Street Photography vs. Reality
I was out looking for a good photo, something that might convince myself I hadn’t wasted money on a camera, was capable of making good art and enjoying doing it. Something that might convince other people that my existence was worth continuation. Something I’ve been looking for, for a while.
I took a few pictures of folk sitting around soaking in the sun in the picturesque King George Square in central Brisbane. Nothing amazing. I wasn’t, as usual, aware of why I wanted to take photos of these people or anyone. I was just compelled, perhaps by the genre itself, to try. I dunno, I just want to be a photographer.
Just as I am underwhelmed by my own photographs of people, I worry about street photography as a healthy pastime. It often just doesn’t feel right. I feel sneaky. I avoid letting people know they’re in a photo at all costs. It’s only when there’s no escape that I’ll smile and ask for permission, partially to not look like a coward who backs down when he’s caught. Those photos are always the best. People smile, or at least engage.
I enjoy these interactions because I like connecting and creating smiles, not just photos. So why don’t I do it every time?
The fear, which is palpable for all street photographers, is annoying people or even making them feel violated. No one wants to be an anooying person or public nusiance. I am more scared of disapproving scowls than just about anything. This feeling, and topic, is no stranger to anyone who likes to take photos with people in public.
And I do see a lot of street photos of people who look put out, reacting adversely to being put on the spot at the wrong time. I wonder about the point of these photos, these angry little faces with glaring eyes in the crowd. I feel as if those people have been assaulted. Immortalising the moment of assault seems like a gross misrepresentation of reality. Sure, there’s an element of interest, but what for?
I’ve just declared my disdain for “assault photography,” but what about the kind of stealth photography I tend towards, where the subject is unaware? Is photographing people who are unaware less real than photographing people who have engaged the camera or photographer, and altered their actions and expression accordingly?
Once, when I was out taking photos on the street, I encountered another street photographer. I know he was, because he was skulking at the lights like a sex offender, looking down to his camera at his waist, and despite a cheeky smile of camaraderie from me, was fearfully distant, socially frozen in his wasteland of shame. “It’s wrong,” was all I could think, plus maybe a little… “God — is that me?!?”
Apart from being plain tired of “stealth” street photography, I’m feeling that photos with consciously reactive subjects are truer and more interesting to boot.
Perhaps we express ourselves more clearly as individuals in response to an invitation. Without such an instigation, we tend to look blank, or even down. Is that real? I don’t think so. Expression-wise, it’s kind of a comatose state, or the absence of expression. We tend not to be expressive alone in public because the people around us would become aware of that, of us.
I want to engage people for photographs more. It brings life to every photo I’ve taken. Subjects stop being shadows: drones; worker ants; ghosts; figures against the ground, and become themselves: souls; people; selves. They acknowledge the camera and by extension, the viewer of the photograph. The moment in time is captured in full: a conscious connection is made from both sides of the window. Something is shared, somehow.
I find a simple “do you mind if I take a photo?” Always does the trick, along with an offer to email it to them. It’s more challenging, but rewarding. It’s definitely outside my comfort zone.
This connection brings realty closer. It’s taking a photo of someone awake, not asleep. This is the power behind such projects as Humans of New York, which I was aware of long before I was very interested in street photography.
But it’s just as good to capture an engaged moment. If you grab a shot of someone/s at just the right moment, you can communicate something interesting without necessarily engaging. I guess the key is that the subject is engaged. What I’m averse to are photographs of asleep people, or people in difficulty (without a good reason to photograph that).
As with anything, rules are dumb and I’m not trying to propose anything but guidelines for my own direction. There are situations which are neither here or there, and you must feels it out in the moment. Let me describe a situation I ran into yesterday.
Something is majorly wrong with this picture. Say what you like about the technique, that’s got nothing to do with what’s up with it. The main problem is something behind the picture, something I only found out after taking it, from overhearing bits of a phone call. The problem with this photo is that it was taken at one of the worst moments of this girls life, full of frustration and fear.
Is this a good representation, of her, or her reality? What duty do I have to not misrepresent peoples’ lives by focusing on one moment of difficulty? It’s just like “assault photography,” really, taking a person out of their usual context. Even if this was an interesting photograph, I wouldn’t share it, or even keep it, except to illustrate this point.
Reality is bad enough, I feel wrong thinking about focusing on this and sharing it. Other artists may find pleasure in exacerbating the down side of life, I don’t. The worst I want to give people is a visually interesting photo. The best is to uplift them and brighten their day through a positive representation of life. This, to me, will be closer to reality: not a literal interpretation, but an aspirational one, a personal one. That will be my art.
Now… to get moving on this track. Stay tuned.
AliDark.com (pretty much the same as medium)
Flickr (everything I like personally)
500px (creme of the crop)
Instagram (has family shots [etc] too)
Facebook Page (just photos and links)
My Flipboard mag: “The Streets are Black and White” (links and photos)