An article on street photography

From time to time I get asked to write a few pieces on photography, in particular, street photography. Whilst there are plenty of books available on the subject (although not very many good ones!) most of these concentrate on technique. This article is definitely not a ‘how to’!


Street Photography – Not a “How-To”

Step 1: – Point the camera in the right direction.
Step 2: – Press the shutter.

That’s the technical stuff out of the way (at least for this article!)

With street photography, as with any photography, the ‘why’ is at least as important as the ‘how’. Why subject ourselves to the stress of photographing strangers in the street? It’s certainly not for the money!

Everyone will have their own reasons, but surely the ultimate aim must be to induce an anemotional response from the viewer. A successful photograph should impact the viewer on a personal level, either by presenting something that they can identify with or opening their eyes to something new even if that might be something they would rather pretend did not exist. Having a profound effect on a single person is worth more than a hundred Facebook or Instagram likes. Perhaps this is what photographers should strive to achieve rather than vain attempts at popularity.

At its highest level, a photograph should be a tripartite experience; the photographer, the subject and the audience. It is not possible for a street photographer to know the subject in depth. At best, all he or she can do is try and convey his or her impression of the subject. A good photograph should leave scope for the viewer ‘to fill in the blanks’. As long as the photographer can impart an emotional connection to the viewer then it is a success. It doesn’t really matter what the viewer feels, as long as they feel something.

Sadly, the storytelling aspect of street photography is often missing. It seems that many street photography books concentrate on the clever or ‘tricksy’ elements such as the cliched advertising hoarding shots with contrived juxtapositions. This type of street photography leaves all the power with the photographer and relegates the subject and viewer to bit-part players. We notice the photographer’s skill but learn nothing about the subject or leave any role for the viewer in creating their own stories.

Street photography should be regarded as art photography. Instead of arranging the scene we must be ready to capture the unfolding mini-dramas that happen all around us. These images are the stills from a movie or documentary where the audience is left to complete the narrative.

If the image is technically well done – then great! Technical considerations are almost incidental. Perfection can appear cold and clinical and life isn’t (nor should it be) like that. The photograph should be a gateway to something more, a look into the life of someone else or a step into something new.

So how do we achieve this psychological resonance? It has to start with the photographer ‘feeling it’ himself/herself. If a photographer is in tune with the emotional potential of the scene the contributing factors fall into place. We must learn to see and to feel before we learn to photograph.

The elements that give an image emotional depth are often the same ones that give the image its aesthetic qualities – often the two cannot be separated. The interplay between the subject and its environment is what draws us into taking the picture in the first place even though we may not consciously be aware of it at the time. It is developing empathy and receptiveness that makes a photographer something more than a mere recordist.

The viewer should not be looking at a photograph, they should be looking at life.

An article on street photography 1
This image is far from technically perfect but (hopefully) does have an emotional impact. ©John Gill 2017

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