Why Use Street Photography
“Street Photography to what we recognise today … a documentary form that celebrated the candid public moment” Nick Turpin
As a social documentary photographer you might ask, why do I use street photography techniques, in making my work. Why is it important to my practice as a photographer? Documentary photography is also a technique, which has a rich history and its own set of conventions, just like street photography does. This follows on from my last post about street photography, see here
“Street Photographers were once men that would take your picture for payment on the sidewalk, that definition changed very quickly when the first roll of 35mm film was put in a Leica camera by Oskar Barnack around 1913. It was really the photographers that took up those small portable cameras over the next 60 years that inadvertently redefined the phrase Street Photography to what we recognise today … a documentary form that celebrated the candid public moment.” Nick Turpin This is as good a description of what street photography is for me. A way of documenting the life that we find on the streets primarily of our cities. Yet for many photographers, once they get beyond the simple act of photographing their family and friends and out in to the wider world the next problem becomes what to photograph. For some, this becomes street photography.
Street photography, for me is an approach to making images that incorporates the social world that we inhabit, it is a way of showing what I see, from my perspective. It is a way of working on the street that enables me to make images where I do not know all four W’s of photojournalism: Who, What, Where and When. Actually I know the last two, and by observation I can sort of deduce the first two but not the specifics. Sometimes the generic person can be made to fill in for the specific. I’m also aiming to make images that are interesting to look at, because I want my viewers attention to be held, I am not interested in what I consider boring images, as they do not keep you interested in the subject, that I want to communicate with you about. In making documentary images it is important to hold the viewers attention, so that the story the photographer is communicating is clearly told. There are a lot of similarities to both conventions. Yet there are also some divergences as well, documentary photographers get to know their subject, take time to get access and permissions. While a street photographer might know the city they photograph, they don’t normally engage with their subjects. The great trick that documentary photographers use is time, they give their subjects enough time to forget they exist and to become background presences, to the action/s that they want to document. They are looking to make candid unposed moments of and with their subjects. Whereas, street photography is mostly about surface, what a place and the people inhabiting it look like. Often, I feel documentary photographers want to disappear and become more like street photographers just observing, making images of what they see, this is the attraction that I find in street photography and why I use it as a technique in my social documentary photography. For me, both are important as I like the idea of access and I like the anonymity of just being a street photographer, this I think if done right can create a story that engages the viewer with greater emotional depth.
In life and with my photography my interest is in money and power or how capitalism functions. As capitalism is the economic air that we breath and it shapes all transactions and power relationships within our society. The more I learn, the more I realise that I don’t know enough about it. However, I want to learn as much as I can about the processes that shape and form our social worlds. Capitalism like all economic systems is socially constructed, as a photographer I grapple with the problem of how to represent a concept, an idea that is a socially constructed. Because one problem in photography is that it is able to show what something looks like, not necessarily a concept, it describes in detail what colour, hue and tone something is, it can show who was there at a event, or a specific time and place. However, it struggles to describe the reason why something is taking place, it can show the results of decisions and this is a problem for me as I am not able to visualise some of the aspect of my inquiry. I can’t show what happened before and after within one frame, that is why the idea of a picture or photo story is important to me. When I am working on the streets of London, I am attempting to make images that reflect the place and the people, who are using this great city.
I do not manipulate my images other than contrast, tone, and density, including the recovery of highlights and shadow detail, all things that would have been possible in a darkroom, for me this is important as I don’t remove or add anything to the frame after I have made the image. That being said, where you choose to stand and when you choose to release the shutter affects what is included within the frame, photographers have used this since the beginning of photography to include or exclude visual information that they do not want, need or find inconvenient to their images/stories.
I find that the approach of street photography is helping me to tell the story of London, as a Global Financial Centre. I look for traces of the financial world on the city, this knowledge is built up by watching, walking and talking to strangers. I have had numerous conversations with complete strangers who tell me sometimes quite amazing stories of their experiences within the city. Some days I feel I am making images that work, others I struggle to get a single image that to me conveys any meaning, that is the challenge of doing street photography in London or any City.