Thursday, April 2, 2009

April Monthly Special: Street Photography

Marcel and Fritsch guessed it right: street photography is the theme of the month. I am thrilled to be focusing on street photography this month because it is one of my favorite ways to work.

What is the definition of "street photography"? Wikipedia does a good job of demonstrating the difficulty of a one-sentence answer. According to the article overview, street photography is " a pure vision of something, like holding up a mirror to society." The article asserts that street photography "tends to be ironic and can be distanced from its subject matter and often concentrates on a single human moment, caught at a decisive or poignant moment." The latter part of that sentence is a not-so-oblique reference to Henri Cartier-Bresson's concept of "images à la sauvette," or "photos on the run," which was translated into English as "the decisive moment" for a 1952 book of the same name. The Wikipedia article points out that street photography is just as likely to display complete subjectivity as it is to be a mirror to society. I am not sure that I like the insistence that street photography "tends to be ironic and distanced," because that judgment depends as much on a person's reading of the photograph as on the original intention.

I much prefer the definition given by Nitsa. Her "no rules" approach fits perfectly with my own beliefs in photography as a means of personal expression first and foremost rather than a demonstration of technique and adherence to classical rules. Her blog is an excellent source of information and inspiration for street photography.

The challenge

Take your photographic eye to the streets this month. Look around. Capture what you see. There are no rules, only viewpoints. Share how you see the world. Document your own culture or one that is foreign to you. Search for glimpses of larger stories in the everyday.

As I said in my previous post, for some, this challenge may stretch your comfort zone to its limits. For you, I anticipate the following possible reactions:

I don't live in a big city. Nothing happens here. What will I photograph?

I do understand your concern. In fact, when I moved to Utah I shifted my focus to portraiture because I had no appreciation for my new environment (except the nature, but as a fan of big cities, I almost never do nature photography). It took me a long time to begin to appreciate my area on its own terms rather than wish it would be more like Paris. If you feel that you have nothing to photograph besides your family, maybe I can help change your mind.

I'm too shy to take pictures of strangers. Besides, won't I get in trouble for that? Isn't that a violation of privacy rights?

I admit that it does take guts to take pictures on the street—especially of people you don't know. A massive telephoto zoom lens certainly doesn't hurt, but your simple point-and-shoot can yield amazing results. As for violation of privacy, the law changes from country to country. In America—big surprise—there is virtually no such thing as privacy in public places. That doesn't mean that you should act like obnoxious paparazzi, but it does explain how they get away with it. I am no lawyer, but according to my understanding of the law in the U.S., you can photograph people and/or property in public for non-commercial purposes as long as you do not violate the expectation of privacy (e.g. perverts taking photos up skirts, in bathrooms, etc. are definitely violating the law). If you are shy, start with a public event such as a parade or a demonstration. You won't be the only one with a camera and you will soon see that most people will not mind at all. Don't focus on Ninja-like stealth; focus on your subject. It's OK to let them see you taking pictures. If they ask you to stop, respect their privacy, delete those photos, and move on. Avoid taking photos of government buildings or secure facilities as well as in places where photos are prohibited (as is the case in many—but not all—museums).

Why would I want to take pictures of people I don't even know? I'll just stick to my family, thanks. See you next month.

Wait. Don't go just yet. First of all, not all street photography focuses on people. Second, your photos of the world around you will document your own ideas, your own unique perspective. You will capture a moment in time and a moment of your own life as you engage in street photography. Try it.

I look forward to a lot of great work this month. Now take that camera and get outside.


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