Back in November I got some good news: one of my photos was chosen for the prestigious Miami Street Photography Festival exhibition. I submitted five pictures for the judges’ consideration with little expectation of being selected, given how competitive the festival is, but if one of the five was to win I wasn’t surprised that it was this one: a complex street scene in Jodhpur, India, that checks the trendy “layered” box. When I see this type of photo I always wonder how the photographer managed to be in the right place at the exact moment when everything aligned. The probability of it occurring randomly seems less than, say, being suddenly struck by a meteor. Now something of the kind has happened to me and I want to share the full story of how this photo came to be. Spoiler alert: the decisive moment is the culmination of an extended process that involves plenty of trial and error, not to mention some luck and patience.
One of my favorite photography reference books is Magnum Contact Sheets, a compendium of contact sheets and other reference material from dozens of Magnum photographers over the years. Nothing makes the creative process more transparent than stepping through all the shots – and by implication, the evolving thoughts and aesthetic decisions – that led to one of those pictures everyone knows from the canon of Great Photography. We can also see how the photographer chose to crop the frame, further refining the vision and focusing the viewer’s attention. In a modest nod to this concept, I’d like to share a series of shots that led up to and followed my selected image, with the aim of demystifying the process of the so-called decisive moment.
Let’s go back to late January 2020. I was in India for a workshop with Harvey Stein and it was just starting to dawn on us that the virus in China might get serious; indeed, when we all returned home several days later it was a challenge to navigate rapidly escalating flight delays and cancellations. Little did I imagine that it would be my last international trip for more than two and half years. At any rate, one day I was wandering through Jodhpur’s old town, the Blue City, when I saw something odd a couple of blocks down the street: a woman waving an extremely long piece of cloth in the air. One of the fundamental attributes of good street photography is a healthy sense of curiosity: I immediately went to check it out. It turned out the woman was drying a freshly washed sari. She tied one end of the wet garment to a utility pole three or four houses down the street, then stretched it taut and vigorously waved it in the air until it dried.
The scene was even more interesting because a disabled man wearing lots of jewelry and a colorful hat was sitting on the stoop, observing the neighborhood goings-on. But not long after I arrived, the sari was dry and the woman folded it away. I feared I had come too late. She went inside but soon returned with another wet sari. What luck! Now I could watch the entire process. Meanwhile, a second woman appeared at an upstairs window, hanging a towel out to dry. About this time, one of the other photographers in our group wandered by, perceived the photo opp, and joined me. Eventually there were four of us shooting the evolving spectacle. The downside of this was that I didn’t feel as free to move around the scene as I had in the beginning, for fear of stepping into someone else’s shot. The lady tied the second sari in place and started waving it in the air. People passed by on foot and on scooters, paying little attention to her efforts. The woman upstairs came down to the stoop. A pack of friendly dogs visited. Neighbors paused to chat. Cows ambled by.
It was harder than you might think to press the shutter at just the moment when the sari, protagonists, and passers-by arranged themselves in the frame in a pleasing way. The shot I submitted was the second of three exposures with the gray cow. I liked how the cow hadn’t fully entered the frame, the sari was high and didn’t intersect either the cow or the man on the stoop, and luckily, the woman upstairs was looking out the window. You may also notice that I spent more time making a competition edit of the photo I sent to the festival. The other images in this article were lightly processed, mainly to match white balance and exposure across the sequence. In retrospect I wish I’d done a better job ensuring that the focal plane was parallel to the subject, to avoid distorting the building. There’s something to practice next time!
The scene was evolving quickly, with no time for chimping each shot. There was no fist pump or high-five after what turned out to be the best photo. I continued watching and shooting, not sure until I looked at the results at the end of the day if the camera had managed to capture what I saw in my mind’s eye. Eventually the second sari dried; the show was over. It felt like I had spent at least 15 or 20 minutes at the scene – I’m surprised now to see from the clock on the wall that it all happened in less than 10. I was in a flow state, which elongated the sense of time. That makes it easier to find the decisive 1/125th of a second to press the shutter.
Unfortunately there’s no shortcut – no trick, gimmick, or hack to share – for making a good street photograph. Luck is involved, but it’s not the primary factor. There are many elements you can control to improve the odds:
- Put yourself into promising situations. You don’t have to travel half way around the world, but do get off the couch and go places you can observe people living out their lives. Stretch your comfort zone; the heightened sense of alertness stimulates your creativity.
- Be curious. I followed the strange sight of a very long cloth waving in the air mostly because I wondered what the heck was going on, not because I immediately sensed a possible picture. The chain of causality can have several links before the actual photo opp, so be open and don’t make too many assumptions.
- When you find a situation that seems promising, be patient. I came close to moving on when the woman folded the first sari and went inside. Fortunately I didn’t leave, because she soon reappeared with a second act.
- Be persistent and learn from your mistakes. I wasn’t certain if I got a good shot, but I knew for sure of several I missed. I didn’t dwell on it, but kept following the action and trying to improve on the fly, learning in real time.