How to own a picture: a street photographer’s perspective
By David Hoffmann
Over the last year, I found myself going on long walks through the avenues and side streets of various cities, alone with my camera. Each walk brought a unique kind of joy to me, a peace of mind I rarely find when pursuing other activities. It seemed to be my calling — long legs, short attention span and a lot of time in my hands.
In 2015, I embarked on a month-long journey through the streets of Southern Spain, capturing the lives of locals who had never met me, and yet became close in their strange familiarity. In this post I will share some of the challenges and thrills I encountered, and show how this helped me shaping my mission for this journey.
Developing an eye for street photography
It took quite some time for me to decide to bring my camera during my walks. Before that, I had mainly been photographing musicians during small shows, and had grown so comfortable with it that, for a while, I felt it was all I needed. But once I finally made the move, I was immediately fascinated by the possibilities brought by shooting in the streets, and the ability to capture something nobody else could see.
This hobby of mine has a name — street photography. Its roots lie in the emergence of portable cameras towards the end of the 19th century, which allowed photographers to capture images of strangers in public places. From the moment the technology existed, photographers were drawn to capturing chance encounters and random happenings.
A street photograph does not necessarily need to show scenes that unfold in a street or an urban landscape. But cities are busy places, so the likelihood of accidents and chance encounters drastically increases. As a result, the vast majority of street photographs you would come across reveal strangers in an urban setting.
Apart from these fundamental traits, the rather loose definition of the genre allows for styles, opinions and advice to vary greatly. What is clear to me, is that only very few pictures ‘work’. But when they do, they seem to cause a sudden inner jubilation to the viewer.
I shot ‘Little Phonies’ during Malaga’s ‘Feria de Agosto’, a week-long party hosted each year in August by the city. I was immediately amazed by these two men I spotted happily texting on their resting horses. The contrast between the strict traditional attire and the loose attitude towards social norms — they are both texting while at work — made me smile.
Rights and wrongs
I often asked myself what entitles me to take pictures of strangers. I even came close to feeling guilty about it. After all, I can’t request permission to shoot, and everyone has the right to protect their image and identity. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s ok to do so.
Legally speaking, street photographers operate in a grey area. In Spain, as well as in the UK, it is entirely legal to take pictures of individuals if they are in a public space. Malta’s government goes as far as saying that it ‘recognises the artistic attributes which certainly drive photographers to capture un-posed and un-staged images […] in public places.’ Once these pictures are collected or published, they automatically become subject to the law.
However, rules are not set in stone and it really depends on the circumstances. For example, if you shoot during a public event, the images will have an added cultural value, become of public interest, and to a certain extent legitimise the distribution of your images. On the other hand — in the absence of any cultural value — an image can easily feel intrusive to an individual’s privacy.
Luckily for me, each summer, southern Spain becomes a cultural event in its own right. Summer villages — empty the rest of the year — become places of abundance. Every town has mandatory celebrations. And cities become synonyms for leisure (Barcelona, anyone?). So I shot away!
How to own a picture
For my street portraits, I wanted to create images with a recognisable style. On hindsight, it seems that I was subconsciously following a set of rules. Every time I hit the road, I was on a mission. I wanted the portraits to show an element of the street photographers’ furtive gaze, to have a touch of fashion photography’s elaborate drama and a nod to the documentary photographer’s truthfulness.
First of all, I found that each scene had to benefit from abundant natural light (don’t we always try to show things ‘in a good light’?). Light sets accents to a scene, provides depth, and can be used to complement the final composition. It became so important for me that I would not even bother taking my camera out if there wasn’t enough of it.
I also had to learn to make myself invisible so that my subjects don’t change in my presence. In his reflections on the art of taking portraits, Roland Barthes highlights the difficulty of capturing what he calls the ‘delicate moral texture’ of a person. This, he argues, is the greatest challenge of a portraitist. When posing, individuals struggle to convey real emotions, leading to an image that is a mere ‘mimicry’.
This difficulty pushed me to make sure at all times that people weren’t aware that I was shooting. To make myself invisible, I always walked towards people upfront and shot from the hip, rather than playing an awkward hide and seek game. Since I was working with moving subjects in a new environment, the challenge was real.
What fascinated me was that these strangers were not posing. I used photography’s ‘un-innocent’ gaze to bend the truth, making them pose for me. By repeatedly bending the truth, I feel that I made these pictures my own. They might not be a truthful representation of the world, but they truthfully represent my perspective of the world. And this makes me feel that I own them. That is the real power of photography.
David joined Lensational as a volunteer in 2014. He now leads the research team in London, where he recently completed a Master at UCL. He has conducted research for various international organisations in the development field and enjoys conceptualising and coordinating photography projects. You can connect with David via twitter @davidhoff_mann or by dropping him an e-mail at email@example.com. You can see his latest work on his website.