Street photography, soul and ethics, revisited – a personal view

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Man, or the idea of man?

Not to flog a dead horse, but I want to pick up from where the one of the earlier articles hinted and left off: the topic of ‘soul’ in street photography, and what that means in terms the increasingly grey ethical area for photographers. There are also legal implications involved, and we’ll discuss those in passing – individual territories have different regulations, so it’s really in your best interests to check before shooting.

Quick background: this photoessay supposedly lacks soul – both the images and the mark of the photographer – but images that are (loosely) more direct, intrusive, with technical considerations such as sharpness and exposure being secondary etc. have it. I’m not going to argue for my artistic/ aesthetic preferences or approach to the subject; I photograph the way I want and matching the way I see the world, and if that means I don’t have a soul – or at best a clinical one – so be it. They reflect the precise, logical part of my personality and the way I view modern life; people are turned into anonymous money-making robots, commodities and if anything, dehumanized when stuffed together in quantity. The most highly prized thing for individuals living in a huge metropolis is nothing other than solitude and space; we see it in the way people increasingly ignore each other when physical proximity increases – books, headphones and sunglasses create a barrier between them and the rest of the world. (Just look at your average subway carriage or airplane.)

But I digress. If the mark of soul is that slight intrusiveness into the life of another person for the purpose of producing an image, entertaining as it might be for the audience, I can’t help but feel that I’d feel slightly violated if I was the subject instead of the photographer. There’s nothing one can do about being seen in a public place – and if you don’t want to be seen, don’t go out – but to have a lens thrust into your personal space at close range can be rather uncomfortable. This is something which I can understand and respect; I suppose it’s one of the reasons I have personal resistance over directly confronting photography. If Bruce Gilden attempted to photograph me, he’d probably have to buy a new camera – after he saw a doctor. Oddly, I think it’s different if you’re there for the purposes of photographing an event; people there are expecting to be photographed, and one is not attempting to hide anything.

This is the reason you’ll see almost no upfront, quasi-voyeuristic images from me: either my subjects are aware they’re being photographed (a lot of the time, I’ll smile, wave and have a short conversation with them) – or shot from a distance and abstracted, to preserve anonymity. I’m very transparent about the way I shoot – I’ve stopped trying to be stealthy (not that it’s even possible with a Hasselblad) and instead am approaching subjects openly, or not at all. Most of the time, I’m not wanting to photograph a particular man, rather the idea of man, and man in context – if that makes sense. There’s also the stereotypical (but admittedly true) ‘Asian reserve’ which makes me very uncomfortable about direct confrontation.

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Impersonality. I stood openly with the camera out in the same place for a good five minutes; anybody who didn’t want to be photographed avoided me (or perhaps ducked thinking they were spoiling the shot). In the end, it didn’t matter since that wasn’t the shot I wanted anyway; this was.

In the comments below the line on the original post, Tom Liles postured that the only way to really do street photography is either uber-stealth, completely unnoticeable – or be completely open about it. The most invasive kind of photography is the kind that either exploits subjects or attempts to invade their space stealthily but fails; the kind of thing where people use camera phones to photograph up girls’ skirts make just enough of an attempt to hide it resulting in looking suspicious. It’s just downright rude and creepy. I say this as a photographer: if you don’t have the decency to either respect others’ personal space by being completely invisible or totally open, then there’s something very wrong here: in effect, you’re attempting to capture the human by dehumanizing your subject and treating them as a commodity. Isn’t there something ethically wrong here?

There are of course laws against this kind of thing in most countries: you are forbidden from exploiting the image of an individual – this includes selling candid images commercially without permission, and anything sexually explicit or implicit. You wouldn’t want to find an identifiable picture of your rear end promoting adult diapers or a fetish club in another country, for instance. This is common sense, I think. The grey area comes with editorial and artistic use: at what point does it become the latter? And if it comes down to a legal battle, who makes the call? Who is even qualified to make the call? Though the art world loves controversy, I’m personally quite happy making antiseptic, anonymous images that don’t make me run the risk of getting sued. It’s just not worth it.

I can’t help but wonder if the slightly blurry, low-def approach to street photography is the result of an underlying urge to be confrontational but not quite having the confidence to pull it off, resulting in hurried, imprecise images. Or perhaps it’s the desire to give the audience the feeling that they’re sneaking a voyeuristic peek into the life of somebody else. It’s really impossible to say without knowing the motivations and methods of the photographer. I’m not sure I quite agree with this from an ethical standpoint, even if the results can be impressive. I think there’s nothing wrong with it if the subject is aware and therefore giving implicit approval or cooperation in the production of the image; but that would of course probably result in different images.

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Counterpoint for thought: the personification of the inanimate. Why not?

Street photography is always about people; whether that’s an individual – in the style of Vivian Maier, Bruce Gilden and co – or the idea of the individual/ person – in my style – that’s open to interpretation by the photographer. But ultimately, it all boils down to respect: it’s cliched, but do not do to somebody else that which you would not want done to you. Where that threshold lies is down to the individual, though there are laws to prevent you from going too far, and as a photographer and individual person, I support these: providing they are properly and knowledgeably enforced. If you can confidently say that if you were to be photographed in public by your identical clone in an identical manner to yourself and you wouldn’t mind, then I think you’re probably okay. I’m confident enough not to change the way I would work; I believe it respects the individual and produces the results I want. In fact, I’d probably start a conversation about his Hasselblad. MT


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  1. Reblogged this on My Blog dmanderphotography and commented:
    interesting blog

  2. What are your thoughts on photographing in indoor places? Say you are eating at a restaurant or cafe and you have your camera with you, something like a Ricoh GR.
    Do you ever feel you shouldn’t photograph given the opportunity?

  3. What are your thoughts on taking photos of places indoors, say you are eating at a restaurant or cafe and you have your camera with you?

  4. I am agree with your views that the street photography is all about the people and I really like the street photography as it shows the postures of the people and their state of mind and it is somehow different from others types of photography.

  5. why you still think that just because you are in the street taking photographs, that is street photography.

    • I don’t, but most people do.

      • Rob Symonds says:

        It’s kind of funny that certain people have decided to seize on the label Street Photography and then come up with rules for what it is and what it isn’t. Many of the photographers those same people emulate or are inspired by hated the term Street Photography! And they didn’t want their work to be constrained or limited by a label as such.

        I am not interested in rules and conventions… photography is not a sport.

        —Bill Brandt

      • please call me or send me an email if you are in Budapest some of this days.

  6. Sure. That can happen, but not if basic courtesy is extended towards subjects. Let’s look at it from another angle. You hire a cheap, poor model, pay him/her something and get a model release. Then you take demeaning pictures of him/her. He feels exploited. Rightly so. Is that better, worse, or the same? I don’t see that the fact whether the subject knows or not is relevant at all.

  7. I don’t quite agree that the subject must know he is being photographed, otherwise it is somehow unethical. It can be unethical, of course, depending on the situation. But not usually.
    I mostly photograph during travels, and I travel a lot for work. Some 200 days a year. There are usually two sorts of people photographs I try to capture. I find an interesting person and try to make a good environmental portrait of him/her. That is a posed picture. Or I find an interesting situation, a person is doing something interesting. In this case I try to get the picture without him noticing what I am doing. At some point he usually does and then I usually smile, say something fitting and take another picture or two, or may even take the posed environmental portrait. But the key to this picture is that the person does what he does without posing, otherwise it is usually not as good and natural. Most people start overdoing, smiling, looking at the camera, making V signs (yes, I live and travel in Asia) etc. This is not interesting, or natural. I don’t see anything unethical about this approach.

    • The unethical part is where the image might not be a fair representation of the subject, or where there is the possibility they may land up feeling exploited. Not that they are being photographed without noticing it.

  8. Recently while camping on a few corners for extended periods of shooting in Manhattan, I got the oddest reaction from one woman passing by. She asked me if I would shoot her. She didn’t know me, what my intentions were or what purpose I had in shooting – None of that mattered to her. She just wanted to be included. Another woman came up and tapped me on the arm and pointed her finger to a false mustache she was wearing and then took a step back to wait for me to shoot her…
    The most curious thing I have found about asking people on the street if you can shoot them is that a small percentage look reluctant and ask “What are you going to do with the shot?” Which makes me want to reply, what would you not want me to do with the shot?

    In a place like Manhattan, where every square inch is covered by multiple cameras, facial recognition algorithms and potentially tied to archives connected to intrusive data bases which do record personal information, I think people have lost their right to object.
    I had many folks indicate that they wanted me to shoot them as they passed by in trucks and autos, many slowed until I could get the shot, many smiled as I shot their children or dogs…Only one woman in 3500 shots admonished me “You don’t take peoples pictures with out asking permission first” which was of course exactly what I was doing. I had a few people turn away from the lens, but shooting very openly on the streets raised very few eyebrows – No one I asked refused and except that that one woman no one complained. One guy yelled at me “Did you just take my picture!?” but when I approached to discuss it with him it was clear he was making a joke. The same joke he made the next day when he came up behind me to say hi.
    When we go out in public, do we have the right to dictate other peoples behavior?

    • Actually, being asked to be shot might make for an interesting series all on its own. You wouldn’t even have to look for subjects, and could probably get them to sign model releases…

      We definitely don’t have the right to dictate the behaviour of others. But we can be considerate (or observant) of it…

  9. Btw, soul-less to me is a photo without a story, a hook of some type. A person on a street corner on the phone is a street photograph, but it should be edited out unless it has something more to it content-wise. Photographers are storytellers. Make it a good story worth the viewer’s time.

  10. Great thought-provoking article. I use both the stealth camera shot without looking,and hellos and requests to take their photograph. Both have a time and place. A former photojournalist, I also don’t feel nervous picking up the camera to shoot sometimes. – Thanks for the article. Kenneth

  11. Your a more amicable man than I Ming. 😉

  12. Happy to add balance. I read some of the attepts at critisism here directed at you. I wouldn’t worry Ming, most lack any credible discourse, in fact a lot of it is confused and lacking any true conviction. Subjective to a degree. Its important to know what you like and what you don’t, the hard part is understanding when something is good even though it may not tick your aesthetic preferences.

    • I don’t think they’re criticism – just another (equally) valid point of view; the whole thing is subjective after all anyway. 🙂

      But yes, knowing what you like is very important indeed…

  13. Jorge Balarin says:

    To capture the “soul” you can use your friends and family, without running the risk of a smashed camera. I like to do not posed photos of my daughter on the street, the subway, a restaurant, a playground, etc. Greetings.

  14. Hi Ming,

    I’ll try to keep this rant shortish: P The whole “sociological investigation” with regards to most street photography simply comes off as a tack on “artists” statement and rather flaky one at that. A lot street photography although dynamic, is highly formulaic, akin to shooting a paintball at a blank canvas; yes you might hit the mark sometimes, staple a faux academic “artistic” statement to it and you might even have a gaggle of plebs qualifying it. To a reasonably trained eye however this is conceptually the same photo taken again and again, the practice is often very one dimensional and often only met by an equally empty response.
    How many times do you need to jam a camera in someone’s face to realise that most people are not entirely comfortable with the entire experience? Soul? Unless I am adept at palm reading 😛 I fail to see anything beyond a fleshy surface or an empty gaze. How many of the sheltered middleclass need to photograph a social/ethnic minority with their shiny new camera in order to have a “humbling experience” Call me cynical but regurgitating the look and feel of photographic works taken some 40-50 years ago and trying to sell it as something original and sincere let alone containing a gram of “soul” simply falls flat.
    The figure is a compositional element or subjects much like a plant or a horizon line. It’s often what is needed to complete a picture or further inform a place or environment. Running around snapping strangers is simply a voyeuristic outlet. It can be a buzz taking strangers pictures and getting away with it, but trying to justify what is often just fetishism with academic prose is often reflective of the work accompanies it. Empty.

    • Rob Symonds says:

      Running around snapping strangers is simply a voyeuristic outlet. It can be a buzz taking strangers pictures and getting away with it, but trying to justify what is often just fetishism with academic prose is often reflective of the work accompanies it. Empty.

      This is interesting and something I wanted to touch on the other day but couldn’t put into words. I get the impression there is certainly a subset of people drawn to street photography precisely for that reason. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s pervasive. But it’s definitely there, gilded with—as you say—academic prose.

    • I’m glad you’re here to balance out he opposite end of the spectrum! It’s definitely one dimensional to photograph the same thing in the same way repeatedly, and stupid to expect a different result. But again…photography is subjective and we all have our preferences…

  15. Excellent essay. When discussing the ethics of street photography, I cannot ignore the issue of “exoticism” or “otherness” and the clear problems with well-off photographers claiming to represent the “soul” of a community that isn’t their own.

    Peruse 90% of online street photography sites and the subjects are almost always a classical ‘other’: homeless, minority, destitute, etc. Those discussing this tendency note it as the pursuit of “interestingness”, something not homogenous to photograph. Either way, the photographers are not of this community (most often proved by the thousand dollar plus kit).

    And these same photographer talk about capturing “soul.” By definition, it’s tied to their situated perception and cannot represent their subject. The control is in the hands of the photographer, not the subject. And when the subject is such a clear “other”, colonial ghosts start to haunt us.

    More street photographers should learn the foundations of good cultural anthropology, namely participant observation. This defining element dictates that one cannot observe and represent if one is not participating. Simply setting up a shot outside the cultural miasma risks misrepresentation, bad power politics, and colored images. If street photographers are so obsessed with capturing life as it is now (a common defense that equates to, ‘I believe my art is more important than my subjects’ considerations’) they’ll start hitting the books.

    • Thank you. I think you need a bit of detachment to be objective, but it of course comes at the risk of focusing on the ‘wrong’ things.

      How is homelessness or destitution interesting or different? It happens everywhere. And this is not soul, this is exploitation.

      Participant observation: I agree, though the participation need not be personally interactive – as in knowing your subjects might change the initial vision or render it uncaptureable because that moment where the photographer sees the subject as they present themselves to the greater world has passed…

      • I think homelessness and poverty are popular subjects because it’s outside of the homogenous culture we often live in. We are drawn to the uniqueness of it, something without brands or shine. I actually think this relates to your clouds/trees/water piece: humans are different in a semi-predictable way and we’re drawn to the peaks of that, both above and below.

        Completely agree with the second point. (And that it’s pure exploitation, more reflective of the shooter’s soul or lack thereof)

        • That would make sense, but I think it’s too often used as a default subject because they’re ‘easy’ targets. However, if the images genuinely were sensitive to the subject, that’s a different matter – but not easy to execute.

  16. There was an interesting comment back there (from Ming) – “I’m not a very emotional person”.

    I find this comment so interesting because it somehow fits in with how I view your pictures (street and otherwise). This is in no way a critical comment, of course. But let me elaborate on it a little.

    When I look at pictures by probably my favourite shooter of them all, Jay Maisel, the impression I get from his best ones is like a punch in the gut. It’s immediate, and my reaction to it is usually to grin stupidly and then spend ages drooling over the picture. I rarely make a point of analysing it or asking myself why I like it. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction.

    When I look at yours, the impression I get is usually very different. It’s more like a slow realisation (in the sense that it is rarely immediate and can take several seconds to sink in) that “wow, this is a really good picture”, and then I spend some time looking at it in order to figure out why I like it. The process is far more analytical and less “emotional” when compared to how I look at Maisel’s pictures.

    Both you and Jay Maisel are leagues ahead of me as photographers, but the way I’d phrase it is that his best pictures “delight” me, and the main thing I take from them is probably best summed up with the word “joy”. Whereas your best pictures “really impress” me, and the main thing I take from them is probably best summed up with “awe”. Not always an emotional kind of awe, either: just one that says “damn, that’s good”. Neither response is better, but they are very different.

    I wonder if this is a result of the way you think when you’re shooting – the idea of being detached to a certain degree? I generally have no idea what goes on in the head of another photographer while they are out doing their thing, but I know what Jay Maisel’s thinking, because he makes the point over and over: he’s NOT thinking – or at least, not planning. He’s trying to be a blank slate, so that things will come to him and if he likes them he can grab them. This, I reckon, is why I get the reaction I do from his pictures; the lack of planning for them and their very immediate nature is what comes through. He says that photography can essentially be reduced to a very simple thought process: if it’s not fun, don’t do it.

    Whereas (and this is nothing more than conjecture based on what you’ve written before) I get the impression that for you it’s a kind of active meditation – always on the lookout for something that could be the basis of a good image – and involves a constant process of thinking, and analysing your surroundings. Now there’s every chance that I’m totally wrong here, but that’s the impression I get from your writing on photography, and it would explain to me why I look at your pictures in such a different way. It’s nothing to do with this rather vague notion of “soul”, because that’s something that everyone defines in their own way (and for the record, I think the idea that technically excellent photos can’t have soul is ludicrous). But if we took this idea further, it could be very interesting to examine the way we react to certain photographers’ work and the way that they think about photography.

    • That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. And you’re pretty close to the mark on the way I shoot – I find it enjoyable, but it’s certainly more meditative than spontaneous. Even the more candid captures are – well, I wouldn’t say planned – but certainly considered, and I do consciously have a place for everything in the frame. When I’m really immersed, I think my photographic process is definitely somewhat intuitive – something has to draw my eyes in – but to turn that into a finished composition then requires a rational process.

      That said, I think a little joy and whimsy can certainly lift things. Oddly I think if I had to choose between awe and joy, I’d probably go for joy – at least in my personal work, but perhaps awe in my commercial work. I wonder if there’s a middle ground?

      • It’s very interesting that you defined the the most fundamental aspect of ethical: I’d punch the guy out if he took photos of me like that. Or stated conversely the normal way, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Assuming you really don’t want to punch the guy out, then he should not be taking those kind of (in your face, disrespectful) photos of you in the street. And you don’t take them yourself for this reason. Most long discussions of ethics end up with that position. It’s usually taken from the bible, but Confucius is quoted as saying something very similar to this, so it’s old and universal. Unfortunately, it often competes with “Do it to them before they do it to you,” which seems to be rooted in fear and paranoia which is a very common condition around the world. I have never been able to figure out how these opposing positions would ever get resolved. Religions don’t seem to make the slightest dent in it.

  17. Hey wow! I got in above the line!! High fives all round 🙂

    Looking back at the BTL thread last time out—that was some pretty premo discussion. As again here!

    Wish I had a minute or two to break something off — I’m still not finished talking about soul — but it’s my wedding anniversary today and I’m rushing home as fast as I can to spend the last couple hours of the day with my beautiful wife. Yeah, we got married on St. Valentine’s 🙂 Can I get some more high fives from the ladies!?

    Chest bumps optional 😮 😉

    • Actually, this post has turned into a surprisingly lively discussion – I wasn’t expecting that, but I’m definitely pleased.

      Happy anniversary! I meanwhile am still working…and the wife isn’t even here. 😦

  18. Hi, Ming:

    I’ve been a litigation attorney (what you would call a barrister in the UK) for about 35 years and a photographer even longer than that (I studied a bit with Minor White while at MIT around 1971).

    From both perspectives, I quite concur with your theses in this essay, including your comment that something legal may not be ethical. Perhaps the best basic street photography rule can be simply stated as approaching and treating everyone with respect. Acting otherwise says volumes more about the photographer than the unwitting subject.

    On a tangent- have you noticed that what appears to be a disproportionately high number of serious photographers originally studied physics or other sciences? Given that most people seem to have a need to express themselves artistically, the technical rigor of serious photography would seem to be the medium of choice for those conversant in the hard sciences. Keep up the excellent work on your blog – there is much wisdom and good sense in it.

    • Now I’m curious – professionally, have you seen or are you aware of any cases against street photographers? I’m sure we’d all be curious to hear about their resolution/ conclusion, too – both with the intention of limiting personal liability as well as knowing what not to do…

      Yep – lots of physicists/ scientists here. I think it’s probably the most accessible art form/ hobby that blends the technical side we’re familiar with together with the artistic side that we need to let out. Creative physics or creative accounting generally aren’t encouraged!

      • Hello, Ming

        Although the broad legal outlines are reasonably clear in the US, fifty states may have fifty different interpretations of privacy rights. Legal problems tend to occur in those grey areas that you mention, especially if anyone attempts any commercialization of images. I suspect that the stricter privacy laws in the EU complicate matters even further in the EU.

        Very generally, while there is broad constitutional protection under the First Amendment for freedom of speech and of the press, that protection does not necessarily extend to tort suits under state law for invasion of privacy, placing people in a false or degrading light, misrepresentation or trickery, commercial use without a release, any sort of manipulation, etc. There’s no way to provide iron-clad advice that’s safely generalizable, so the only sensible approach is for photographers to consult with an appropriately experienced legal practitioner in their own legal jurisdiction.

        You’ll note that the various potential bases for street photographers getting sued are all, in a sense, violations of the basic ethical rule about being honest and respectful toward others.

        From my perspective, the problem isn’t so much about winning or losing a lawsuit brought by some disgruntled person, but about the anguish, hassle and expense of defending any lawsuit, even if ultimately successful. You’ll never know about the strangers that you photograph until it’s too late. As that famous sage, Captain Spock of Star Trek noted: “You humans are such an illogical species.”

        For these reasons, and probably some personal ones as well, I tend to avoid street photography. There’s quite enough else to photograph here in a small town in Alaska and the really northern light at 60 degrees north is often very lovely.

        I certainly agree about creative accounting being good for 2-5 years as a guest of the US Government. And, of course, under US law, cooking phony scientific research data is just as criminal as cooking the accounts.

        Best regards

        Joe Kashi

        • Thanks for the input – sounds like a real mess, to be honest. If people are sensible (what is ‘sensible’, anyway?) there should be no problems, but it seems that there are provisions to turn it into a problem if there’s some perceived grievance – intentional or not. I’m not sure any street photography image is worth the hassle if there’s potentially high risk involved…

          • Hi, Ming

            Yes, I consider the potential problems of street photography as not worth the potential hassle and possible legal exposure, That’s a major reason why I tend to avoid it.


            Joe Kashi

  19. Great article. Agree with almost everything. But a couple of things if I may:

    (1) In para 3 you say “This is something which I can understand and respect” – is it definitely “can” or did you mean can’t? As is, this point didn’t seem to follow for me.

    (2) The principle of do as you what like to be done unto you strikes me as somewhat muddled. First off, it assumes your subject shares your values. Secondly, people who thrust cameras in your face might argue that they’d be fine if someone did that to them. So if they were photographing a “Ming Thein” (:-)) they would argue “why are you getting upset; I wouldn’t mind if you did that to me”. The point here being that we need to respect other people’s values not imagine that they share yours. Practically, it means we have to be very transparent in our work.

    Case in point: Re the beautiful picture you took of the woman with the face veil at the bus stop. She’s covered up because I imagine she doesn’t want to be looked at least of all photographed. Potentially, what you have is clash of value systems. So a hypothetical question: I wonder if she would consent or did consent to having her picture taken. And if she wouldn’t or didn’t can it simply be resolved by your saying “I wouldn’t object if it were me”.?

    • 1. Can – as in I can understand [why people would find close range street photography invasive, and respect their privacy].

      2. You cannot make that assumption beforehand. And I WOULD definitely mind if somebody shoved a camera in my face. So yes, you’re right: be transparent in our work; people can choose to object or move away if they disagree.

      As for the veiled lady, I was quite openly standing there and photographing people for a good fifteen minutes. She saw me beforehand, smiled, and ignored me thereafter. If she objected I doubt that would have been her reaction…

      • You can make reasonable assumptions, i.e. that person X might not like what I’m doing even if roles-reversed I wouldn’t mind. And in fact it can work both ways, i.e. people can sometimes be willing to do things that I ordinarily wouldn’t be willing to do.

  20. This discussion suffers from one of the things that happens when various cameras are compared and criticized: an unnecessary assumption (unstated) that one has to buy just one camera that is “the best” for, well, everything. It takes two seconds to point out that most people already own 2 or more cameras these days that are good at different things. But it spoils the debate about the which one is the latest “best” camera. The only limited issue with street photography is that somewhere in the image there is a street. And preferably, but perhaps not necessary, people as well. Okay, usually. That’a about it. I’ve seen arguments that it sometimes applies when there really is no street in view. So, that opens up a wide range of very compelling types of street photography, including the type that Ming produces and likes, as do many other people as well. What else? Well, for starters there are two very famous street shots of couples kissing: one in Paris and another in NYC celebrating the end of WWII. One, it turns out was staged with actors, but somehow it just didn’t’ seem to matter. The other was the sailor in NYC taken as quickly as possible of a sailor and woman who could have cared less about being photographed at the time. I prefer the “candid” photo, as they call it in wedding photography, spontaneous action of people who may or may not do things for the photographer, but no formal posing. I like to do these and look at them. Yet, in this discussion we’ve seen street photography of people who volunteer to pose the way the photographer wants them to! In the street, of course. To keep going beyond the minimum 2 requirements (street and people), there’s photography that documents important current events for today or history. Still street photography? What’s added here is drama, tension, and story /narrative (real or projected by the viewer on the scene. This is what I also really like to see, an implied before, now, and after with a possible plot, which may or may not be seen in people just walking to work in the morning. I’m sure one can pick out mini-stories that are unfolding “going to work” if one looks hard enough and captures it, but many just look like people who happen to be walking by with nothing on their minds (not true, of course). The point here is that what’s shot is up to the photographer and his/her interests and of course what happens or not. So, where’s that leave me personally? I can point to 3 published photos (Black&White Magazine/USA) that were taken “on some street with people,” so minimally street photography. But I did not take them with that term in mind, nor think of them that way until much later and a camera club said they would feature a competition for street photography. So, are they? One was a b&w photo of a small, barefoot girl in Pisac Peru with torn, dirty dress and dirty feet carrying her little sister on her back and just happening to look straight up at me (6’5″ directly above her) with the most penetrating eyes ever seen. Travel? Documentary? Street? Environmental Portrait? Another was a lucky “kiss in Madrid” in the square between two corner bars/cafe’s, in a heavy downpour of rain. They couldn’t stay out of it: grabbed desperately and dramatically kissed, no care about the rain at all or being photographed. My camera was put away, so I grabbed my wife’s P&S . . . too late. The woman (both were quite attractive by the way) ran off down the street in the rain, but she came running back and grabbed her boyfriend to kiss him again. Captured slightly blurred due to the motion and camera limitations perfectly do imply motion an drama, all with an old white haired woman in the upper corner looking on. I could never repeat that in a million years and the camera costs $200 today. A faster lens would have ruined it. So, street photography. Never entered my mind at that time because it doesn’t look like what is labeled street photography, nor did the “kisses” in NYC or Paris at the end of WWII. More documentary and story telling. I have another documentation of street scenes in the Choco region of Colombia, SA, that shows the tension between the black town residents (descendants of slaves) and visiting tribal Indians. I thought of it as documenting an event at the time, but it all took place spontaneously “on the street.” So, how does this apply to the conversation here? Not sure.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the gist of what you’re trying to say is simply that we capture what we see to the best of our ability with whatever it is we’ve got at the time – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Whether it’s staged or not, involves people or not, doesn’t really matter so long as the translation from idea to image works…

      • Exactly. It means that your favored type of street photography is perfectly fine. Many others will like it as well. Might as well call it style if it differs considerably from anyone else’s approach. What I said with too many words is that we shouldn’t be trying to reach a single consensus on what “street photography’ should be for everyone. Too narrow and constraining.

  21. If you came across street photographs like yours on Flickr or some other photo sharing site, would they get and hold your attention?

    • I would imagine so, right after thinking ^&*!! – but seeing as I haven’t come across any, I can’t answer that 🙂 That of course doesn’t mean I solely appreciate one kind of photograph. I think the strictly curated reader pool on flickr is a good example of that.

  22. just got a copy of Bruce Davidson’s Central Park book. He worked in the park for four years and, according to an excellent essay, got to know many of the people in the pictures, in some cases pretty well. So there’s a personal, face-to-face quality. Very moving. His famous subway series was taken with an SLR and flash in the New York subways at the height of racial tensions in the city. He seems to have introduced himself to his subjects and shown them samples of his work and returned and given them pictures of themselves. Absolutely non-stealthy.

    I am also an admirer of Chauncey Hare, who got invited into people’s houses to take quite extraordinary wide-angle large format pictures.

    Paul Strand, who was apparently quite shy, used his wife to talk up his subjects and would then set up his 8×10 camera for a single shot.

    I find the notion of stealth photography problematic. At least, I feel like a creep doing it.

    Regarding the notion of “soul.” Bad word: I prefer inwardness.

    • Interesting back story – without that context, the audience might not necessarily know the images were consented and somewhat posed. I doubt the majority of ‘street photographers’ do this. In any case, it’s impossible to be stealthy with a film Hasselblad…

      ‘Soul’ is overused – I agree that ‘inwardness’ is a better way of looking at it.

      • You know Ming, people don’t loom large in your work. Why not take pictures of friends or family? Or even models – but artist models, not fashion models. Or just hire people off the street?

        Your skills in product photography and the required set-ups (which can produce an almost hyper-realism) would translate very well to fully posed and art-curated works. Studio based work is the subject of what is apparently a very important show at MOMA right now.

        Apparently Fukase used his family. Also, I think Davidson’s subjects presented themselves to the camera rather than his posing them. Or rather, I think he photographed them interacting with him in the act of taking their picture. I suspect Strand’s subjects were self-consciously posed because of the long exposure times required.

        As always, great blog and I very much appreciate your sharing your process and work so openly. I am pretty uninterested in the tech stuff, but do look forward to you taking up the very annoying world of E6.

        • I do. But they’re private, so I don’t post them. In fact, I publish only a small fraction of what I keep…let alone what I shoot. There is some work that’s meant to be shared, and some work that I simply feel the need to. Actually, this is a very good example of conscious exclusion: the audience cannot know you shot it or it was there if you don’t show it.

          As for hiring random people – why? It doesn’t interest me; I’d rather spend time shooting other things. As for E6 – I still think digital has a considerable edge in colour. I’ll stick to film for B&W for the time being, though…

  23. There are of course laws against this kind of thing in most countries …. this includes selling candid images commercially without permission… The grey area comes with editorial and artistic use: at what point does it become the latter?

    I feel the ambiguity might if anything be somewhat broader and more severe than mentioned. In the US, for example, it is standard operating procedure for a wedding photographer to commercially advertise his or her work using wedding images, guests included! I have yet to meet someone in that segment of the industry who [impractically] asks guests to sign a model release. I’m not *aware* of any case-law either on that subject. Surprising to me, given the chances that someone, somewhere, will keenly dislike their appearance at a reception; maybe I’ve overlooked it.

    I’m not personally sure there’s a great deal of clarity about corporate logos and trademarks that appear in street images: suppose the street images are construed to advertise your photography business/career itself.

    Perhaps I haven’t thought matters through deeply enough but at this time the practice of asserting ownership over the appearance of buildings serving the public seems noxious to me — i.e. trying to prevent photographers from using images depicting the obviously very public appearance of a large sports complex or a university campus when photographed from public vantage points! The latter has evidently been attempted and seems to me to be going much too far.

    “There’s nothing one can do about being seen in a public place – and if you don’t want to be seen, don’t go out – but to have a lens thrust into your personal space at close range can be rather uncomfortable.”

    I conjecture that one of the underlying reasons — perhaps a key underlying reason — for people to dislike of being photographed is the fact that one’s appearance is being recorded. To be seen in public places normally carries an expectation of being highly ephemeral. The expectation could be deeply entrenched in people, given the millenia of history during which no technology existed to instantly record a detailed image of a person.

    Without a street photographer, if I should look a bit fatigued with circles under the eyes on a certain day, I don’t suppose I’d really worry about it all that much as I’m walking down a city street: tomorrow I’ll be rested and looking my best. Same story for that grimace when the pinched nerve causes a shooting pain in my leg: it will be gone in a few seconds. I have no expectation that my appearance at the moment will have any lasting qualities.

    Now grab an image of me with your camera and that 3-second-long wince on my face has been recorded and the image persists — maybe it’s for 20 or 100 years. People change; a chiropractor might have helped correct the pinched nerve a decade ago, yet that image of my former external appearance still hangs about. I suppose that people — most, many, nearly all? — just don’t live their lives out expecting to have their appearance “recorded” and in many cases the outcome seems undesirable or at the very least potentially so.

    … either my subjects are aware they’re being photographed (a lot of the time, I’ll smile, wave and have a short conversation with them) – or shot from a distance and abstracted, to preserve anonymity …

    Some number of your past photos seem to have identifiable individuals who don’t seem to be aware and aren’t quite anonymous either. Examples I’m thinking of are the customers in front of the European cafe, and perhaps the recent woman with blue shoes in the city. They might be identifiable in the unlikely event I ever met them.

    I’m wondering how those images and others like them relate to your comments; e.g. are you consciously planning to do fewer of those in the future, or do you consider them abstracted enough to be anonymous, or were they actually aware of being photographed (more so than they look)?

    • Interesting point about corporate logos: if companies were a bit more switched on, they’d encourage positive placements, and take action against negative ones. It’s probably a good thing they’re not.

      We can turn around the ephemeral: if people care about the way they’re being seen, why not consciously do something about it? Isn’t that why we make an effort – to varying degrees – to buy clothes that fit, cut our hair etc?

      Past photos encapsulates this: I’m moving out of that phase. There won’t be a binary ‘now-I-shoot-street-now-I-don’t’ transition, but gradually you’ll be seeing less and less of that kind of work from me, at least in the short term. Who knows? I may do a complete 180 in the long term if I try to pursue another idea.

      • Probably *is* a good thing they’re not more switched on …. in general though I seem to be judging that societies are developing to be just far too litigious. I for one certainly don’t care to spend a moments time involved with attorneys in a match over ambiguities of image content and use; in fact the idea nauseates me a bit.

        For example, would a corporate consider that a photographer’s blog is advertising or just editorial; what would a court decide, and to what degree will an incidental appearance of a corporate mark in a street image pass whatever list of various, quite probably subjective, tests a particular jurisdiction uses to determine whether to grant an award? I’m not interested in the joust nearly enough to feel any desire to spend years of destroyed productivity with an attorney trying to apply the subjective and argue out the ambiguities…. 😦

        I rather like your work that’s depicted “identifiable” people: a number of them have grabbed me to be sure!

        • Honestly: I have no idea. And I think people only try to litigate if they think they can get something out of it…otherwise it would be a poor use of time and money.

  24. Interesting that you put “a personal view” in the title. Does that mean that all your other pieces are not? I realise that obviously they are but I wonder why the emphasis here. Anyway I digress. I am still puzzled (as I was during our workshop in Amsterdam) on your views of candid street photography. I am left with the impression that you think it to be voyeuristic and possibly unethical but then you say it’s ok if the photographer would be happy being the subject, to me a little confusing.

    My own take is that I seek to capture slices of life which almost inevitably includes people in the context of their location and what is going on around them. As soon as they see a camera their behaviour changes and so the very essence is lost. This means that not being noticed is one of the key requirements and when you are using a 28mm and trying to get the subject properly framed that is not always possible. If I am spotted then as you say the smile and cheery wave normally does the trick and no harm done.

    I do have three rules which I follow; no homeless people, no street performers and no children. Not for any particular moral reasons but I just feel I can do better than that.

    I did have one interesting moment recently in Windsor where I took a picture of an elderly lady wearing a full niqab and who had two burly security guards escorting her. I thought she must be someone important as well as the fact she was wearing quite garish nike trainers under her long flowing black robes and thought it could be an interesting picture. I took what I thought was an undetected picture and was heading off when another security guard, who had been mingling with the crowd behind her, stopped me and asked if I had taken a picture. I said I had and he politely asked me to delete it which I did. I apologised if I had caused any offence and we went our separate ways. I got home and found I hadn’t deleted the picture and that actually it was pretty good. I thought about it for a bit and then deleted it. Legally I was completely within my rights to keep that picture but morally I wasn’t so sure.

    • The emphasis is because it seems a lot of people forget that the whole of photography is subjective, think that I’m representing absolutes, and take it upon themselves to disprove me because of that. There is no right/ wrong anyway!

      Street photography can be voyeuristic. It can be unethical. It doesn’t mean it has to be. Just reverse positions: if you were photographed homeless or in an embarrassing position, would you be happy? However if you were just enjoying a day out, then why not? Etc. This is very separate from ‘capturing slices of life unnoticed’ – I do that, too – but I’m very sensitive about the output.

      Your three rules make sense because we do not want to exploit ‘easy’ subjects. I’d do the same.

      As for the last lady: tough call. I’d probably have kept it but not publish it, because it’s fully within my rights to do so, though I’d also respect the subject’s wishes – and that would be a good compromise either way.

      • Hmmm, interesting, I’ve considered photographing homeless persons as part of, and in context of, a type of social commentary project I’d been mulling… over time my thoughts ran toward deliberately avoiding anyone’s face from appearing in the resulting images,

    • Mark brings up an interesting point about when we were going through cinematic/street styles during the Amsterdam workshop. A fair few of the students found it very difficult solely on the basis that they found it ‘intrusive’. In the end everyone has their own definition of what they would find comfortable. No doubt culture plays as well as where you are. If you are in a relatively large/touristic city where the candid holiday snappers frequent you can get away with a lot more than say a small village. Maybe the ability to adapt the way you shoot is more important to where you are?

      That brings me nicely to my question – in your article you say that essentially you stick to a philosophy in street – but does that intimate to the way you shoot street based on location? I find your ‘style’ consistent, which is very important to maintain a consistent approach, but if you were in a smaller less touristic city would you say ‘go stealth’ or would that throw off your style of shooting?

      • Absolutely – good point, Junaid. Relativity and cultural sensitivity matter.

        I shoot the same way regardless of whether I’m in a little village in Switzerland, up in the mountains in Nepal, or in New York City. I can’t force myself to ‘see differently’ – it just happens that my style is fairly unintrusive, and this might be on the conservative side in a touristic location, but the aggressive one in a smaller place.

        • Interesting thought – what yields a higher rate of keepers, smaller locations? Though thinking about it, the format you shoot probably has a bigger influence i.e. ‘blad vs. EM-1…..

          • Actually, neither: it’s mostly to do with quality of light. Higher latitudes work better for me because you’ve a) got longer ‘good’ light shooting hours, and b) better shadow definition and more intense skies/ evening warmth.

  25. Rob Symonds says:

    BTW, apologies for posting all these links off the site. Just trying to illustrate my points and provide examples and context.

    • I found all of those links very interesting, and thanks for introducing me (at least) to Peter Funch. I think his philosophy for the Babel series is very similar to dread-photographer Andreas Gursky’s. They are both working in a way with the medium that is struggling to find its balance between manipulation and documentation. I liked Funch’s transcendence of the concepts of fictional and real photos. In a way, it’s like an optimistic version of Stephen Colbert’s cynical truthiness concept.

    • No apology required – the examples are very helpful for the readers who might not be familiar…

  26. Rob Symonds says:

    You may have seen Arne Svenson’s series, Neighbors ( To me the work is creepy. At the same time I find it to be fascinating. I wouldn’t want somebody taking those images of me or my family, and I wouldn’t pursue this type of photography myself—it fails the golden rule test. But I can’t outright condemn it either because I find it to be compelling (reminds me of Hopper’s paintings). Legally Svenson is (or has been so far) in the clear. But I still find the work to be unethical. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Maybe that is actually the thrust of the work (similar to Óscar Monzón’s Sweet Car series: Can something can be unethical and still be good work from an artistic standpoint? I would argue that something can be legal yet still be unethical and furthermore, that the question “is it legal?” can not stand in as a test for “is it ethical?”

    • Ahh yes, that series – Neighbors is interesting to view, but I too can’t shake the fact that he had to be somewhat twisted to think it up in the first place – but what does it say about society that it’s accepted and celebrated as art (albeit controversially)?

      The Sweet Car series is worse, in my mind: the participants know they are being photographed and come across as unwilling. Permission has been tacitly asked and denied, but the photo was still taken. And they’re not even particularly interesting images.

      What is legal is not always ethical. Beyond the basic don’t kill/steal/cheat etc. it’s a mass of grey. Politicians in the developing countries are a good example: what they do is unethical, but legal…

  27. It’s interesting revisiting this topic again. The soul argument can be turned around, as with any attribute one tries to ascribe to an image or piece of art. Is it the artist who lacks soul, or is it that he/she has accurately conveyed to the viewer the feeling of soullessness? Maybe NYC is really soulless. Who knows?

    • And the fact that there’s no concrete answer means we can all continue interpreting the question ad infinitum – and all come back with different photographs. It’s what keeps the whole process interesting 🙂

  28. Reblogged this on nicoleanthony15.

  29. I’m not quite sure I understand the tenor of some of your comments. Are you saying that the work of the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Erwitt, Ronis etc. where their focus is on individuals and groups of individuals engaged in their daily life, but somehow caught by the photographer in a particular relationship to each other or their environment, and where the final image could be humorous, insightful, surreal, intriguing or just beautiful is somehow unethical?

    As far as I know, they did not either seek anonymity in their subjects or ask their permission (nor as far as I can see were they looking up girls’ skirts). Are you condemning an entire branch of photography? An historically respected tradition of reportage, where Gilden is merely towards one end of a spectrum of intrusion (along with his precursors, Brassai and Winogrand).

    • No, I’m not saying it’s unethical at all. The subjects in most of those images are conscious participants – you can see that by the way they interact with the camera. They know it’s there, and they were being photographed. People will hide or react in a closed fashion when they don’t want to be, or aren’t expecting it, but are captured – that’s Gilden and co. And there is a difference – it’s seeking implicit permission to share a moment, as opposed to stealing one. I also suspect that the conventions and expectations of society have changed significantly between HCB’s era and now – people wanted to be photographed then. When I’m out shooting, I don’t get the feeling that’s the case now, certainly not in developed countries.

      • You say: “The subjects in most of those images are conscious participants – you can see that by the way they interact with the camera. They know it’s there, and they were being photographed.”

        That seems very unlikely to me and it certainly contradicts what most of them have said. Cartier-Bresson was known for Lifting his camera and quickly shooting while his subject’s attention was engaged elsewhere. Doineau used to talk about ‘fishing’ for photos and though obviously some of his images were staged, he claims most weren’t. Cartier-Bresson would talk of stealing photos, David Alan Harvey, Alex Webb, Peter Turnley, among many other very well known contemporary photographers are on record (and on video) just shooting what appeals to them as they pass people by, so I still don’t quite get what you are saying.Of course, some individuals are posed by interaction with the photographer, some people, as you say, are aware and complicit, but many, many people are not. Are you saying those thousands of very well known images where people are caught without their implicit awareness are unethical?

        • No, that’s not quite my meaning. It’s clear whether they are conscious participants or not; if it’s in a compromising position, then it’s simple to ask yourself: would you be happy if this was you and the positions were reversed? Is the imagery misrepresentative or exploitative? Then we start to think about ethics…

          I can shoot stealthy but don’t do much of it these days; part of it is a consequence of my equipment choices (film Hasselblads or D800E/Otus combinations are hardly stealthy) and part of it is because I have decided that being transparent is probably better; after a while you blend into the scenery and nobody pays you any attention anyway – whether they consciously know you’re there and shooting or not is debatable, but you’re not concealing what you’re doing.

  30. “I photograph the way I want and matching the way I see the world, and if that means I don’t have a soul – or at best a clinical one – so be it. They reflect the precise, logical part of my personality and the way I view modern life; people are turned into anonymous money-making robots, commodities and if anything, dehumanized when stuffed together in quantity.”


    • Tell me you don’t feel like that when you work for a big company and your boss says there’s no budget and you’re going to be taking on the job of the colleague they just fired in addition to your own, at the same pay 😛

  31. Rob Symonds says:

    It is subtle but these are very much constructed images. This interview gives details:

    • Very interesting…the lack of apparent construction belies the quality of the construction, if that makes sense.

      • Rob Symonds says:

        Whoops – meant to post that last one as a reply 😉

        Yes, totally makes sense. What’s interesting is I could see people dismissing the work as “it’s not photography”, which is an interesting discussion in itself. If he did all that work through double-exposures and some kind of physical masking on a film camera instead of using digital + photoshop, would people still say “it’s not photography”?

        I took a picture of a lady taking pictures of birds on the beach last weekend. I ended up removing one of the birds in photoshop to improve the composition and clarity of the scene. That’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that. And I find myself having mixed feelings. It sells itself as an image that does not look manipulated. But now I’ve meddled with it and I’m not sure what to think of the end product. The image isn’t lying but it’s not telling the whole truth either, if you see what I mean.

        • Rob and Ming…..this is by far the best series of conversations that I have read. The very essence of what we are trying to do and say is up for philosophical and critical examination. Well done. Perhaps we could all follow up in a month’s time or so (Ming…maybe a revisit in the near future) to see if any of us have actually PRODUCED anything as a direct result of this thread. I, for one, have an idea that I will put into play this weekend as a consequence of the original proposition and the many comments that followed. Thanks again, guys. So much more interesting than the merely reductionist dialogues we all have about…gear.

          • Thank you. Do you mean produced, or changed what we have produced? I think it might be difficult to directly attribute/ separate out what is due to this specific discussion, and what’s due to other influences or natural evolutions in seeing. I for one know I’m photographing more and more still life/ abstract work as opposed to street – I think that’s because I want to increase the amount of control and execute a certain vision rather than go looking and just work serendipitously. There are times for both, however.

        • Hi Rob,

          I think manipulation is OK because of several reasons:

          1. The process of framing is manipulation already: the act of inclusion and exclusion of things in the frame is highly manipulative and affects the meaning of the picture greatly (cf. all the jokes about missing punctuation changing sentences). And framing is only one tool — there’s also exposure and perspective that can drastically change the meaning of a photo. Photography has a veneer of verisimilitude that many people mistake for accuracy. I don’t blame them as most photographs start off as something that occurred in the real world, but that’s only the first step in a long dance.

          2. The human visual system works by scanning the visual field in an irregular fashion. How many times have we taken a picture only to notice some detail we missed when we review the picture? If the intent of the photograph is to convey what you thought you saw and felt, then removing something from picture that your visual system missed (and as a result gave you the feeling you wish to convey) is fair game if it conveys and amplifies the feeling that you felt.

          Now I don’t intend this to be a slippery slope and encourage a post-processing free-for-all, but I think the answer varies with the photographer and subject, and lies somewhere between pure documentary (not that such a thing exists for various technical reasons) and pure synthetic imagery (eg. barf-colored HDR or fashion photos of skinny, flawless women). There is another concept at play here that is as ephemeral as the soul argument: the feeling of authenticity. I think your audience knows when something is inauthentic in terms of feel and rightness, and this is only vaguely connected to what was actually happening at the scene. There is a difference between trying to fool your audience, and trying to lead them somewhere.

          • Rob Symonds says:

            Nicely put.

          • How about this: if the audience notices the manipulation, then no?

            • Maybe, but then I think about all of the movie idioms where you know what’s going to happen, but the process of getting there is what’s enjoyable. A photo analogy might be fashion photography or fast food photography where you know the subject doesn’t match reality, but you still enjoy it or makes you want to eat something really unhealthy. Maybe if the manipulation is pointless or crass … I don’t know. It’s a tough question.

              • Good point; I suppose then that’s complicit involvement and acceptance on the part of the audience.

                But think of it this way: how many times have you seen an image of a product, been disappointed when you’ve viewed it in real life, and then subsequently realized that it is physically impossible to see the product that way with a single lighting setup and the naked eye?

        • Well, it’s certainly not photography in a traditionalist’s/ purist’s sense, much like how modern product/ commercial/ fashion/ advertising work isn’t, either; it’s mostly retouching to the point of being digital illustration. And yes, there’s missing integrity there too; I’m trying to figure out where the boundaries lie. There is something wrong about representing a product in such a way that you cannot actually see it like that with your own eyes – composite lighting and all…it’s certainly something I want to explore in more depth in a future article. I’m trying to figure out how to do it without angering a lot of clients.

          If your image aspires to be journalistic, then I think removal/ addition is a no-no; however even cropping is removal of a sort, isn’t it? Otherwise…anything goes.

  32. Ming, for me your imagers here generate an intellectual response — mainly for their technical excellence (as always) — but not an emotional response. I believe the latter is the essence of “soul” and what makes an enduring street photograph. Of course, the technicals must support that, but are secondary, I feel. Without that we generally have detached images that reveal little about humanity. One need not be intrusive to accomplish that. Or, are you saying it is inherently intrusive to capture and share such moments of personal revelation by subjects, even if unobserved? Maybe so. But absent that dimension, I think street photography would not have the engaging, enduring quality it has given us through the work of folks like Frank, Kertesz, Davidson, and others. The genre would be poorer indeed without that.

    • I think there has to be some degree of intrusion to get emotion, because you need to have that direct connection to your subject – and in turn, your audience – via the photograph. This means the subject will be conscious of the photographer, even if only fleetingly.

      I’m not a very emotional person, and undoubtedly my work is a reflection of this. I’ve said it many times here and elsewhere – I’m exploring the idea of man, not the idea of a man – the individual. That does not interest me and seems too restrictive. It’s also turning into increasingly grey ground when it comes to printing/ fine art unless you somehow manage to get model releases from everybody you photograph.

  33. Rob Symonds says:

    In regards to your second paragraph, have you seen Peter Funch’s Babel Tales? These are manipulated images of people in the city. I believe he is mining a similar vein as you, albeit in a much different way.

  34. Rob Symonds says:

    Maybe Julián’s original “no soul” comment could be taken to simply mean something he cannot relate to. Your work is broadcasting your worldview out over several different frequencies. Maybe he just doesn’t receive on those frequencies. I can say there are some streaks of your work that resonate with me and some that don’t. We are likely worlds apart as people though. Is it any surprise that we aren’t going to connect all the time? There’s nothing wrong with that.

    • Nothing wrong at all. Photographs are very subjective – I may not ‘like’ an image, but I do at least try to understand it before dismissing it.

  35. The truly successful “street” photography that I have seen has a clear purpose. Elliot Erwitt is all about humor. Saul Leiter was all about color planes–people were somewhat incidental, although often a necessary element as apparently underlies your philosophy. Bill Cunningham, who is the photographer for the New York Times Style section, does photo essays on fashion. If it is cold out, he focuses on gloves or boots, or whatever else someone wears in cold weather. May sound trivial, but the man has been doing it for decades and recently someone made a fascinating documentary about him and his work. His mode of transportation around the city has always been an old bicycle.

    Most of what passes for street photography online is pretty pedantic because in my mind it lacks purpose. I have no problem with photographing on the streets, particularly because I live in an urban area (Chicago). But when I go out, I go out with a clear purpose and project in mind. My interest is in the angles, weather, and light. If people add to the photograph, fine, but they certainly are necessary and often are undesirable.!/portfolio/C0000vLfVsGbZW94/G0000y4BjDOUfWco/2!/portfolio/C0000vLfVsGbZW94/G0000IBvufGZBPkQ/5!/portfolio/C0000vLfVsGbZW94/G0000y4BjDOUfWco/36

  36. Man, i love this website. It makes me think…and usually, I don’t think. 🙂

  37. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Very long time ago, when young and vagabonding in India with pocket camera I was approached by a man in rags saying – please, take picture of me, I don`t want to be forgotten. On the other pole the discussion reminds me of remark by some nomads upon having seen a polaroid picture of them – why do you try to stop the time? And the truth lies probably in-between.

    • That’s a manifestation of human nature: we want what we can’t have – anonymity in a society of intrusive social media; recognition in a group of special individuals; or remembrance when we are nobody.

      Stopping time…is a very interesting philosophical idea, and very much the underlying gestalt of photography. It’s the ability to tell somebody ‘hey, come look at this!’ even after the moment has passed.

  38. Not voyeuristic? Im not sure, when I first encountered your images, I went through your entire blog and this was circa 2013, so I had to sieve through a lot of pictures. Cut a long story short, I believe you are a leg man. Much like my street photos are women-centric, interspersed with the training of 20+ years of art and creative directing. So no judgement on my part, to each his own muse.
    Shifting through decades of photography and millenia of art, the photographer and the artist lay bare his/ her psychological tendencies for those who would take the time to see…

    • Right and wrong. The position of a person’s legs conveys motion, or not, and can make the difference between a static-feeling image and a dynamic one. Silhouetted people walking with legs apart are also a lot more recognisable then legs together, especially if in profile. It has nothing to do with my preference for body parts.

  39. John A Fleming says:

    During the Halloween Eve Parade in the Village, NYC, everyone wanted to be photographed, even children! Take those same people the following day – a completely different story. There’s a stealth aspect to street photography – quiet, unobtrusive cameras, distance using telephoto lenses – if the subject stares malevolently at you or gives you the finger, it’s not an ideal photo. If it’s an obviously staged photo, that detracts as well. So, there are several types of ‘good’ street photography: (1) reportage (e.g., parades), (2) stealth (subject is unawares), (3) posed / aware, and (3) shock / anger (e.g., Bruce Gliden). I prefer the first two types. I don’t view the last type as unethical – dangerous, perhaps, but not wrong or unethical. Papparazzi may do dangerous work, but there is nothing immoral or wrong in what they do. Taking photos of the homeless may be distasteful to many, but it’s not wrong. Taking photos of strangers’ children in a playground or the street may be distasteful and dangerous, but it’s not wrong or illegal. Taking photos of the dead or dying may be distasteful, but it’s not wrong. Wrong is voyeurism, but we’re not discussing that. It’s all about what you like and what level of danger and unpleasantness you’re willing to put up with. The ethical issues re street photography (and photography, in general), are largely situational and legal. One can take photographs in the British Museum, but not of the crown jewels in the Tower of London. There are so many do’s and don’t’s, the world over – those are rules and legalisms, but not ethics.

    • Personally, I’d rather not try to explain or argue why taking photographs of somebody’s children in a public place is legal – reverse the situation: how would you feel if it were your children?

      You do bring up an interesting point though: photographing people when they expect to be photographed tends to yield pretty different results to when they’re not expecting it; it’s also a good way to ease into street photography for those who might not have the stones of Gilden.

      • John A Fleming says:

        Photographing strangers’ children in public venues is legal in the US, but you might get punched or attacked. Would I like it were they my children? I don’t know – probably not. Photographing children during the Halloween Parade festivities, either in costume or not, was not given second thought by anyone. Next day – that’s a whole different story. Same action, same place, two different days, two different outcomes. Want to get over your fear of photographing strangers – photograph parades and public events. But my overarching point is that ‘ethics’, by and large, tends to be mostly situational. Street photography can become confrontational and dangerous – but then everyone knows that!

        • Unquestionably situational. Which is why using the situation to your advantage helps 🙂

          I’m not fully agreed that street photography has to be confrontational. If I’m not aggressively approaching people, then I can get away with just pretending to be a tourist and I’m ignored. Come to think of it, we are all tourists of a sort anyway…what differs is what we’ve come to see.

  40. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but this is my first time commenting! This article completely lines up with my own personal view on street photography, I like the concept of it and I like looking at others’ work but I always felt quite awkward about doing it myself. I just can’t bring myself to invade the personal space of other people, knowing that I’d hate having it done to me. I’m a firm believer in respecting the personal space of people, and walking up to them and putting a wide angle lens in their face with a flashgun just doesn’t really line up with that.

    Maybe this is why I’ve found myself gravitating towards your work, and also street photography that’s more comedic such as Matt Stuart’s. I feel it’s less invasive and more comfortable to look at. I’m also finding that the method of street photography that works for me is likely similar to yours – find a background and then wait for subjects to walk into place. I’ve found that using this technique you get two types of people – those who will not want to be in the photo and either walk round you or wait for you to finish, or people who don’t care and just walk through your frame. The ones who wait I wave through and don’t take their photo, the ones who just walk through I would consider fair game as they clearly don’t care about having their photo taken!

    You also mentioned the criticism you received about a lack of soul in your images. Do you think this could be because you’re generally distanced from the people in your photographs and so can’t read their facial expressions? By abstracting people out (silhouettes, defocus etc) it’s impossible to read their emotions and to gain any idea of what they’re thinking. Some of the stuff that supposedly has soul will feature the human face as the main subject, making it easier to connect emotionally. I think your photography is probably a more intellectual than emotive pursuit, I could be wrong but that’s how I think some may see it.

    • Thanks Jon. For either type of people – they are 100% aware of being photographed, so I think that’s also fair game. We are not hiding or being voyeuristic.

      Lack of facial expression – I don’t think this is completely necessary; body language says a lot, too. But personally I don’t mind the ambiguity; I’m spending more time exploring the idea of man in an environment as opposed to THE man/ an individual.

    • Some of Saul Leiter’s most affecting photos are because you cannot see the subject’s faces! He uses light, color, and texture to create emotional moods. Here’s a Pinterest board that’s collected some of his photos:

    • Jon it all comes down to practise and just doing it! Over time you will become more comfortable and start to develop confidence and at that point you can then start “creating” images. I had not done any street photography at all and had the same thoughts as you. Now I feel much more comfortable with it.

  41. Hi Ming, I’m pleased you wrote this, as it lines up with a lot of my own thinking on street photography and (especially) travel photography.

    I also think the use of the expression “soul” is a bit loaded. In that whole discussion, I couldn’t help but think “hold on – however you define soul, surely you guys can see the “MingTheinness” of these pictures.” And having that distinctive style is both harder to acheive, and in my book more important, than meeting somebody else’s definition of soul.

    • ‘Soul’ is perhaps undefinable in an absolute sense anyway – it’s something that you personally feel touches you; that will of course differ from person to person. At the same time it isn’t necessarily the same as elements of style, but there may well be overlaps – elements of style that touch the viewer and therefore constitute ‘soul’.

      In my personal/ non-client work, I just try to produce images that speak to me, or at least record the scene as I envisioned it (though not necessarily saw it) at the time. Whether that works for another person or not is academic.

  42. Definitely, your NY series does’nt lack soul, YOUR soul, or soul of NY, at least. A lot of today street photos are just snapshots, may be exotic sometimes, but without any idea. The most important is the question WHY do you make street shots. And wait ten or twenty years, your NY series will be a high value document. I am afraid a lot of “street photogs” are trying to copy others’ work only – it looks so easy whith digitals…

    • I think some measure of this often comes down to story. If you can look at an image — whether it was candid or staged — and it makes you pause because something is going on, and you find yourself wanting to know what the next frame might have been, or the next frame after that … then you’ve made a photograph that has impact, that has forced the observer to want to spend a moment of their life pondering what’s going on in the image. Sometimes it might just be an expression. Sometimes it will include context. Often both. And if the image also happens to have great composition and/or amazing light … well, now you have something to hang on your wall at the very least.

  43. Ming,
    This is off-topic, but did you see the last item on this CP+ release from Pentax/Ricoh?

    You might want to hurry with getting that film duplicating rig of yours to market, and I mean ASAP. I’m sure there will be many interested buyers.

    Kind Regards,

    • I did, and to be honest, their production cost and sale price is probably going to be much lower than ours – I don’t even know if it still makes economic sense for me to continue investing into development. Small runs of precision equipment are very expensive, and frankly, I’m not happy with the final quality of the device.

      • andygemmell says:

        Speaking from experience Ming….I’d be inclined to follow your current feeling on this! Creating products is not easy and it will be more expensive than you may have thought in most cases.

        • It’s already at the ‘more expensive than I thought’ stage – we’re on prototype #7, when I thought we’d be done by #2!

          • Just out of curiosity, how many revisions of your personal rig did you go through, between 1st attempt and current version (i.e. the one you’re using right now for your own images) ?
            Did your’s require extensive fine-tuning or adjustment by hand over this process, and is the difficulty that you’re trying to eliminate that requirement for custom tuning in the production model, or are the materials you used for your personal rig too expensive for the production model, or what’s the key problem so far, if I might ask?

            For me, an imperfect rig that was cost-effective roght now would be better than a perfectly precise one that cost much more, or took a lot longer to bring to market, and I bet this is true of many of your readers (and potential customers). Also, if you were willing to provide an instruction manual and/or video showing how to use it quickly and easily, so one could achieve accurate color, white-balance, exposure, etc., consistently and easily, I think that would be key.
            I would like to do my own scanning, but I simply don’t have 20-40 hours to set up, profile, test, etc. a new scanner which I’ve never used before, and which I can’t count on to be accurate out of the box, even if I could find a good one to buy. I’m already very familiar w/ my camera, my macro lens, and my flash, though, so the learning curve could be much less steep.
            In addition, the idea of spending $2k + for a used Nikon Coolscan 5000 or 9000, which was designed and made apx. 10 years ago, and has no warranty, product support, etc. would make me cring, even if I had that kind of extra money to throw away right now.

            I think if you can make a simple product, largely dependend on user skill and effort, at a quite reasonable price, that would be the key.

            Anyway, just a few thoughts.
            And, if you need someone to do a little objective beta-testing, etc., let me know. The postal service here in the U.S. is very fast, reliable, and inexpensive for shipping items like this back and forth.

            Kind Regards,

            • My personal one is made of different materials and very cobbled together. It has patches and fixes and individual handmade tweaks. These are impractical in a production version. The issue with the production version is tolerances and the feel of the whole thing – we can change materials and tighten tolerances, but then costs go through the roof.

              The problem is the imperfect rig is still very expensive and I don’t think it would be acceptable to the market – I certainly wouldn’t be happy if I bought it. And I’m not going to put my name on a compromised product.

              • Matthew Leeg says:

                Hey Ming,
                Sorry for taking a bit of time to respond. I certainly understand your position there. I wouldn’t want my name on a product that didn’t meet me standards either. On the other had, I bet your homemade version looks fairly unpolished, by the way you describe it, and yet you get excellent results from it, and it sounds like fairly efficiently.
                I was talking to a friend this morning, and got to thinking about how the lomography people used that Kickstarter approach to get that redux version of the Petzval lens made- . That seemed to work pretty well for them, and I think you have a product that could have a significantly larger potential market, so it might be something to think about. I don’t know if the whole “economies of scale” thing could significantly lower your production costs while keeping tolerances high, but I would think it could/should.
                There’s actually an Italian photographer who has a blog (in English) that has written about a similar rig he’s made out of nothing more than a MF macro lens and some lens hoods (and a lightbox, of course), and he’s also getting good scan results, and w/ a very simple method. I tried his approach, and it worked very well for me, though I only used a single capture, vs. the multiple capture/ stitching approach he discusses to get huge resolution. I won’t post the link here, but it should be easy for you to find, and I can send it to you via email if you’d like.

                To me the thing that’s missing w/ this DSLR scanning method in my experience, and that you seem to have mastered so fully, is the post-capture processing methods and routines, particularly regarding B&W conversion from negative to positive and so on. I think if you could write a PS plug-in (?) or some other relatively simple software that people could use to easily and repeatably convert the B&W negative image they capture w/ their rig to an excellent quality B&W positive, such as the ones you show on your site and in your prints, people would buy that, perhaps in combination w/ some kit that allows you to make your existing macro lens and light-box into a scanner.
                Unlike you, I do not have the expertise in PS to figure out how to get the accurate B&W tonalities you’ve been getting, and frankly it’s not something I want to spend my time leaning or doing. Like lots of people who started out shooting B&W film (and printing it in a darkroom back in the day), and who want to shoot it again, I don’t want to have to learn the whole routine from scratch in PS on how to convert it. I want to be able to shoot B&W film again because I want to get away from my computer as much as possible, and I just want to be able to get faithful digital reproductions of those negatives, for digital display and/or digital printing. I pretty much try to get what I want in-camera when shooting B&W film, and all I really want is an easy way to get a digitized version that looks as good as yours do, and w/o having to take 20 hours of PS classes to do it. Also, I simply don’t have the 20 hours to spend, even if I wanted to.
                I bet there are a lot of other people like me out there, and they would pay for your technique/ software product/ instructional video on how to do this. I think the market is there, it’s just a matter of how to capitalize on it. I’m just saying.

                Thanks for all the great and inspiring work. And yes, I’ve noticed your impressive “ultra-printing” articles also, and I hope to get back into printing again one these days as well, but that’s another story, and right now I have to take it one step at a time!

                Thanks Again, and Take Care,

                • I don’t want to go through the whole hassle of Kickstarter for a product that has a lot of work and ultimately probably quite low margins.

                  As for post processing – a plugin is useless because each image must be treated differently (as with any photographs) and that’s down to experience; artistically and personally, I also don’t want a forest of copycats even if it was possible to make a one-size-fits all.

  44. Willem Kotze says:

    I think the discussion goes further than street-photography. With modern cameras, modern post-proccesing techniques and a proliferation of online and personal courses it is now possible for tens of thousands of photographers to produce technically perfect images. There are hundreds of images posted daily that could have qualified for the National Geographic magazine a decade or two ago. The question is where do we go from here ? It is very tempting to go for the lazy “free-style” approach which you commonly see when any art-form reaches a cross-road but as usual true authenticity might take a life-time of hard work trying to find a unique take on reality.

    • Technical perfection is no substitute for ‘the idea’, though of course you want to have both – with technical perfection defined as the point where the technical qualities perfectly support the artistic ones. I’m now wondering whether originality/ authenticity also requires a degree of insularity to avoid dilution of ideas…

  45. I really like your strong technical and artistic approach. I disagree that the photo essay linked to lacks soul and the mark of the photographer. You have a very clear style that is present in your work. I think a lot of very good photographers are using only a portion of the tool set they could be using. This in a way defines their style and at the same time limits the overall impact of their images.

  46. I am with you – a street photographer must not treat his/her subjects as commodities and the photograph must never dehumanize the subjects.

  47. “I can’t help but wonder if the slightly blurry, low-def approach to street photography is the result of an underlying urge to be confrontational but not quite having the confidence to pull it off, resulting in hurried, imprecise images. Or perhaps it’s the desire to give the audience the feeling that they’re sneaking a voyeuristic peek into the life of somebody else.” – I’m not sure the latter is the intention – its probably more a result of the former – but the latter gives some clue I think to its appeal.

    • I honestly can’t say it appeals to me. Stolen glimpses are an interesting idea, but blur is difficult to use effectively – especially when it lowers definition of the subject. Most of the time, it just doesn’t work for me.

  48. I wish to expand on what I learned and taken away from this article.

    I think that every photographer needs to learn to exercise and apply discernment. From the pictures to include or exclude; to what photographic style they choose to associate with ‘street photography.’

    In this situation, Ming has exercised his discernment to what he wants to achieve with Street Photography. And he has made his view extremely clear. No one can fault him for that. Whether it qualifies as ‘street photography’ is an academic venture, which isn’t being explored in the scope of Ming’s photographs. As an individual photographer, who does not has Ming’s exposure, experience or confidence; I need to carefully consider what comments and criticisms affect me and my style. Comments can both be critical and develop personal style. Or be too abstract from convention, thus stifling original thought. This is exasperated by the online community and their arm-chair, youtube inspired condescension. Discernment.

    P.S. really glad you got your 4×5. I’m really curious what you can pull off with it.

    • Thank you, Jason. All comments are good: they make you think more about what you’re doing. And the more conscious decision making goes into the process, the better the end result will be.

      That said, some of the more frustrating ones require a little breathing space before one can look at them purely objectively…

  49. Thanks for keeping this conversation going, I’m really fascinated by it, and glad you are not shying away from the topic. I have not settled on a strong enough opinion to make much of a statement yet, but I plan to re-read all three threads with a strong cup of coffee over the weekend. So far though, my favorite comments are how you describe trying to match the soul of the images with the way you see the world. That’s up front, and irrefutable, only leaving “taste” as a possible counterpoint (obviously subjective). Thanks for not dropping this one, Ming!

    • No problem. It’s been simmering in the back of my mind for some time; I think it takes a while for a stand to crystallize, and even then, I can’t promise I won’t change my mind in a few years if my vision changes! But hey, it works for me *now*…

  50. It so happens I like your style and approach in street photography. I know not everyone likes it but it shouldn’t matter as long as it satisfies the artist/photographer. It is subjective after all.

  51. Ming, your latest essay veers deeply into the realms of anthropology and psychology. How appropriate when discussing urban image capture. Years ago, I decided that the grainy, defocused images taken in stealth mode did not comport with my aesthetic. But, in those days, I did not overcompensate for my congenital shyness or abject fear of rejection by actually talking. Instead, I set up a tripod on Nob Hill in SF, with an 8 by 11 inch card beneath the lens ASKING people if they would pose for me. In no time flat, the results lined up perfectly with my intention… I recommend this for any of your readers, as those strangers willing to participate in your artwork will give you more amazing stories and shared experiences that one could imagine. Promise!

    • The photographer is an observer, philosopher and as much a closet psychologist as the next person. We have our opinions and views and try to translate at into an image that makes sense to an external observer. To capture people well, we must understand them…and understanding requires that odd level of anthropological detachment.

      Your idea of setting it and asking people to pose actually sounds pretty good. And now have film for my 4×5…

      • Well then, view it as an experiment. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Now, as to that sheet film, all the more incentive to have engaged participants…. thanks again for the thought provoking words.

      • “To capture people well, we must understand them…and understanding requires that odd level of anthropological detachment.”

        That seems contradictory to me. Though I will concede that with street shooting this approach is forced by necessity … and it is more akin to reportage work.

        On the other hand, if one has a chance to get to know a subject for a while; to develop a trust and a rapport with them — perhaps even by going back a third or fourth time into a life — then I think they have that opportunity to go deeper and try to pictorially capture the soul of that person.

        Or perhaps I misunderstood…?

        • Poor choice of words on my part.

          1. We want to capture some aspect of the subject’s personality.
          2. Bias means we may miss something, or see only one side.
          3. We must therefore be detached observers – or at least that’s what I think.

          This of course assumes that the bit of personality you want to capture is their unguarded/ unobserved nature. Even if you know the subject well and they open up to you, they become conscious of the camera and act differently.

          • Hmmm … interesting.

            Actually I can see instances where both of these philosophies might be applicable.

            I think this really depends on the style of photography. For journalism work that is chronicling a moment in history, I absolutely agree with you that being a detached and “unobserved observer” is the preferred state.

            But if one is chronicling a life — with permission — I would suggest the subject would be more likely to reveal sides of themselves as they became more comfortable with you, than they would upon just first or second meeting. And that requires a level of trust and acceptance. White House Press Photographer tasked with photographing the president’s private moments might be a good example of this.

            Perhaps it’s a question of this working at either one extreme or the other (but not in the middle); either they are totally unaware of your presence (because they are, in fact, totally unaware of your presence) … or they are so comfortable with your presence that they’ve completely let their guard down.

          • Peter Boender says:

            Just a quick reaction, from the top of my head when reading this:
            The bias you mention in (2) is the personality of the observer / photographer, interacting (interfering?) with the subject’s personality mentioned in (1). That makes the output a highly subjective interpretation. Which, to me at least, can be a very good thing: subject and interpreter bouncing off each other, building on each other, may lead to wonderful results, where the sum is greater than the added values of the individual parts. I am therefore inclined to come to a different conclusion than you in (3): the observer is not detached at all, but very much into the scene, being very conscious about what’s going on…

            • I agree with the interaction and subsequent subjective interpretation potentially making wonderful things; however it can also just be ‘meh’ and not as interesting as what the subject was doing before you interfered…it depends on how you interact. For me…I am not very good at the random stranger approach, so I prefer to keep a distance.

      • My favorite street photographer is a gentleman named Markus Schwarze. He obviously has people pose for him, but the emotion conveyed, is very close to what I would define as “soulful”, or perhaps “resonates with my soul” is a better way to phrase.

        • Hmmm. They’re well executed but don’t work for me – people in identical poses with identical light and sunglasses and so much bokeh in the background to render it irrelevant? There’s no context, no story. Whether the individual images ‘work’ or not is thus reduced entirely to the expression on their faces – perhaps this is why the audience focuses on it so much, because there’s really nothing else of intellectual or visual interest in the entire frame. It’s an effective way of focusing attention, but seems rather one-dimensional. That is of course just my personal opinion…the photographs are about as opposite to my work as I can think of, which is perhaps why they don’t resonate with me. It says as much about the way I see the world as the way he does.

          • Which is what makes the topic so fascinating, much like Myers Briggs, etc. Is it possible to have a philosophical discussion on “soul” when so much comes down to what resonates with others (or not). Maybe that’s why they have a term called “soul mates”… 🙂


  1. […] of ‘but is it art?’ is one that’s impossible to answer. I’ve tried, I know I’ve been found to fall short, and won’t event attempt to define it. But today I’d like to approach this topic from a […]

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