A personal rant about street photography: READ IT AT YOUR OWN RISK!

I recently came across a fascinating article “Why Street Photography Matters in 2017” by Temoor Iqbal. I agree with many points raised in his piece. With everyone having access to a camera and the street the result is an absolute mire of dreadful, samey images—endless medium-distance shots of people walking, endless portraits of buskers, and endless through-the-shop-window nonsense.” If I were to write this article the list would probably be much longer! It would include many of my own contributions to this malaise (maybe with the exception of “through-the-shop-window nonsense” – I actually enjoy some of them).

After such an introduction, I am sure that many of you have already started to sharpen your pencils or have even finished jotting notes of distaste and disapproval. Please keep in mind that I appreciate those as well. Despite a threat of this nature, I decided a long time ago to share on this page my own thoughts without putting them through the common “What if somebody doesn’t like what I said?” and “I want my blog to be popular” filtration system. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s get on with it.

Street photography is hard, really hard. A good street photograph (not even an excellent one) doesn’t just happen – as some people claim. It involves hours of walking, waiting, exploring, experimenting and, most importantly, failing. Even great photographers spend the entire day shooting on the streets and return with nothing worth sharing – that’s the norm, not the exception. It seems to me that many people try to justify the poor imagery they share online by saying, “That’s the best I could get today” not realizing that they are doing us all a great disservice.

Street photography requires seeing the world differently. Ernst Haas put it this way: “I am not interested in shooting new things – I am interested to see things new.” Taking photos in the city is so much more than the word “street” implies. Although most street photography deals with documenting what’s in plain sight, a strong photograph must go well beyond that.

As humans we are naturally wired to focus on important things and filter out all the rest. Although such an approach has served us well over the ages, in creative seeing it’s a major obstacle. In addition, our education system and our daily routine push us to see and react in a certain way. Have you noticed when walking around the city how your brain filters out the noise and visuals? We usually stroll around town without challenging what we see or how we see it. In order to find “something interesting in an ordinary place,” you need to break your seeing patterns and go for something new, uncomfortable and different.

Elliott Erwitt described it in this way: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” This may sound simple but for many people it is incredibly difficult to do.  

Finally, there is the privilege of sharing your work with others. Yes, you got it right. The fact that we can share our work is a great privilege but it comes with a proviso: RESPONSIBILITY. The responsibility is that you add something new to the subject. You need to put an image out there which deserves viewers’ time and attention. Please don’t confuse it with “popular.” I think there are enough “popular” photographs out there.

Finally, people often say to me, “Come on, Olaf, photography is subjective” so someone may actually like a photo of a garbage can or a cat. (I want to clarify here that I am not against cats or garbage cans – I am just against poorly done photos of cats and garbage cans). And please try to restrain yourself from commenting on the mantra that everyone agrees art is subjective.

OK, Olaf, enough of this rant. What’s your point? Street photography is incredibly difficult and we all have the responsibility to make sure this genre remains relevant. The best thing you can do to help is to approach street photography with your emotions and inner seeing. Work hard on every single image and share only your best work. Do I do it all the time? Of course not but I am trying and I know many great photographers that do just that.

It’s time for some imagery recently shot on the streets of Vancouver with the X-series cameras and lenses.

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and some in colour…

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These are not two separate images. The separating line is the metal edge of a bus stop reflecting light. The green tarp on the right is not a dead body! It was quite a coincidence that it was there. 

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For those of you who enjoy street photography and would like to learn more, please join me in the “Streets of Vancouver Photography Workshop,” which will take place on July 28-31 in Vancouver, British Columbia. During these three days we will be challenging ourselves to be different but bold. Yes, there will discussions, presentations and technical tomfoolery but my objective is to teach you methods, provide you with tools and empower you to capture visuals in your own special way. Ultimately, your personality, your life experiences and your inner strengths will guide the seeing.   

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2017 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “A personal rant about street photography: READ IT AT YOUR OWN RISK!

  1. Pingback: Language and Communication, Cameras, Street Photography, and Envy - Island in the Net

  2. Hello Olaf,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts about street photography. I like your rant as it is the truth. Especially your quote on an earlier answer “Some really poorly done images get many likes only reinforcing others to post more”.

    The internet is bloated with bad street photography photos, many out there just reach to their mobile phone (noting bad about that) and take random snapshots without even thinking what they’re doing not to mention composition.
    I even think if social media, with all the like-fetishists is a goog place to share your work any more.

    Keep your good work up and I love checking your site fpr new photos and blog posts!

  3. Very thought-provoking post, Olaf, as always. Having been a photographer for some 50 + years – and doing my share of “street” – I can appreciate some of your comments. Good street photography does take a lot of thought and planning like any other type of photography. If you have not already visualized what you want to achieve before a day of doing it and before even picking up the camera for any single shot, then the exercise is pointless.

    Secondly, after doing street photography for many years while travelling, I have now veered away from the typical travel shot of toothless, wrinkly, poverty-stricken third world people that some photographers try to pass off as “art.” I now see this for what it really is – taking advantage of those less fortunate than we are. And this holds true ESPECIALLY when those photographers try to sell such images as part of “creative” portfolios for which they charge money (of which none goes to their hapless subjects who most of the time I am sure never signed releases).

    There you go – my contribution to the rant.

    PS – keep up the articles and sharing your wonderful photos.

    • Doug,

      It is so great to have a thoughtful and respectful online conversation. I agree with your thoughts, especially about the recent explosion of so called “travel photography.” It is often as you described “…poverty-stricken third world people…” or plethora of shots of the same “beautiful” tourist spots. I don’t try to be overly critical but I noticed that many people including me, I guess, are rebelling against such an approach (I am not critical of travel photography per se – there are many photographers who do a truly great work!)

      Also, there is a shortage of meaningful and honest conversations about the state of photography. Many people who try to raise some issues (I am not talking about bashing or trolling) are immediately labelled as “grumpy, old or non-inspirational.”

      Appreciate your perspective,

      Olaf

  4. I belong to a few Internet Street Photography groups. I have to agree. Most of what is posted on them is crap. I tire of viewing what others consider street photography. The are too many visionless hacks, posting what they consider street photography.

    • Russ,

      One of the problems is a widespread addiction of clicking “like” all over the place. I even notice this with my own online behaviour. Recently I scaled it back as I realized that by doing so you do quite a disservice to others and yourself. Some really poorly done images get many likes only reinforcing others to post more. Let’s only LIKE what we really LIKE!

      All the best,

      Olaf

  5. Got a bit of a shock when I started reading this. I thought Temoor Iqbal was describing my photography, except I don’t do buskers. Street photography gets way over-analyzed. For me it’s about (a) getting some healthy exercise, (b) using my camera skilfully while doing something interesting, (c) capturing a moment in the city’s life that hopefully tells a story and, (d) better getting to know the little corners of my town. Loved your photos in the post, especially HECK YEAH. I always come away from your blog with at least one new idea (guy with the reflective glasses)!

    • Phil,

      Appreciate your kind comment. Great points, especially about “getting healthy exercise.” I noticed each time I am venturing out to do some street photography, I am clicking 10,000 steps or more.

      All the best,

      Olaf

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