In the Summer of 2022, I lived on my own for the very first time as I moved from Baltimore to a town a few miles outside of Washington DC. The process of adapting from living in a city to living in the suburbs, plus the workload of a new job and taking care of my dog meant that I got out of practice fast when it came to my Street Photography.
For me, photography is much like running – if I do it often enough it comes naturally and feels good, but doing it sparingly and inconsistently will be uncomfortable and I lose momentum very quickly. After finally living close to DC, which has always been my favorite place to photograph, I knew that I needed to create a routine of practice to help me find my feet once again. My goal for this rehabilitation was to tear down as many mental barriers as possible. The last thing I wanted was to go out with the goal of building momentum, only to have it broken by tricky things like rejection, confrontation, empty streets, or boring scenery. For the upmost consistency, I decided to focus on one particular location that would always deliver. I also didn’t want to have to go out of my way to get to my shooting location, nothing shatters motivation like a good traffic jam. My new place was in Northern Virginia, about 15 minutes from the western side of DC. After weighing up all of these factors, one location stook out to me as the perfect controlled environment: the Lincoln Memorial.
Many street photographers in the District generally avoid the Mall. In a lot of ways it represents the duality of DC – the shiny whitel exoskeleton of the city that hides its more organic, authentic side from view. The Mall is artificial, and often most of the people around you are tourists visiting from all over the world, the notable exception being Washington DC. Despite this, it is generally the busiest part of the city with tourists present every day of the week. The Lincoln Memorial is the perfect fishing pond for a street photographer with the goal of building confidence – it is completely normal to see someone carrying a camera and even pointing it in your direction. One tactic I often use is to hold the camera in place once my subject moves past me, pretending to photograph something in the background. Nothing serves that purpose better than a 20-foot marble statue of one of the most iconic figures in US history, or the 100-foot columns around him.
There are several different areas to the Memorial: the front area which spreads from the base of the Memorial’s stairs down to the base of the Reflecting Pool; the inside which features harsh lighting and close quarters to potential subjects; the front steps which create interesting layers; the outside platform where one can almost always stumble upon a professional photoshoot thanks to views of the surrounding scenery; and of course the back steps, facing directly into the sunset. These five stages, the consistent crowd, and the lack of stress from potential confrontation, plus its proximity to Virginia made the Lincoln Memorial a steadfast pillar for my reintegration into street life.
The Lower Steps and Reflecting Pool
Over time, I have found myself falling into a pattern at the memorial. I typically start in the lower area near the reflecting pool. There are lots of folks here taking photos in front of the Washington Monument, as well as frequent street performances and protests. This is a good spot to spot interesting subjects thanks to the descending stairs and open layout. An example and one of my favorite photos from the Lincoln is my photo of the bride and the singer. I spotted the bride from quite far away, and took advantage of the steps to position myself in her path, finding an angle that allowed me to layer in the singer. I will typically stay in this area for 10-15 minutes, as it is the entry point to the Lincoln Memorial there is a lot of foot traffic, but you have to frequently re-position yourself to get better compositions. It’s a great spot to warm up your hand and your eye before moving into closer quarters.
The Front Steps
After I get warmed up, I head up to the front steps of the Lincoln. I usually fish in this area for another 10-15 minutes, as well as returning to this spot whenever I get bored in the upper levels. This is a great spot to get interesting layers (literally), as there are usually hundreds of subjects sitting on the steps. I personally like to use geometry as a compositional element in my work, and find the structure and lines formed by the steps and columns provide a sense of order to balance the chaos of the busy crowds.
The Memorial Chamber
When I’m ready, I like to move up and into the chamber of the Memorial. Here it is very easy to get close to your subjects. The mood in this chamber is one that I find very interesting – it is a combination of excitement and boredom that tends to lend itself to some interesting physical manifestations. I have captured some of my favorite photos in this area, more often than not featuring kids as my subjects. This is a great spot to practice filling your frame and focusing on emotions and gestures. The darkness of the chamber and size of the walls provides an interesting ominous feeling.
The Outer Platform and Back Steps
The final two areas I typically spend less time in. As I mentioned, the outside platform is typically filled with folks taking photos, either professional or personal, and while this can sometimes lead to an interesting moment, I often find it a little staged. Still, this is a great are to capture the size and architecture of the monument. The back steps, on the other-hand, are often less populated with the major exception of sunset, when folks flock in to admire the view of Arlington across the river. The lighting at this time is almost a spotlight, and the transformation is magical. No matter which direction you face, there is plenty of ways to use the environment to your advantage.
It is now over a year since I began this series, and I’ve actually since moved into the city. I think in the last year I have grown hugely as a photographer, and while I don’t return to the Lincoln as often as I did last year, it still holds a special place in my heart and I head there whenever I feel myself in a slump. I recommend anyone who is either a beginner, or maybe unable to get out and photograph as consistently as they’d like, to find a place where they can eliminate their mental barriers and focus on consistency and confidence.
Hear more from Joe Jasper in this episode of the Street Photography Magazine Podcast.