August 2015, Belgrade, Serbia
“What genre of photography do you specialize in?” was the first question.
I hmmed and hawwed on the keyboard: typed, tried words out for fit, deleted and started over.
My relationship with this thing I do has been doubt-ridden from the beginning. I call myself a street photographer because its mode — harvesting unscripted pictures from whatever/wherever the situation — describes how I work. But my work itself isn’t razor sharp like those whose images define the genre.
I am an ardent admirer of street photography’s many gods, among them Alex Webb, Natelle Autio, Trent Parke, Matt Stuart, Helen Levitt, Jesse Marlow, Elliot Erwitt, and recently, the women whom I haven’t read about in its scrolls: Sabine Weiss, Xyza Bacani, Elena Maiorova, and any/all of these amazing photographers, whose work I’m still getting to know (thank you, creator of list!) Each of these photographers brings an entire narrative to a single image, which is an astounding thing, when you consider how limiting one frame is. We see life as a nonstop video roll overlaid by filters of an evolving life. To condense all that into one picture, in the right light, frame and depth of field, to evoke wonder, shock, and awe, to transmit clarity about character, place and time…there’s something miraculous about it all.
Me? I mostly take pictures of people from buses and trains.
I’m compelled to do it from recognition, a kind of un-mutually-acknowledged tribe forming. I’ve spent most of my life making long commutes on public transport. While I am an enthusiast of progressing transportation technology (air-conditioning! Wi-Fi! Sound insulation!), it rarely feels miraculous in the moment. Most of the time it doesn’t look particularly awesome either.
But I’m one of them, those people on the bus. The push and pull of belonging has been on my mind over the past couple of years. Losing a parent, and being mostly in places where I’m not part of the conversation because I don’t share the conversational tongue, makes me wonder why I feel a part of some things and not others: how do I identify with a complete stranger from a foreign place?
Of late, I am more conscious of the intent behind the taking of a photograph, than just its aesthetics. What it says about me as a photographer, and a human being.
Sure, I have a bunch of work that is all about look-at-me-I’m-almost-Jesse-Marlow. I want to be, you know. And never will. I lived in Australia for a long time, in a city where the light encouraged that sort of imitation. But my vision will never be that clean, that confident, nor that sharp. Undergoing laser surgery in 2011 means I got to throw away my -1000 prescription goggles, but my eyes are very much like cheap old glass: they gather light unevenly, are horrendously flare-prone, chromatically aberrant, and lack precision in focus. I wear spectacles to resolve edges when driving at night.
My sight is full of overlay and texture. My vision, constantly muddled with the extraneous. Shooting from buses and things allows me to replicate that imperfection and incidental interruption. Windows always need to be washed, and trams move. And I think that’s one of the reasons why shooting on public transport persists: it’s honest.
It’s about looking at people passing by, without them looking back, even when they sometimes do. Despite my hunger for connection, invisibility is usually more of a mercy than it is a grief. Being a UFO (unidentifiable foreign oddity), an uncertain shade of brown, being looked at can carry heavy friction, even though I find so much pleasure in looking at faces of people I long to have language to speak with, and wish for the courage to try regardless. But deaf to understanding and mute in expression, I am more reserved than ever.
So in place, I can only look at the evening dusting a cheekbone, the stilled flight of a coiffure, the fold of an elbow in the rain soaked noon. These are not the streets of the genre, but they are the streets I see. And I am learning, in fits and starts, to claim them as my own.