Bringing the Street Back Into Street Photography


I've seen a lot of "in your face" photography lately. You know the type. Tight crops of a strangers head and shoulders with a lens that could only have been one or two feet away from them when the shutter was tripped. This is usually accompanied by a perplexed look, or shock, or fear, or maybe even anger. Hopefully it's not night time or low light, because then a bright flash is added into the mix. And although for some people this is a style, for me, it's bad form. I can say that because I've been on both sides of the camera lens in those situations, and I didn't care for it either way. 

If you search for the term "Street Photography" on Google, you'll be presented with 112,000,000 results and hundreds of thousands of images. What's important to note from those images is that although there are different styles of street photography out there depending on the photographer, the key element in 99% of them is the presence of the street.

I'm settling into a style that makes me comfortable on the streets, and I imagine this will be an ever-changing situation as my personal style evolves. But in order to get there, I had to try a few different methods out. The "in your face" style didn't suit me from the start. I have no problem interacting with people if they want to interact with me, but that's a choice I have to give them. If I step into someone's personal space with a camera, take a shot and then scurry off, that's just embarassing for everyone. You might think you got a great, "real" shot, but all you did was make someone feel violated and perhaps even self-conscious. And you've also added one more person to the world that hates street photographers, so thanks for that.

Needless to say, I quickly decided that wasn't for me, especially when I was on the other side of the lens. It wasn't like I didn't see him coming - it's not hard for us to identify when someone is trying to be inconspicuous. Camera out, eyes darting around. My fiancée and I are out for a walk and the light is nice. He flicks the camera on, pretends to look past us and click, click. No smile, no eye contact, no permission. No business card if I want a copy of that maybe beautiful if not completely backlit photograph. Nothing. He was off. I was just left there to feel uneasy. What's the point? I was convinced that sneaking up-close and personal shots is not street photography.

We need to start bringing the street back into street photography. If I want to see street photography of Washington DC, I don't want to see a portfolio of stunned, angry faces or surprised people through cafe windows (I'm guilty of that last one on a couple of shots, I'll admit it). What I want to see is the actual city. I want to see L'Enfant Plaza, I want to see the Capitol, I want to see the 14th Street Bridge and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance. Pull back and bring their world into view.



But it's not enough to just show the streets and the environment. There's a key element that has to be incorporated somewhere into those shots: the human element. Shots of beautiful architecture with the right light are great, but show me the population as a whole. Show me the crowd, show me the tourists, show me the buzz outside of the Verizon Center after the Washington Capitals win a hockey game. Show me the people waving to the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue. I want to see the bigger picture and feel the pulse of the location. All of the images above are examples of this. Show me the world in 2015 so that I can marvel at your work in 2055 and smile at how life used to be.


Pull back from your subjects and show the world around them.


I have nothing against street portraiture. There are tons of photographers out there who respect their subjects, engage them, ask permission or offer explanations as to who they are and why they shoot if they get a puzzled look. This isn't an attack on street portraiture, which I consider completely different from invading someones privacy. Street portraiture, in my opinion, is a type of photography where at least some communication, if only a look, is established first. It's common courtesy, and an element of respect is involved.


There's nothing wrong with street portraiture, as long as you show respect and make contact. This is an especially good approach if you're in a foreign country and your subjects are carrying automatic weapons.


This isn't an attack on individual expression or photographic styles. Instead, this is simply a reminder to also widen your field of view every now and then and include the world in which those people exist. We still need those candid close shots of the characters, but not at the expense of the larger stage in which they live.