13 ways to destroy street photography

13 ways to destroy street photography

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Photo by Elliott Erwitt
Photo by Elliott Erwitt

13 ways to destroy street photography

I never expected to actually witness someone destroy “freedom of expression” in street photography or to categorize it in such a manner that it would affect approximately 90% of the street photographers out there! But alas, someone has attempted to harm street photography. I just happened to stumble upon this so called “list of things I have seen too much of”  accidentally when a while ago I came across a post on a social media site that I consider provocative and offensive. What was more surprising was the author of this post. I will not mention the name of the photographer that believes in these things out of respect for his privacy, but I clearly disagree with him and this is the reason why I took the time to write this post. I felt the need to express my ideas and to describe in a few words how his words made me feel. Check it out: 

”I have judged a couple of Street Photography Awards this month, here are the things that I have seen far too much of.

  1. People working out on Venice Beach style outdoor gyms.
  2. Indian streets with animals especially cows and chickens.
  3. Close up flash lit people at festivals or parades.
  4. People carrying mirrors.
  5. Reflections in puddles flipped upside down.
  6. People in stripes crossing zebra crossings (really?)
  7. Air Shows with smoke or planes in ears or around heads etc.
  8. Skate boarders in mid air.
  9. Anyone in mid air especially jumping into water.
  10. Your holiday/travel photos especially monks.
  11. Torrential downpours of rain.
  12. Men getting a blow job while buying a coke.
  13. People on top of trains, climbing in train windows, passing things through train windows, hanging out of train windows, usually in Asia.

Be responsible, think before you push the shutter”

It looks to me as a list of rules to follow if you don’t want to end up being a bad street photographer according to the author, of course. Personally I have always been under the impression that street photography was supposed to be a way for photographers to freely express themselves. Since reading through this list though, I am not that sure anymore. To better explain what I have on my mind, I will go through each one of the aforementioned

13 “rules” and will try to debunk them one by one, because I love street photography and I will not let anybody attempt to destroy it for me!

  1. People working out on Venice Beach style outdoor gyms.

I didn’t really get this one. Street photographers photograph in public places. For some photographers, beaches are very inspiring and might come in handy if they live near one or simply because they love to express their creativity through the photographic medium in these kinds of places. I have seen photos from beaches from all over the world but even though they have a similar theme, they are very different in style and composition. As it happens, some of the people in these photos are working out. So then, do we automatically assume that this is something not worth photographing? I also have seen a lot of photos of dogs on the beach, as well as people taking showers, sun bathing, and the list goes on. Should we make even more categories of stuff happening on the beach that are not worth our attention?

BRAZIL. Rio de Janeiro. July 2, 2014. An outdoor gym in Arpoador.
Photo by David Allen Harvey
  1. Indian streets with animals especially cows and chickens.

I found this one really funny cause India is such an exotic place and yes, animals are everywhere on the streets as you guys probably already know. I am also photographing animals on streets, this is not something I would avoid or recommend a street photographer to ignore. I think I also have photos with chickens and cows made in the countryside, since here chickens don’t walk freely on the streets of Bucharest. But I admit that if I saw a cow on the street in an urban area and the surrounding space, the light, the geometry or the colors inspired me I would definitely push the shutter. Yes, guilty as charged! There are also a lot of street photos from Asia including all sorts of animals, especially monkeys. I found some of these photos being really good, and I, even have some favorite street photographers that keep including monkeys in their photos. They are really talented and their photos are always so cool and well composed. I also photographed monkeys on the streets of Thailand and Malaysia and you could say it was something exotic for me however this was not the decision factor when I pushed the shutter. I made the shots because I found them photographically interesting.

Photo by Steve McCurry
Photo by Steve McCurry
  1. Close up flash lit people at festivals or parades.

I am aware that a lot of street photographers use flash, every street photographer knows that and in my opinion this is a great way to focus more on your subject and to get rid of the unimportant things from the background of your frame. Festivals and parades are places where you can find a lot of interesting characters, where you are less noticeable. Is that a bad thing? For example, I don’t use a flash and usually don’t photograph at festivals or parades as I am a little claustrophobic, but that’s just me. Why judge others doing this? I know a lot of good photos made in crowded places as I am sure there are also dozens of bad ones, but this is not my point. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t constrain yourself in experimenting with different types of photos in various places, regardless of what others say. I am even thinking that this kind of areas are a good way to get rid of shyness when photographing people. 

Photo by Salvatore Matarazzo
Photo by Salvatore Matarazzo
  1. People carrying mirrors.

I know great photos with people that hold mirrors in their hand, most of them are not even street but rather documentary. So I guess I am discarding mirrors out of my list now. What about people carrying shinny bags? We have a lot of them in Bucharest. Anyway, I think that reflections are used in street photography, whether is it a mirror, a window or a puddle. Photographers try to bring to their photos a little bit of the surreal and these are some of the ways to do it. Again, I think it matters how you compose the frame and what is the whole vibe that the photo conveys rather than for example if there is a man carrying a mirror.

Photo by Alex Webb
Photo by Alex Webb
  1. Reflections in puddles flipped upside down.

Yes, I have seen a lot of street photos of this kind. I normally don’t agree with this trick of flipping the image upside down to obtain an effect, as in my opinion it’s a little bit forced, but even so, I found some really good images in this category. I strongly believe  that everyone should have the freedom to express themselves through street photography however they want. Maybe for some, photographing a puddle is just a phase, should we really classify and marginalize that? We all start somewhere and playing with shadows or puddles might come in handy for someone that just started street photography. Once the photographer develops more skills of composition and so on he can look with a sort of nostalgia over his previous work. 

Photo by Arthur Tress
Photo by Arthur Tress
  1. People in stripes crossing zebra crossings (really?)

Really! I would have been very thrilled to make this kind of a photo without having to call a friend and ask him to wear a striped t-shirt just so that I can photograph him on the zebra crossing. What if a zebra decides to cross the zebra crossing one day? I am just kidding, but would that be a good enough moment to push the shutter? 

The thing is that, a photographer should focus on all that is happening around him and in his frame when pushing the shutter. If someone wears stripes and crosses the zebra and of course it is not a setup, I would definitely document it. And why not? It is a great moment and I feel that if you are a photographer you should not let these kind of occasions pass by. 

Photo by Ferdinando Scianna
Photo by Ferdinando Scianna
  1. Air Shows with smoke or planes in ears or around heads etc.

I know photos in this category. I don’t want to repeat myself by saying that I believe some of those are good. Timing is very important when talking about street photography, and it can be really challenging when photographing air shows. I think we shouldn’t minimize the photographer’s effort to get a good shot just because we seem to believe that it is easy. It might look easy to photograph but I assure you that it takes a lot of effort from the photographer to get the right angle and the right moment to do a good photo, and that is something. 

Photo by Ken Walton
Photo by Ken Walton
  1. Skate boarders in mid air.

Is this a thing? Really? I feel that the photographer that wrote down this list has a problem with stuff being in mid-air.

Photo by Inge Morath
Photo by Inge Morath
  1. Anyone in mid air especially jumping into water.

This is practically the same thing as we read at point 8 just that now he decided that he doesn’t like anyone in mid air, which I already suspected he didn’t. Maybe he likes just birds in mid air, or balloons… but definitely not planes. Please guys try to be more creative, find a helicopter next time you are thinking of capturing something in mid air, or a flying chicken, but not from India.

Photo by Henri Cartier - Bresson
Photo by Elliott Erwitt
  1. Your holiday/travel photos especially monks.

I am curious which kind of monks are we talking about. Buddhist monks? I have some really nice shots with buddhist monks. Well, I liked them till now but I don’t know what to say anymore. At least I was not on holiday while taking these photos or else I would have gotten in this category. You never know when you will meet a monk or a nun in the street, especially in Rome or Vatican so what if you take a shot including one? What is the big deal? I think they are plenty of good shots with monks and nuns around. 

Photo by Steve McCurry
Photo by Steve McCurry
  1. Torrential downpours of rain.

I think that one can make interesting photos when the weather conditions are a little bit tough. Storms are challenging, cloudy skies, sand storms and snowstorms as well. I definitely admire photographers that go outside to shoot regardless of what the weather is like. It’s all fun and easy to take photos in the sunlight, especially photographing those handsome men doing their workout on the Venice beaches if you catch my drift. But what about the times when the going gets tough? I am sure that leaving your comfort zone, even when we are talking only about weather conditions can be a good sign that implies you are growing as a photographer and also a nice opportunity to take some good frames. 

Photo by Brassai
Photo by Brassai
  1. Men getting a blow job while buying a coke.

I am not sure I understand where this is coming from. I laughed every time I’ve read it. Is that really happening in the streets? Are there so many photographers that take these kind of photos that we need a new section for them? I must get out on the streets more because I feel that I am not keeping track of what happens anymore. However if this refers to juxtaposition and how some photographers use this technique to show humorous scenes then, I am not sure I agree with this either. Maybe some people just don’t have humor. Then again nobody’s perfect. 

Drink stand at Sonepur Mela in India.
Photo by unknown
  1. People on top of trains, climbing in train windows, passing things through train windows, hanging out of train windows, usually in Asia.

And we reached lucky number 13, last on our list but not least. Again people in mid air? This time on top of trains, or just people that are in trains, hanging, standing, passing through the corridor, minding their own business. I am not sure why we are taking only trains into consideration, because there are a lot of similar photos in trams, cars, buses and I don’t want to get started with what happens in the metro stations. Once again I would like to underline the fact that the place where you decide to take a photo or the action you are trying to capture are not that important. As I mentioned in my post ““Street photography vs documentary photography” – Why photojournalism and Street Photography are not the same thing” what is important in Street Photography is “that street photography tries to make its own story”. So in other words the way you decide to photograph what interests you, the moment you push the shutter, the way you compose the frame, your feelings about that place, your attitude and your trained eye are elements all working together to produce a street photograph. This is what one should focus on instead of trying to exclude places where good photos can be taken. 

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Conclusion

Although it might seem a little subjective, I really think that these 13 rules should be treated with a lot of skepticism. Street photographers should be creative, they should try things out, combine techniques and make photos that they feel are fulfilling and meaningful. This list makes me wonder if all these ways of doing photography are already out of fashion? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we are on the street shooting, all we need to do is see the street through our own eyes and feel it with our own unique way and that is what it is all about. Don’t play by the rules just listen to your own intuition and follow your own path and eventually you will get there. As Henri Cartier-Bresson used to say, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” So stay sharp & keep shooting and forget about a bunch of rules rules.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece. There certainly can be similarities in Street photography. And with the ubiquity of the web it’s easy for lots of people to be influenced by images and repeat them. Otoh, there is the opportunity to take a cliche and put one’s stamp on it. Also, one can learn and grow by trying out these styles/techniques. I am guilty of a number of these types of images. Particularly using flash during the day. I love it! Hey, unless I’m being paid, I’ll do what the hell I want to. Methinks this fellow is just a tad bit tired of the medium. Probably should sit out the next judging opportunity. Btw, I think your mystery judge is a Brit. Over there they call road crossings zebra crossings.

    • Thank you for your interest in reading this article and your kind reply Mark! I feel the same way when talking about street photography, every photo you make is an opportunity of growth. I think all street photographers are “guilty” of a number of these kind of photos and some of them could be very good, why not? Just stay sharp and keep shooting! 🙂

  2. This is hilarious.

    First of all it’s me that Iris is referring to, very happy to stand by what I wrote and be quoted.

    Secondly my post was a tongue in cheek bit of fun designed to provoke and Iris certainly took the bait 😉

    Thirdly these are not rules, they never were, Iris has added that label herself. I never mind being quoted but I do object to having my words bent erroneously to someone else argument.

    I do think Street Photographs should be candid, I think they should be taken in a public place and I think they should be unmanipulated or composited. That’s it, those are my rules for myself and they are simply designed to maintain Street Photographs as part of the documentary tradition in a world that’s increasingly full of fakery, staging and photoshop.

    Having just looked through several thousand street images and found some really excellent and original work, I also noticed some themes repeated over and over again and listed them purely as an observation, and sure I think a lot of that work was lazy and derivative when compared with the really excellent original stuff that I selected to place in the judging.

    This entire article is based on the premise that I think these are rules and I don’t, never did. The article is lazy writing based on a misunderstanding.

    You never know where your next great shot is going to come from, none of us do, you should try everything but you should also be aware of the environment you are working in and what’s out there and what others are shooting and find your own way.

    It’s all subjective and I’m sure many people consider some of my work unoriginal too.

    • Hello Nick, this is Iris, the author of the article.
      First let me just say that I was happy to come across your list, I enjoyed it because it made me think. Should I have avoided my thoughts about what was written there? And my answer to that was no. So then I thought about it more and decided to do this article that was fun for me to write and I felt it had some humor in it. I am sorry if you disagree, I mean no harm or disrespect I assure you. Secondly, I want to underline the fact that I did use the word rules with comas and I never quoted you there. I used this word because for me personally your list felt like something one should avoid, and I am pretty sure that I am not the only one that thought of this while reading it. Ofc you did not use the word rules because that would sound a little bit too much but you said that you saw so many photographs in these sections (well the 13 was just hilarious) and adding at the end “Be responsible, think before you push the shutter” made me think this list is restricting, and is it no good to make photos that match the listed items. I never quoted you wrong, you can check it out that I used your words exactly.
      I totally agree with this: “I do think Street Photographs should be candid, I think they should be taken in a public place and I think they should be unmanipulated or composited. That’s it, those are my rules for myself and they are simply designed to maintain Street Photographs as part of the documentary tradition in a world that’s increasingly full of fakery, staging and photoshop”, because this is and should be street photography.
      Let me stress again that I am very happy you replied, I think this is awesome! You clarified some things here and kept the conversation moving.
      Photographers should feel free to express their creativity anywhere they wish to do so without being afraid, for example photographing a festival and using flash might seem too cliché but it can also produce some great results.

      In closing, what I tried to point out in this article was really that you can get inspiration anywhere and it depends more on how you see the world and how you compose your frame rather then where you are in that moment.

  3. Thanks Iris, you know I think we largely agree and I think both my light hearted list and your article both arise out of the same passion for this kind of photography.

    I know people consider me opinionated and someone said it was ‘my way or the highway’ etc. But really I just want to know what I’m looking at, I want to know if a picture is shot ‘straight’ or if its a work of fiction or not. That is the only reason I suggest candid public photography as a clearer description for what we enjoy doing and seeing. I’m sure you are aware that in-public came to an end after 18 years when some of the members wanted to include staged and manipulated images under the umbrella of street photography. As a documentary photographer who loved street photography’s ability to provide an uncensored record of of the extraordinary in daily life, I couldn’t go along with that. And I still think that is why street photography is so special.

    The tropes in street photography are well known, and even celebrated by Julie Hrudovas Street Repeat project and I think she provides a valuable service in helping us see what others are doing.

    My little list was made in the same vein and I think most readers got that.

    Nick

    • Hello Nick, yes I think we largely agree. Your point of view is more clear now and I assure you that my article was written due to my passion for street photography.
      I never thought of you as being opinionated, we all should be allowed to express ourselves without being afraid. I am aware of what happened to the in-public collective and was very sad. I have to agree with you on this one, I would have done the same. You can’t mix styles under the umbrella of street photography because you will ruin the whole concept and then people will get confused. Well, this is an interesting idea for a new article, thanks.
      Cheers,
      Iris

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