What is street photography?
If you ask a dozen people to define street photography then there is every chance that you will get a dozen, similar but subtly different answers.
If you do a search on Google asking, ‘What is street photography?’ then you get something along the lines of
’Street photography is a type of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places. Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying “un-manipulated” scenes, with usually unaware subjects.’
Yes, it’s all those things but I would argue it can be more than this and very much depends upon the photographer and of course the viewer.
I have my own ‘loose’ definition which I find incredibly useful to think about while I am out shooting as well as helping me to identify the ‘keepers’ when I am editing my shoot. It helps me concentrate my mind and see things that I would perhaps otherwise not.
This is my definition of what constitutes great ‘street photography’.
‘Street photography is the art of capturing the extraordinary lurking amongst the ordinary.’
It’s the art of taking a photograph that raises more questions than provides answers, and often contains an element of human interaction within the urban environment.
If you go back to the Google definition, then anyone can shoot candid situations in public places to mirror society. I could go out today and shoot hundreds of images of people on the street and could claim they all fall into the category of ‘street photography’. However, of those hundreds of images it is only the ones that contain something extraordinary that will make people spend any time looking at them. Otherwise they are just candid snaps of people, they are in most cases meaningless, they say little and the chances are they are never going to cause someone to stop and look at them for any longer than a passing glance. As a caveat here, as time passes seemingly inconsequential images take on a new meaning as a document of times gone by. They become ‘extraordinary’ to viewers perhaps 100 years later, when during the time they were actually taken they were simply ‘ordinary’. For this reason, it is not always a good idea to delete all of your ‘discarded’ images. Stick them in an archive folder, you never know in a few years’ time, when you view them again with fresh eyes, they may say something completely different to you!
Images that stand out for the reason they contain something that most people would be surprised by, the image holds their attention, provokes thought and raises questions – why? Because the image contains that extraordinary or unexpected element.
That extraordinary element need not necessarily be a person, although it often is. It might just be a stunning architectural view, a striking background or even something as simple as someone coming out of the shadows into bright light. It may not even be a complete shot of that person, perhaps only their legs, only their arms, or some other arresting element. Whatever it is it needs to be part of what makes the complete, often slightly unusual and therefore visually appealing image.
You have to accept that images will also mean different things to different people. What might be considered a striking image to one person, may be meaningless and uninteresting to another. It could be that an image sparks a memory in one viewer that causes them to pause on the image while they think back to the time that the image reminded them of. An example of this might be an image I took during a trip to Italy. It’s not a particularly striking image, nor does in really contain any extraordinary element. However, it’s an image of part of a car that is not often seen these days, particularly in the UK so for anyone that has been to Italy and perhaps has a memory of seeing one of these old cars then this image may indeed be extraordinary and will therefore cause them to pause and look at it for a while longer than another image.
If you keep my definition in mind when you are shooting, not only will it stop you taking dozens or hundreds of meaningless shots, it will hopefully train your mind, and by extension your eyes to see the extraordinary within the ordinary. Your images need to evoke an emotion; laughter, joy, anger, sadness, disbelief and it’s the extraordinary element of the shot that will trigger one or more of these emotions.
I also have another problem with the Google search definition. The word ‘candid’ situations. I do not believe that street photography needs to be defined by candid shots alone. I often interact with my subjects; I engage them in conversation and try to find out a little bit about their life. I do not ‘set-up’ shots, but I find that on certain occasions if I engage with the subject, that over time I can form a trust that enables me to more easily get that candid shot I might be looking for. This sometimes happens a few seconds after initial contact, sometimes days, other times months can go by before I get the shot I am after.
Is this wrong? I don’t think so. It’s just a different approach. I hate to be locked into a pre-defined way of doing things. Photography gives me the freedom to explore and to evolve my creativity and it need not be within the constraints of someone else’s definition of what they think street photography is.
I also believe that street photography is inextricably linked to travel photography. A good street photograph often gives a sense of place through the people that inhabit the space and environment it captures. Later in the book you will find a project ideas section, and the link with travel photography and street photography is explored in this chapter and offered as a project for you to work on.
Finally, on this subject there is the question of people. Should so called ‘street photographs’ always contain people? My view on this is no as the earlier example image suggests. There is the obvious where instead of people the shot might be of an animal, an unusual dog or cat for example, but then does a street photograph always require that element as well? Again, I would say no. I have plenty of shots of interesting looking street signs for instance, I have a shot of a boxed in phone box, some graffiti on a wall. To me these are all extraordinary things that caught my eye and said something to me as I wandered the streets. Certainly, with graffiti it is often the case that it’s there one day and gone the next so you need to be quick to capture a moment in time that might soon disappear. All of these subjects can make striking photographs and therefore I consider them all potentially good for street photography since they all say something about the environment in which we live. Providing of course they contain the all-important ‘extraordinary’ element. Others may say that unless the shot is of a candid moment with a person as the main element of the photograph then it is not true street photography. That’s fine, everyone is entitled to their view. To me it’s all street!
Why do we do it?
What is the attraction of street photography? Most of the time it results in frustration, missed shots, out of focus images and sore feet! Yet there is something that keeps us going back for more. That search for the iconic street image, the image that we know does not really exist, but nevertheless we are relentlessly searching for. We are all driven by the hope that we have not taken our best shot yet.
For me there is something beyond the image alone in terms of street photography. It’s based on a profound interest in other peoples’ lives, not in a creepy way but in a human connection way. It’s a wish to see into someone else’s life for a split second. To see what they see (and sometimes perhaps what they don’t see), to feel what they feel, and to capture this moment in time as an image. We enter the subject’s life and try to imagine what lead to the short moment that we captured. A moment that perhaps nobody else either saw or felt at the time, yet through the image can again be experienced at some level by the viewer. We street photographers notice the unseen and freeze in time what would otherwise be a forgotten moment.
While we retain our sense of wonder of the world, and the people that we share it with then as street photographers there will always be something new to photograph.