Street photography can be enjoyable way of exploring a destination while you travel. It can also help you get away from touristy attractions to experience ‘real life’ in the places you visit.
If you enjoy photography, you may have already experienced the thrill of picking up a camera and heading onto the streets in the hope of capturing telling images that show the true character of a place. Perhaps the appeal of street photography relates to some atavistic hunter instinct that sits dormant in us all?
Give it a go, if you haven’t already. You can start with basic equipment. You don’t necessarily need a top of the range digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, the type you see professionals using.
Of course, having good equipment and knowing how to use it helps when creating high quality images, but street photography is all about being in the right place at the right time, documenting life in the place you happen to be. Training your eye to spot interesting subject matter and being ready to release the shutter to capture a scene as it unfolds is far more important that your equipment.
Sometimes an inexpensive, unobtrusive compact camera can be a bonus if you are out on the streets. Smaller cameras are likely to attract less attention than a big SLR, meaning that people may well go about their daily activities without changing their behaviour; an advantage if you want to get fly-on-the-wall style images of people in real life situations. You can even use a smart phone if you want.
Street photography appeals to me because it means getting out among people and being close enough to observe the details of daily life. It is a way for me to better understand the places I visit. It helps me get a feel for people and local habits. Maybe I wouldn’t see these things – or even go looking for them – if I didn’t have my camera.
I see photography as an opportunity to record aspects of humanity and the spirit of the places that I visit. In a way, every street photographer is creating potentially valuable historic records. Think about it; without street photographers, we would have a far less complete understanding of how the world looked a century ago. Photography is a means of documenting our time on this planet for generations to come while also providing a way of understanding today’s world.
Some people criticise street photography, arguing it’s voyeuristic and that photographers, by recording images of people going about their day-to-day business, invade privacy. In countries such as the United Kingdom it’s not unusual to hear concerns that photographic images might be misused, either by terrorists or child abusers. This means photographers are treated with often unjustified suspicion.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely regarded as one of the most talented photographers of the twentieth century. His beautifully composed yet candid street photographs offer a fascinating record of life in a number of countries, including India, which he visited in the 1940s. As French privacy laws make the publication of photos of private individuals increasingly difficult, some photographers have asked whether Cartier-Bresson would have been able to develop his skills to the same degree of mastery in today’s far more restrictive climate.
Is it right to photograph people if they don’t necessarily realise they are on camera? That is a question of ethics that every street photographer has to ask themselves. At what point are we crossing the barrier from the acceptable to the unacceptable?
When I’m out with my camera, people usually know that I’m there, intent on taking pictures. Some of my best street photographs were captured after I have been in position for quite some time. There is little point in hanging about if people have objections. Whenever I can, I’ll run off prints and send them to my subject.
At first it can be pretty nerve wracking to walk around a city with a camera, unsure of how people might react when you raise the lens to capture a scene. Of course in some places it makes sense to be careful because of security and personal safety concerns. With practice, you soon gain confidence and lose the inhibitions that prevent you from capturing candid images.
One of my favourite places in the world for street photography is India. The colours, light, faces, buildings and backdrops that can be found in her cities provide a heaven on earth for street photographers. Wherever you are, though, the world is waiting to be explored and captured on camera. The great thing is, you can start today.
© 2013 Stuart Forster