E: tim@timgander.co.uk | M: 07703 124412

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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.

elderly lady pushes wheeled shopping basket past garage door painted up as "Frome zombie containment facility"

The viewer’s interpretation is more important than what I intended them to see. Or perhaps the photo never needed to be taken

9 Comments

  • laumerritt on Dec 17, 2013 Reply

    Coming a little late to this discussion but well, hope is still worthy.

    As for the specific question of “showing lack of respect” to the lady in the photo, I don’t understand why that can be the case. Is it that the photo is supposed to imply that the woman “escaped” from a zombie container facility? Or just that she passed by a zombie container facility? Which more likely would make her prey. Maybe I’m a little bit slow to take the sense of the joke but for sure I don’t feel the impromptu “model” was the subject of mockery.

    As for getting praise on Flickr for photos, well, I’ve been on Flickr for over 5 years and have received very little praise (or comments) for my photos. There.

    For comments on street photography in general, I will write a little post on my blog later so as not to invade too much the space here.

    • Glass Eye on Dec 19, 2013 Reply

      Hey Lau, I agree. My purpose was to contrast the every-day nature of the lady’s shopping trip with the concept of there being a zombie holding facility in Frome.

      I shouldn’t worry too much about Flickr praise. I get relatively few likes for my instagram photos where others get thousands of likes. Sometimes deserved, often not!

      I’ll keep an eye out for your posting!

      Thank you again, Tim

  • Helen on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

    I’m interested by the comments. I’d rather be behind the camera than in front of it, but I think that if I found that this was a picture of me I would find it amusing. The photo certainly wouldn’t work without the person. As for the comments about Frome, or any other town, I agree with your comments about the residents having a quirky sense of humour. Reactions to the photo would suggest we don’t all share the same sense of humour and some people can be more easily offended than others. I’m not sure where that leaves you…

    • Glass Eye on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

      Thank you for your comments, Helen. It’s already been interesting to see different opinions of the same image. Another thought which occurred to me since writing this article is that just as my taking the photo without checking permission might be seen by some as impolite, it might also be patronising to the lady to be outraged on her behalf. And that’s before I’d even considered that the graffiti might give offence to Frome residents. Personally I think the inclusion of Frome adds to the fun!

      Even I’m not sure where all this leaves me…

  • S-J Cooper-White on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

    For me, the issue with this image is that it says Frome. It makes it too direct and too personal. Without the name Frome, (or any other town) I would find it a better capture and less a contentious statement of a location and the people that live there.

    • Glass Eye on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

      Hi S-J! Interesting observation, I didn’t really see the graffiti as being a comment on Frome or its people beyond the revelation that some of its residents have a quirky sense of humour. The thought occurs to me that the levity of the graffiti might have been upheld had I left the image in colour. Or perhaps that makes no difference at all! Naturally I had no control over the word Frome being there, which then begs the question of whether I should have taken the photo at all.

      Additionally I can take the position that:

      1) My photo has to some extent mis-fired and I should trust the way it is read more than my own view of what I meant by it, or

      2) That the photo raises some kind of reaction means I’ve communicated something, and I wouldn’t be upset by that notion since so much photography of our time seems sterile and un-emotional.

      I think I have some thinking to do!

  • robertday154 on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

    I share your discomfort with street photography; I’ve tried it, but I’ve never been that happy with the results, partly because I suspect I’m being hamstrung by my inhibition. What I have started doing is a similar sort of photography in situations where lots of photographs are being taken anyway, of people who are part of the attraction – say, at heritage railways or historical reconstruction events. I find those pictures to be far better and because I’m only one out of a lot of photographers, I don’t feel so inhibited.

    • Glass Eye on Dec 03, 2013 Reply

      Hi Robert, nice to hear from you. I’m the opposite in one regard though, and that is I prefer to seek out things which aren’t being photographed, but then our motivations for taking pictures are obviously going to be different.

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