I was street shooting on Saturday. The sun was already high and the temperature was up. So I zig-zaged through back streets, from a shade to another shade. Then in a laneway, I noticed a few photographers with SLRs in their hands.I do not like photographing with other people so much; I decided to just walk past that part and move on.Coming up to the few steps that lead to the next street up, I was faced with half a dozen glass canons pointing towards me, towards the sky, and down the ground, blocking my way. And other people who were just on their way out after sitting down for coffee, and the tourists who walk past there.
I am a street photographer. Sure, of course I do other stuff as well. I do weddings, events and other corporate stuff that help pay the bills. But they are the ‘job’ part of my photography. When I do it for myself, and I think it is important we all have something we do for ourselves, our own pleasure, to satisfy our own ego, that is something other than our job, and for me that is the street. It is my hunting ground, and I have my favourite locations. Like fishers in the sea or river, I am careful not to exploit it too much and starve it from supply, so that it will keep providing me with fruits, while I treat it with respect and hopefully take my small part in expressing the feeling of living in this city as seen through my own soul’s window.
If I get too comfortable and set up my fishing rod in one place, I will end up catching all the good fishes there too quickly and I will lose my favourite fishing ground. If I leave rubbish behind or disturb the peace of the locals, they will not allow me back in to fish there again. But if I am nice to them, dress appropriately, be very careful in making sure I do not disturb them, and also buy a coffee or two, or a sandwich from a cafe there from time to time, then hopefully they think it will be okay. Of course, I will not be pointing a big (or small) lens to their face, or their business, or their customers, or their potential customers, for longer than necessary, and most of the time, I just blend into the background.
But faced with the line of canons (and I’m not referring to a brand of camera manufacturer – their name did not come from a type of weapon but a Japanese word related to something very different…) that look like they are about to fire painful attack my way, what came to my mind was ‘hunting in a pack’. Rather than going solo, armed with your trusted black gun in your right arm, exposed to all sorts of negative reaction from the surroundings and subjects on the street, they line up, next to another photographer, and feel safe that it is not their individual action, so hopefully people are less likely to… what?
Street is a scary place. I remember speaking to a professional photographer who has been shooting on the street for decades and he says he still feels that ‘fear factor’. What do I do if people said no? What do I do if I am told to move along? What do I do if a bunch of punk kids abuse you? What do I do if some racist drunk breathe the smell of stale alcohol down your neck and say ‘Nice camera. Be careful how you use it…’ (By the way, that is the exact line I heard from some people on the street last week.)
When it is scary, it is encouraging to have comrades by your side. You are in this together, and somebody who understand your fear is there to watch your back, while you have theirs…
But you’ve got to remember, boys and girls of photography 101 class (I hope you are not experienced photographers on ‘photography walk’ because you should know better than doing what you are doing!). If you pack up, you are much more likely to scare that precious game. The deer senses the big cat hiding near the drinking well, the trout will shy away under the big rock at the slight movement of large shadows. It is impossible to be ‘part of the city’s rhythm’ and it will be impossible to capture candid shots.
On the other hand, you do build up negativity against photographers in public place, acting as if you rented this place, for a fee. Sorry, you might have paid your teacher for their time, but you are not renting the place that belongs to people who have coffee and serve coffee. We have rights to photograph in public space, but it won’t be around for much longer if you abuse it and cause problems to the places where people love to just hang out.
You can learn your colour contrast, tonal contrast, how to use the sunlight and reflected light in open environment. You may learn how to be friends with strangers and ask nicely whether they would possibly mind a photo (because they look so beautiful sitting there…) and how to graciously thank them and leave them in peace if they said ‘no, I don’t want a bloody photo’. But most of them can be done in a closed deserted parts of the street, perhaps financial district on the weekend where nobody walks by, and role play to act as a stranger and a photographer, and vice versa. You won’t learn anything by lining up next to another photographer. You definitely won’t learn the art of street photography by blocking everyone at the bottle neck of the narrow laneway. And you are definitely not helping your own future as a part of photography community because you are just destroying your own feeding ground.
I honestly do not know who teaches these clearly novice photographers and take them to the popular locations in the city on a busy weekend. I photograph there too so I have nothing against them. Once or twice I even set up a tripod to capture something that just cannot be done otherwise. But I have always observed the faces of people there, to ensure my damage is very minimum. I try to ensure I don’t disrupt the peace of that charming cafe and their regular customers. I throw in a gold coin if I photograph a busker. And I always look around my tripod to make sure that people can walk past smoothly with no risk of them tripping over my equipment and hurting themselves (if that had happened, that would be my responsibility!)
So it is not meant in any way to be an attack against any individual or organisation. I just wish that photographers could ensure a better future in this city, not as those who intrude people’s privacy, but as the ones who create beautiful images that show the beauty of this place to those who live here and those who may choose to visit looking at them.
Lastly, if fellow photographers with nice big lenses on street are reading. I hope you try out the traditional, authentic street photography. It is actually not just any photos taken on the street. A part of the definition actually includes the use of wide-angle lens, which means the photographer is ‘in there’, rather than ‘looking in’ with a telephoto lens. Get the shortest, widest lens you got, keep low profile, get in there, and capture the images of what it feels like to ‘be there’. Once you know it, you realise you are doing something ethically questionable by using a telephoto to shoot strangers from a distance they cannot protest against you. And you know what, you may realise that your ‘fear’ was just your own creation. If you appreciate the blessing of artistic inspiration the street brings, and always appreciate the part people play by working there, walking there, chatting there, and casually glancing your way, to complete your story, then street photography is so much fan. And you don’t even need a camera with interchangeable lens – even a mobile phone camera can do it.
Let’s be very aware of what impact we give to the existing ecosystem, be humble, be welcomed part of it, and have fun making beautiful images and sharing them.