Being a street photographer is not like any other genre of photography out there (emphasis on the period here). It’s more challenging, more rewarding, and more misunderstood. Right now the term street photography gets thrown around by every portrait, wedding, and lifestyle photographer looking to remain edgy but unwilling or unable to grasp the true meaning of street photography.
We often read about what the term street photography means, the number of varying articles on this subject seems to compete only with the number of stars in the sky. Instead of writing about what street photography is, or is not, I thought I’d approach it from a different angle much like a photographer framing his or her subject. The exact definition of street photography may always be up for debate and open to interpretation but I would challenge that our obligations as street photographers holds true no matter where your core beliefs lie.
My friend Merriam-Webster defines obligation as something we must do because it is morally or legally right. Because there are no laws specifically governing street photography (of course you must follow societal laws) we are going to focus on the moral obligation street photographers share. Our responsibility is great whether you acknowledge it or not. As a street photographers you are a story-teller, a historian, an influencer, and an activist.
The world owes a great debt to those who have, from a state of exceptional awareness, preserved stillness for us to hold.
– Dan Winters
Street photography is and has always been tied to candid photography. This isn’t to say that if you co-author an image with a subject (ask the subject to pose or interact with them in some way as to alter the natural state of the moment before creating the image) it can’t be street photography. What is required is that you disclose to viewers that the moment was co-authored, or at the very least don’t imply that it’s a candid moment.
Street photography has its roots deeply set in photojournalism where truth is king. Take for instance this excerpt from an interview with influential photographer Eugene Smith:
It is the responsibility of the photographer journalist to take his assignment and examine it, to search with intelligence for the frequently intangible truth; and then very carefully (and sometimes very rapidly) work to bring his insight, as well as the physical characteristics of the subject, to his finished pictures. It is important that the inspiration for the interpretation should come from a study of the people or places to be photographed. The mind should remain as open and free from prejudice as possible, and the photographer should never try to force the subject matter into his or the editor’s preconceived idea.
You see, as street photographers we are documenting history. If we aren’t honest with others, or ourselves, we are doing a great disservice to street photography. Each time a street photographer creates a false moment they run the risk of getting caught in a lie and diminishing their (and others) ability to create influential images. Sharing a rich history with photojournalism demands we respect its ethos.
Bookmark PhotolisticLife as I continue this series on Street Photographers Obligations over the coming weeks and months. What does it mean to you to be a street photographer? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.