Every Stare Directed at a Street Photographer in a Single Image

Composite photos distill New Yorkers’ curiosity, distrust, and hostility toward the camera

Nathan Bett
Jul 23, 2015 · 4 min read

The looks could be harsh and they could be frequent. And they were unexpected.

When I moved to New York City, all I wanted to make was street photography. In the Big Apple, you need only step out your front door — every moment, every teaming sidewalk, every intersection is a photo.

I arrived from Detroit. I had grand visions of following in the footsteps (on some streets, literally) of photographic heroes like Bruce Gilden and Gary Winogrand. The pedestrian bustle on every corner in NYC was not a feature of Detroit, a city of automobiles and of a declining population.

My bubble was soon burst. As good as the greats make it look and as fantastic as the scenes are they paint, street photography in New York is a tough, tough thing. I found that the photographer on the street is more often viewed as a nuisance than a romantic recorder of the life observed.

On the sidewalk, I received constant sideways glances. Encountering open hostility to my practice was a shock to my mild Mid-western system. It was harsh and sobering realization.

What you see in Learning to Disappear are not actual moments but they are a fair reflection of the collected interactions between the public and I. Each photograph is a composite of images made from multiple frames shot from the same spot.

Learning to Disappear is about the dynamic relationship between viewer and subject; specifically, the way in which people react to having their photograph taken, candidly, by a stranger, and without their consent.

If you look closely, you’ll see that these are Photoshopped images. In some, the space that people “inhabit” adjacent to one another, or overlapping, just isn’t possible. The concentration of stares — most of them unwelcoming — fairly reflects my despondency after a day of shooting and a day of negative reaction.

In this era of ubiquitous street, corporate and state surveillance Learning To Disappear examines peoples’ reaction to the presence of the image-maker in public. My presence with a camera should be of no surprise to anyone and yet I was consistently met with curiosity, distrust, and hostility.

It didn’t take me long to shift from my desire to make photographs about the street, to making photographs about street photography. Maybe the greats of street shooting also faced long stares and evasive gestures? It’d be some phenomenal analogue darkroom skills for them to piece together those stares as I have with the help of digital tools.

Through piecing Learning to Disappear together I found something relevant to my experience. My “meta”, poised and constructed use of photography in this project ends up contrasting strongly with the spontaneous, decisive-moment ideal held by street photography purists.

In spite of this project being very personal in its creation, I think it holds an element with which we can all connect. Who hasn’t ever felt singled out, looked upon, judged, or just plain anxious in public?

Nathan Bett is a photographer and educator based in Brooklyn, New York and Marquette, Michigan. Follow him on Tumblr on Instagram.


Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Nathan Bett

Written by

Artist, Photographer, Educator: Brooklyn, NY/Marquette, MI



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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