Learning To See The Familiar — One Photographer’s Experience
The best thing about street photography is its accessibility. You can practice it on your own doorstep using any
kind of camera. Unfortunately, until recently I had always struggled to successfully photograph what was on my
own doorstep. I live in Liverpool in the UK, a beautiful historic city, but somehow I always struggled to produce
photographs that satisfied me. One of my objectives for 2014 was therefore to get over this creative block.
This is the story of how, with the help of some local street photographers, I went about it.
’m known for my street photography and portraits of South East Asia (especially Vietnam) but also travel regularly throughout
Europe and parts of North America. Photographing in other cultures always seems to stimulate my seeing. Something about
the strangeness or difference heightens my perception. In these locations I easily see the visual possibilities and feel the
energy of the streets. When these two elements come together I can photograph successfully.
Cartier-Bresson said he liked to spend long periods of time in a place to be able to photograph it well. Personally, I have never felt
constrained by only visiting places for short periods. Maybe my prior research (more difficult for HCB in the pre-Internet days) and
habit of visiting places repeatedly help. In fact, I’ve had the exact opposite problem. I’d always had a creative block trying to
photograph the place where I spend the most time.
I’ve lived in the city of Liverpool (UK) for nineteen years and until very recently found it hard to photograph the city streets
with any success. I’d spent a lot of time trying, but just wasn’t satisfied with the images. I was struggling to bring together an
appreciation of the possibilities (‘seeing’) with a connection to the energy of the city (‘feeling’). The city is a photographer’s
dream so this was a major frustration I had to overcome.
Learning to see through other people’s eyes
In early 2014 I took a deliberate decision to tackle this photographic blind spot. I first decided to network more to learn how other
local street photographers approach the city and learn from their experience. Next, I agreed with a good friend to hit the Liverpool
streets at least one day every week to increase up my time working on the issue. I would photograph them alone on other days
but this was more casual.
Spending time in coffee shops yakking and shooting with a small group really plugged me in to their passion for the city.
Hearing them talk about their vision of the city really helped refresh mine. Obviously, ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ is a personal
thing from within, but the creative energy needed to trigger it is infectious.
Surrounding yourself with passionate and talented photographers stimulates new ways of thinking. You have to get out
of that coffee shop and put it into action on the street though. You can’t just think (or talk) yourself into new ways of
seeing, you have to feel your way through experience and practice. The passion of experienced street photographers
like Matt Hart and Steve Coleman has really helped me ‘see’ the city more clearly.
Fired up by new friends, I set about photographing the city in a more disciplined and systematic way with an old friend.
Photographing with Colin Paulis always a blast and that positive vibe translates into more concentration on ‘the work’
during our weekly adventures in Liverpool. In practice, it has meant greater continuity in exploring themes and projects
too. The increased shooting frequency also helps because you can’t think (or talk) your way into ‘seeing’ differently, you
can only find your way through practice. I have practiced more on my own too but, the better work more frequently
comes from working with a friend.
A refreshed vision and more systematic shooting regime added up to a renewed commitment to the city. I have seen a noticeable
improvement in my photographs of Liverpool so, I’d say, it certainly worked for me. I can’t guarantee it will do the same for you
but if you are not already plugged into a local community of urban photographers or haven’t tried shooting in pairs you should
try it. The former will challenge you to rethink how you see and the latter can help with the confidence to develop new ideas into
I have tried to take these lessons a stage further by joining with an international group of street photographers known as f50.
This has added a whole new crosscultural dimension which helps with my more established international work by allowing
me to engage with photographer’s whose work I admire and respect. We have also begun collaborating on projects as you
can see at the site.
(The images in the second half of this article are all of Liverpool from the latter half of 2014. To me they show a lot of
improvement and I really like them. I hope you do too.)