street leaves me wondering why the photog bothered. I think that Flickr and its ilk have a lot to answer for in this. Most of what we see today barely rates as banal, but what would a landscape guy know?

    • Thanks Jeff. I think one has to be careful in treating street photography as an excuse for a bland image – regardless of the genre, every picture needs a subject!

  7. Hi MT! Thanks for your insightful article! Does Street Photography have to take place at outdoor as the name suggests? What if I shoot something candid indoor? Can it be categorized as Street Photograhy?

    • I think the implication in the name is that it takes place in a public space, with subjects that you’re not familiar with. So if you’re talking about people at a mall, then probably. If you’re talking about your family at home, then no. Does this make sense?

      • Okay! Agreed! Thanks! Then how do we categorize the photography of someone we know e.g. family members, friends and it takes place at indoor? Honestly, I am new in photography and I always struggle to categorize my photography.

        • I’ve always thought of this kind of thing as ‘reporting on life’, or ‘journaling’ – street photography also falls into this category.

          But perhaps the broader question you should ask yourself is, why is it necessary to have a category for everything at all? Does it make a difference to your output? Probably not.

  8. I agree with 3, 4 and 5 but adding to that, I actually chose to do street phogoraphy because of the opposite of 1 and 2. For me, street photography is the hardest one to do because there rarely are chances to capture a moment again, you’ve got to be quick to it and because there’s a specific definition that a street photography must have a human or human element. Sometimes, you take a photo and it seems more like just a snapshot, there’s nothing artistic/composed about it. But that’s me, I’m somewhat of a purist when it comes to street photography.

    And somehow I don’t fall in any of your three categories. Maybe once in a while I’ll be in “documentary” but in most cases, I just want to take a good looking photo with humans in it ala most of Bresson’s work. Emotion influences it. Geometry composes it. But story is just secondary. I’m not here to document anything. Just capture moments. But again, just me.

    Good read, Ming Thein. Nice to see you talking more on street photography.

    • Thanks Myles. Agreed, the street is a great training ground for your photographic reflexes – both compositional quickness and familiarity with equipment.

      Each to his own, such is the nice thing about the flexibility of interpretation of photography. If we were all something or other, then why bother?

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