When Street Photography, Is Not Street Photography

I came across a post on the photoblographer recently that touched on an issue I’ve felt strongly about for a while. the title of the post is “Is the Definiton of Street Photography Changing?” In the article Chris Gampat points out a few things I’m sure you’ve noticed that hint that street photography is becoming…well not street photography.

  1. Street photography is popular at the moment (check out the Instagram hashtag #streetphotography )
  2. Images that people would have previously said are not street photography are now called “street photography”

These trends both suggest that the definition of street photography is changing. But what if it is changing? What is street photography changing from and how is this definition being changed? What is street photography, and what is not street photography?

If we look at the Wikipedia definition of street photography we see

Street photography is photography that features the chance encounters and random accidents within public places

Or perhaps we should look at the “hardcore street photography” group on Flickr’s definition which is

A group dedicated to candid situations that momentarily reveal themselves amidst the mundane hustle and bustle of everyday life.

In his article Chris Gampat also stresses that traditionally, people have been the focal point of street photography. Otherwise it would be “urban landscapes” or another genre. But in almost every key aspect of the traditional definition of Street photography, people are breaking its definition.

  • images which focus on the landscape and not the people in the images
  • images which are posed to some degree or other
  • images which are heavily post processed with elements cut out or added.

Funnily enough, often the only aspect that really holds these images together as “street” photography is that they were taken out on the street (even though the wikipedia and HCSP definitions state you don’t have to be on the street). So it seems like the definition of street photography is almost changing to be its opposite and this gives me very mixed feelings.

linguistically, no one owns a definition

Words change meaning. Awful once meant something brilliant. Jew was once an offensive slur, Gay meant happy, and so on. Words meanings change and no one controls a word. As someone who teaches language I know this and encounter it all the time. There is no point in defending an outdated definition of something if almost everyone uses a different definition. You are battling against the tide and you will lose. However, despite that, I think the erosion of street photography is not a good thing.

“Not Street Photography” is just confusing

When an image breaks one (or all) of the core ideas behind street photography, the person presenting it as street photography either deliberately or unwillingly deceives their audience. By presenting a posed image as street, you are suggesting that you manages to capture this moment by your skills (as well as luck) and not by evoking the reaction. By presenting a heavily post processed image as a street image, you are suggesting that you managed to compose your shot well, expose it brilliantly, and create this scene. By focusing not on people you mislead people looking for the classical definition of street photos when they are searching online.

Further, there are often other definitions which work well for these other genre’s such as street portraits for posed images, or fine art, urban landscapes, and so on. The reasons not to use these definitions are

  1. people don’t know the correct genre (fair enough, I suspect this is true of a lot of Instagram)
  2. alternative genres don’t have the “sex appeal” of street photography (Street photography is hard as it is requires skill, timing and dumb luck. That makes it sexy.)
  3. they are deliberately misleading (some photographers are very guilty of this)

I suspect that in many cases, it is the first reason, a lack of photographic education (said from someone who is very much a beginner and still learning) leads to this poor catagorization. However, in some cases people then go on to defend this mis-definition, and even call for street photography to evolve into something new (which happens to conflict with its central tenant and principles).

You don’t have to (only) be a street photographer

One of the things I realised recently is that I am not just a street photographer. Many people offer the advice that you should focus on a “niche” because that will help you become more popular. So if you like Street photography, call yourself a street photographer and only show your street photography work. If you are a wedding photographer, you present yourself as a wedding photographer. While there is truth to that, It’s also artistically limiting. reduces people down to one aspect of their life, has probably never been true of any photographer at any time, and also ignores the possibility of us creating something new and original.

By saying you must be a “street” photographer and stick to the classical definition you will always follow the trend. By creating your OWN style and trend that is unique to you, you will far exceed those who follow trends.

If you don’t like street photography, don’t be a street photographer.

Should street photography change its definition?

Honestly, I am conflicted. I don’t think it should, but I think us street photographers will probably have to change the word we use to refer to classical street photography. The fact of the matter is that a select group will never be able to override the masses when it comes to the definition of a word. Street photography (rightly or wrongly) will probably come to be known as a word which means the opposite of what it really means (as will literally. It is literally changing before our eyes) and if we are to preserve some form of candid photography that focus on chance encounters and random accidents that emerge during normal life in public places. We’ll probably need a new word for it.

Originally published at Chris J Wilson.

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