In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotiv.— Henri Cartier-Bresson
In this mode, it is necessary to forget yourself, to be fully present to the tensions of transcendence and tragedy of the moment as the world continually creates and destroys itself. Like Cartier-Bresson, street photography for me is a way of making sense of the world.
Miniature-format cameras gave Cartier-Bresson what he called “the velvet hand…the hawk’s eye,” that allowed him to capture truly candid images: The camera became ‘an extension of his eye‘.
Sometimes, when Cartier-Bresson noticed a fascinating scene, he would wait for the right person to walk by to complete his image. Which shows that the process is not always done entirely on the wing. Sometimes it is worth waiting for photo-opportunities to come to you.
I see the street photographer as an artist-anthropologist, attempting to capture an artistic shot that is also an accurate record of social history, recording human life and society as it is, unedited, not trying to sell or convince of anything.
Though it’s sometimes considered an invasion of privacy, it’s not about disrespecting anyone. As Eric Kim says:
As photographers and human beings, we are constantly trying to construct meaning in our lives and in the world. And I think street photography is one of the most beautiful vehicles to better explore, interact, dissect, and understand the world through image making.
Roaming the London streets with my small point and shoot camera (Panasonic Lumix with Leica lens) allows me to photograph discreetly, bearing witness to a particular moment in time and place. I snap images of people or scenes that I find interesting or beautiful. I still find it hard to approach a stranger and ask permission to take a photo. Most people are fine with it when you explain your motives, and why you find them interesting, but it just isn’t possible to stop and engage with everyone. Some of the most beautiful and iconic images have been taken when the subjects were unaware of the camera, and therefore not posing. Have a look at Vivian Maier’s wonderful images shot in New York and Chicago in the 50s and 60s here. They really capture the spirit of that time, and are still so vivid and alive now.
Diane Arbus, another of my favourite photographers, saw the camera as a kind of license to enter other people’s lives. From her letters and journals, it is reassuring to know that she had to overcome her fears and inhibitions when photographing, as most of her photos (see below) are up close to her subjects, so she mostly had to ask permission to take the picture.
I’m interested in what Arbus says about her intuitive way of composing a picture. Basically, it comes down to a feeling of balance and beauty that can also be interestingly ugly:
“I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself. I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. Theres a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.”
My ongoing photographic project documenting experiences of motherhood, is both posed and unposed. In trying to capture the raw reality of daily life as a single mother for example, I have asked mothers I know if I can photograph them at times of strain and stress as well as the good moments. This obviously isn’t a comfortable thing to do, as, the natural instinct of most people is to help or comfort rather than document in a detached way. But as an artist, it is how I present a “faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand”, as stated in the US National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) code of ethics:
“As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images. Photographic images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.”