Curb your enthusiasm
Street photography, in the strict sense of “Street Photography” isn’t something I do very often. I might take photos in a street, but Street is a genre in its own right and I can’t devote enough time to it to ever consider myself a street photographer. Besides, it seems to have rapidly become another over-used term by people who just want to justify buying a nice retro-style camera so they can pretend to be William Eggleston or some such.
There are photographers who have built entire careers on walking the streets, spotting moments and coincidences and photographing them. They make their living from selling the images in books or as fine art prints. They might get paid for spreads in magazines, or editorial and commercial commissions on the strength of their style.
I suppose what defines a street photo over its closest relative, stock, is that stock tends not to be as free-form. Street should make the viewer consider the contents and the “message”, where stock tends to be more illustrative.
Street’s second-closest relative would be editorial (in the journalistic sense), but this is different again because the usual task for editorial is to tell a story. Like stock, editorial can be simply illustrative, but can also be more free-form and artistic, but is always confined to telling a specific story.
Street can be random, story-less, artistic, silly, funny, shocking, thought-provoking without any of the tethers which confine other forms of photography. I suppose that is what makes street photography intriguing for me on the odd occasions I do get to spend time shooting it.
Perhaps… no, scrub “perhaps”; I know another reason I don’t do much street photography is that I’m not that comfortable with it. Taking someone’s photo in the street when they hadn’t got up that morning intending to be photographed does carry certain responsibilities for the photographer. Unlike news, where you find yourself photographing someone who might not have been expecting it (but where the reporting of a story makes the photo imperative), taking a street photo is almost always optional, though I’d not want to live in a world where it is outlawed or non-existent.
In a nutshell, my discomfort in taking street pictures boils down to permission or lack of from those I capture on my camera; Ask permission before taking a photo and you lose spontaneity. Ask permission after and you risk promoting the notion that taking photos of people in public requires permission. I don’t never ask, but it does depend on the situation and context.
My approach depends very much on the situation, but above all I avoid images which mock the subjects. That isn’t to say all my shots need to be humourless, but I won’t photograph someone just because they look different or strange. Looking at the limited number of street shots I’ve taken I would say on the whole I include people as a way of adding interest to the scene, rather than making the people the main focus of the image. The people are always pretty un-remarkable to look at, but without them the shots wouldn’t work.
A photo I took last week was made very much with this intention in mind, but one commenter on Twitter gave me pause for thought as they felt I’d shown a lack of respect to the person in my shot. Now perhaps it’s compounding any indiscretion I may have committed by showing the photo here, but I’d like to know what others think and I can’t do that without publishing the photo again.
I’m not looking for praise of this photo. I’d rather be told it was worthless than have to read lots of “nice capture” nonsense. If I wanted that I’d join flickr. But I would be interested to hear from anyone who feels I shouldn’t have included anyone in this shot. So fire away, tell me what you think.