Le flaneur

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From Wikipedia: “Flâneur (pronounced [flɑnœʁ]), from the French noun flâneur, means “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”. Flânerie is the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is boulevardier.” A holdover from the class divides of 19th and early 20th century in Europe when the gentry could spend their time engaged in leisurely walking, observing and enjoying the cities, the concept might sound a bit indolent today but is actually still quite apt: these were the original street photographers, most of whom went without cameras. Fast forward half a century and we had the tourists; who perhaps could be thought of as serial visitors herded in predefined courses from important sight to sight. In parallel, photography went from an academic and scientific curiosity to being a mass-medium for personal recording, and then public exhibition. And then a means to show off: this brings us to the present day.

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Somewhere along the way, the purpose of travel has shifted from being ‘to experience’ to ‘to show off’. In the pre-camera days, there were no remnants apart from memory: this meant that the traveller had to fully commit and be mentally present in order to get the most out of the journey (which in turn was often a lot more effort than it is today). Arguably, you got more out of the experience then because the level of commitment was much higher. Now, travel is easy, cheap, and social media pressure demands that every moment of every day is documented to the point that there’s more time spent documenting or going to documentable places than actually figuring out where to find the best experience, or experiencing it. The majority of the traveling population experiences the world from behind a phone, or a camera. At least with a camera you’re somewhat forced to focus and observe through the finder or LCD. Not great, but better than disposable visual noise.

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And right here lies the hypocrisy: the whole underlying pretence of social media ‘value’ is based on the fact that you have something different to show off, which in turn gets you attention and kudos and that endorphin hit. But if too much time is spent figuring out which filter to use for your selfie, then there’s simply no way enough attention has been paid to the actual content or experience. Unless your whole job and raison d’être is photojournalism, documentary has to be secondary to being there. I’ve argued in the past that one is more effective at documenting something if you’re experiencing it, assuming all observable senses are switched on and present; simply, the closer you are, the less gets between you (and your camera) and the event providing your sole aim is providing coverage. A good example would be say my construction documentary work. This is NOT the same as traveling to experience, not by any stretch.

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The art of flaneuring is perhaps the epitome of where every travel (and some street) photographer should aim to be: explore, experience and record only what leaves an impression. This way, you are open to a wider range of experiences and more importantly, interesting/ different ones that are worth recording in the first place. After all: this is the whole point of photography; to record (and maybe share) something that’s different enough to be worth preserving for posterity. Failing that, the world doesn’t need another snapshot. And we’ve all been guilty of this; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the knee-jerk-shutter per se, because there’s probably something there to trigger the reaction in the first place. But as I’ve said in the past – this is where really tight curation distinguishes the true photographers from the casual hobbyists. Sitting time is probably quite important here, too: an effective image of an interesting scene should still be interesting some time after the first encounter; if not, the only exception I can think of is if the scene is so ordinary that it becomes the archetype; I suppose that’s also so rare that effectively we’re back to exceptional again.

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The obvious question now becomes: how do we put ourselves in this state of observation? I think there are three important parts: firstly, don’t have too specific an agenda. In fact, beyond a general destination – have no agenda at all. This allows for time to explore and get diverted; personally I’ve found the most interesting diversions – both photographic and otherwise – come from unplanned wanderings off the beaten path. Even if you do unintentionally land up somewhere popular, at least you aren’t going with preconceived expectations in mind – both for experience and photographic potential. Next, don’t look too closely at the work of other photographers before you: I find this tends to prejudice one’s vision heavily to the point of landing up with a checklist of things that you ‘must’ see and photograph. Worse, it tends to make you look for the image you’ve seen and not allow yourself to be as open to your own observations and impressions; after all, our own personal biases motivate what defines and interesting scene for us, which in turn makes each person’s interpretation differ. And I’m increasingly starting to suspect that the really exceptional photos are made by people who are either superhumanly able to forget what they previously saw, have seen so much quantity and variety that it’s all simply averaged out to nothing much, or have seen nothing at all. I personally try very hard to fall into the latter category; the problem is if you’re returning to the same place again, there’s a very high risk of being influenced by your own work.

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This can actually go two ways: either you respond to the same things as before, and make similar images – which is pointless unless there’s some sort of refinement or exceptional transient conditions (weather, events, people, other context etc.) – or you actively try to avoid revisiting. The latter is only good if you feel you’ve fully extracted the potential of the scene during a previous visit, and tends only to hit when you’ve been a few times and photographed the same thing a few times. (I’m sure we’ve all been there.) If you get the impression I’m conflicted about this, you’d be right. I find that my best work tends to come on the last day or two of a trip; by the time you’ve had enough time to acclimatise and not get influenced by the pedestrian, but not so much that you fail to see the macro differences. There’s probably some psychological explanation to this – I just think of it as early onset of the ‘home effect*’.

*We tend to explore, and consequently shoot little in our home cities/ comfort zones because ‘it’s always there’, or ‘I’ve seen it before’.

The remaining elephant in the room is of course hardware: too much and you’re working for the camera, rather than the camera working for you. The pressure to ‘do something with all that gear’ can sometimes cripple you into doing nothing at all. Simple example: carrying everything leads to fatigue and limited desire to keep exploring and in turn, simply missing an opportunity by not being there. I’d argue that you want to a) take as little as you can get away with and force yourself to get creative and make do in the event you don’t have quite what you need; b) not shoot and simply experience in the event you really don’t have what you need at all – though b) often leads to a different perspective which in turn leads to a unique image. And needless to say, don’t take anything unreliable, untested or unfamiliar: the camera is ideally nothing but a transparent and effortless recorder that occupies the least mental bandwidth possible. All that said (and sufficiency threshold for personal consumption noted), I still haven’t quite been able to bring myself to go just with my phone…MT


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  1. Great article, Ming. It speaks very much to the philosophy or approach that I have to photography….which was influenced also by Jay Maisel who says that the best approach is to “go out empty”. In other words, don’t go out with a specific type of photograph in mind that you want to capture but go out to just observe the world around you….and walk slowly! I also often remind myself to look behind me because, as Jay also says (paraphrasing)…..sometimes the best photo opportunity is the one behind you.

    Interestingly, I also have a similar attitude about making similar images over and over. IE…that it’s kind of pointless unless you can refine it or take advantage of transient conditions. Then again, many people have developed an elevated reputation on the fact that they do, essentially, create the same image over and over again. It seems to be something that many people are endeavoring to do in order to carve out their own “style”. So, in many ways, I wonder if it’s a good thing to produce images that are all over the map. That said, I do see some thread of commonality between many of them but it’s perhaps defined at a higher level.

    The danger of having this approach, in my mind, is that it sometimes makes me wonder “What’s the point of my photography?” “Do I have a voice or something to say?” I’m not sure why this has to be a concern but that is a common question, I think, among photographers, critics and bloggers. Strangely, I never have the same question about my guitar-playing hobby where, in that case, it’s just about enjoying the moment and the challenge of improvisation. I’m not sure this kind of mindset could ever be compatible in photography though unless, perhaps, you just took photos but never reviewed them afterward. 🙂

    Anyway….thanks again for your perspectives.

    • Repetition is basically at the core of all commercial photography. It’s why there’s such a strong conflict between being creative and being a successful photographic businessperson – that balance is so tenuous as to be nearly impossible to maintain. I think you can certainly have a distinct but loosely defined style, but if that gets too specific – then you’re photocopying. This is one of my biggest beefs with social media and generic filters – not only does everything look the same after a while, but people actually seem to *want* that.

      • It is an interesting sociological / psychological phenomenon. For sure, the same thing happens in music. A band or song comes along that people like and that creates a demand for more songs or bands that are similar…which leads the record companies to find or create clones….until that style has hit its peak and starts to decline. I’m sure we could probably find 100s of different aspects of life that follow a similar pattern. It reminds me of phrase I heard that I like to say for laughs sometimes: “Anything worth doing is worth over-doing”. 😀

        One thing I’ve observed about society today compared to, say, 25 years ago or so….is that there seems to be room for many different styles of any creative discipline (IE Fashion, music, dance, …possibly photography) that are popular among different segments of society – or even within the same segment. Furthermore, the styles seem to be blending a lot more. When I was younger my observation is that there was only room for a very few number of styles that would be accepted or popular at any one time and there was very little blending of styles. It would be interesting to study this but I’m guessing that it could be largely attributed to increasing globalization, the internet, and people’s generally widening exposure to different cultural norms and expressions. Nevertheless…for sure…some fashion styles seem to rise to the top…the reason for which is probably almost inexplicable. I have a feeling that one of the main criteria for a thing’s popularity might be in the degree to which it annoys the previous generation!! 😀

        • Somebody did a demonstration of how Pachabel’s canon was in pretty much every popular modern song in recent memory.

          As for diversity – my 2c here is that it’s just information flow that’s allowing people outside local areas to have access, and awareness of options beyond what they might otherwise be exposed to. As for why some things are popular – I suspect self-reinforcing validation through social media is largely responsible, which again goes back to information flow. Rebellion and a desire to be different to what came before has always been a marker of change for every generation, I think.

  2. Kristian Wannebo says:

    The true way of traveling! And of photographing when traveling!

    But I find a couple of points missing…

    … on coffee,
    A friend of mine (when some of us made a Sunday excursion somewhere) used to say “C, C, C”, meaning “Coffee, Culture, Coffee”, as a way of emphasizing that we should be flâneurs.
    And I have found when strolling through new environments, that my brain after a while becomes full and wants a rest to digest it all, which means sitting down in a restful place – preferably with a cup of coffee (or something) – for quite some time.

    … and on memories.
    I find that after *really* photographing a situation my memories of it are more vague and less vivid. So if I’ve brought a camera I tend to use it more sparsely with one-off situations.

    • Coffee: it forces you to stop and look, and observe the world around you…

      Agreed on photographing: you’re concentrating on the shot and the immediate macro-action in your finder and somewhat less on the wider context (though this still matters of course to get a good shot) compared to if you’re just *looking*…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Coffee does, but here – with the brain resting – it is a very detached observation, just taking in and letting go…

        Yes, perhsps a shot or too (using the camera sparsely) – hopefully good, in those cases.

  3. This column really resonated with me. If my photographic persona could be summarized in one word that word would probably be Flâneur. I am definitely a stroller, even a saunterer (although “lounger” may be too much of a good thing!) I’ve photographed my small town on dozens of times and found that the “home effect” is very real, but just by my being aware of it I am forced to rethink my approach.

    As far as hardware is concerned, I find that visiting the same area but with a different lens (and with only one lens) every time forces me out of my comfort zone. The temptation of carrying a lens for every occasion really can destroy spontaneity and receptiveness (and wreak havoc on your back!) Some of my most rewarding photography has come out of this approach: https://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2018/05/i-live-in-magical-world.html

    • You’re definitely not going to be doing much walking if carrying the kitchen sink. You might comprehensively cover one location, but no more.

      The more oddball the lens, the more you’re forced to get imaginative. Some rather creative work there…

  4. I’m a flaneur because of my disease, “Schaufensterkrankheit” (see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudicatio_intermittens which mentions it, and which also has a link to an English translation). The cause is atherosclerosis, so I gave up smoking. But I’m walking very slow, and have to rest often. Perfect for observation of your surroundings.

  5. i love this word

  6. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You would know there’s a different approach on “Dear Susan” (a website you’re already familiar with – URL “https://www.dearsusan.net/”, for everyone else).

    Personally, I found a very long time ago that (a) I don’t enjoy using zoom lenses, (b) I shoot the overwhelming majority (more than 90%) of my photos with my standard prime and (c) when I’m travelling, it’s quite sufficient to use only one camera. I do have a w/angle in my kit, which I have to use in confined spaces, but normally the standard prime is “it”. Too bad if that’s bad, it’s how I photograph and for me, there’s nothing to discuss. Each to their own – everyone else feel free to do anything else – but that’s then YOUR “it”, not mine. So much for hardware.

    While travelling, I do leave a smaller “do everything” unit in the hotel safe, just in case anything goes wrong. It’s when you DON’T provide for such contingencies that you DO find something going wrong. I prefer using my FF, but I am still happy with results from my HF – although it inhibits what I can do, it’s better than being stranded halfway round the world with no cam. Maybe I’ll end up with two FF backs – who knows?

    I couldn’t help but grab on this passage, Ming – “There’s probably some psychological explanation to this – I just think of it as early onset of the ‘home effect*’. We tend to explore, and consequently shoot little in our home cities/ comfort zones because ‘it’s always there’, or ‘I’ve seen it before’.” I’ve come up against it before, I took it as a challenge and did the opposite, and I must say it has been very productive – both in terms of the photos I’ve taken, doing it – and in terms of improving my own photography. You find you HAVE to improve “the eye”, and look for something new, something different. You plan your shot better, because you have all the time in the world. You have better options in choosing the right lighting conditions. You know what it SHOULD look like and, if it doesn’t, you have to try again – try harder! – and MAKE yourself capture what you saw. For a lot of photographers, the alternative to that is simply more post processing – but that does nothing to improve actual photographic skills, it merely works on the results after they leave the camera.

    So I find “shooting local” can be very rewarding. And educational.

    • Yes, I’m aware of that. In fact, the conventional wisdom seems to be the opposite of mine – but yes, it all depends on how you see/ the way you work. A zoom can be treated as nothing more than a collection of primes – framing discipline should be very much independent of that.

      I too tend to bring along a spare, and not use it – and agree that for some reason whenever you don’t is when you need it! 🙂

      “The home effect”: take it one step further, once you’ve done the planning and gotten the rare shot only a person who has daily exposure could possibly get: then what?

  7. It’s interesting that this post contains a number of few shots from Tokyo. I moved there (here?) about three months ago and in photographic terms it’s been overpowering (in the best way) in terms of stimulus. I definitely think that a place like that provides a significant advantage for the type of unplanned shooting you’re talking about, because (as Jay Maisel says, although he was talking about New York) “you miss one person, there’ll be another along in no time at all”.

    Which brings us to your point about “experience vs showing off”. With a place like that, maybe the opposite of what you suggest is true : there is simply SO much to see and notice that there’s no way you’d remember it all if you couldn’t document at least some of it .(That would be a fun exercise : take a 50MP camera to Tokyo with a single card of no more than 4 GB and force yourself to shoot until it’s full, with no deleting allowed!)

    Here’s a thought : do you think the unplanned, spontaneous nature of this kind of photography can in any way influence the opposite kind of photography (i.e. client-directed with a very specific request)? I’ve heard some wedding photographers say that shooting street improves their wedding photography as they’re better at catching those fleeting moments, but if your brief is shooting an object or something which doesn’t move, could there be anything in the flâneur approach?

    • I’ve always found Tokyo particularly rich material for me; probably due to a combination of the huge number of streets and variety of neighbourhoods, but also the detail put into every single aspect of things. The quality of light at those latitudes helps, too. I agree too there’s so much to see you need to shoot it as a mnemonic. But the 4GB/50MP thing is doable, I think: I’ve shot there enough that the thresholds for ‘different enough to be interesting’ are slowly creeping up.

      I still shoot things that move (the documentary part) so yes, definitely, the spontaneous practice helps. The art/act/practice of seeing is also the same regardless of subject – so the more practice one gets, the better one becomes…


  1. […] Ming Thien with a lovely essay about how, when we travel, to ignore the social-media pressure to share everything and just be present and build memories instead. Read Le flaneur […]

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