There is a lot of wisdom for photographers to be found in the movie The Wizard of Oz. We hear from Glinda the Good Witch who wisely told Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” I interpret this to mean that we all have that spark of creativity within us that we must simply recognize and use. And then even more importantly, in her final instructions to Dorothy who sought to leave Oz she admonished her to believe that “There’s no place like home.” The same can be true of street photography. Some of our best images can be captured near our own home base just minutes or a short drive from where we live.
As a diehard landscape photographer, I had accumulated all the necessary gear (Nikon 7100 plus all the lenses and equipment imaginable) to load up and schlep with me to far flung locations all over the globe. Nepal, India, Africa, Europe, South America as well as North American hotspots were all my destinations for me and my big heavy travel duffel. The heavier the load, the more I felt that I must be truly prepared to make the magic happen with my camera. As I trudged up mountains, into icy gorges and across yak filled rope bridges, I proudly shot some of the most beautiful landscapes of the world. These 2-3 times yearly adventures yielded some “pretty good” but not spectacular results in my opinion. Mentors and instructors always admonished me to continue to practice, practice, practice in between these trips but I never felt that I could even begin to recreate the experience of these majestic sites in the environs of central Texas. They must not really understand that it’s not the same. Surely, it was necessary to book a flight where a passport was required and get a long, long way from my hometown of Austin, Texas in order to practice my craft. But I was so very wrong.
It wasn’t until I spent three days walking the streets of Paris with instructor magnifique Valerie Jardin that I was bitten with the street photography bug. And bitten hard! I had planned a trip to Paris and the countryside with a friend to visit the boulangeries, sample the fruit of the vine and hike in the French countryside with my hefty Nikon in hand. My friend had booked a little 3-day photography group excursion carousing through the streets of Paris with Instructor Jardin. I showed up with my hefty backpack full of equipment ready to shoot while the remainder of the troupe charged about comfortably with their small Fuji, Sony and Olympus mirrorless cameras. They were unobtrusive and unencumbered experiencing the wonder of the Paris streets and really immersing themselves in the rich soup of the French culture. Their stealth captures and street portraits were amazing. Without warning, I was metaphorically bonked on the noggin with the cosmic 2 x 4 and a new street photographer was born.
Upon returning to the US, I sold all my gear and became a Fuji-natic. Armed with my light as a feather Fujifilm XT3 and 18-55 mm lens I was reborn. And suddenly I felt the importance of shooting all the time, every day, finding subjects in every situation. At the same time, I began to book future trips based upon the chance of great street photography. And the voices of mentors floated back to me saying, “practice, practice, practice.” I finally woke up to the fact that I could practice this new craft within my own territory without having to travel long distances and expend lots of cash to obtain the results I sought.
As is often the case, the acres of diamonds are in our own backyard. I began to research the internet for locations, events, things and happenings that might provide some interest. I found printed periodicals listing upcoming events, websites inviting all for small fee or free as well as Facebook pages which advertise all kinds of happenings. I also began to put friends on notice to let me know when they hear of opportunities for me to shoot. On one occasion, a friend obtained a backstage pass for me to come behind the scenes to shoot the craziness of the prep which is far more interesting than the event itself. I also began to walk the streets looking for “life” happening. As street photographers know, the best images can’t be predicted or planned, they just happen. Opening one’s mind, heart and eyes helps us see the stories unfolding right in front of us. And there is always a story behind the story to be captured. Becoming aware of others and noticing, noticing, noticing can happen as easily in one’s backyard as the streets of a foreign country.
As I have attended street fairs, music festivals, charity occasions, I have met and photographed some interesting and colorful people. All these individuals have enriched my life as well as my portfolio. One of my initial challenges of street photography was the notion of moving about and shooting in stealth mode. As a result of my hesitancy to get up close to shoot a subject, my Lightroom catalogues have thousands of shots of backs of heads and very grainy images shot at an incredible distance lest I get too close. I stayed in stealth mode for far too long before I became comfortable approaching and engaging with subjects. Although street portraits may not be my favorite subject matter, through lots and lots of practice I have become comfortable speaking with individuals and learning their stories. I typically find a visual aspect of a person which draws me in initially (hat, beard, interesting clothes, tattoo) and use that as an entrée into conversation. Ninety percent of the time individuals love being noticed and acknowledged and are very happy to have their photo taken especially in my own backyard where language is not a hindrance to connection. Where I speak the language, know the area, know the culture I can interact flawlessly with the people of central Texas. All this practice helps when traveling out of the country (as in Cuba where by December I will have visited 3 times in 12 months).
Some of may favorite recent local practice sessions have included some rural areas within central Texas. Not only is Austin a great place to find local flavor (Austin’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird”) but the surrounding communities have people, events and locations that are incredible and rich areas for street captures. In the past year I have photographed shenanigans at a local Spam festival, a watermelon festival, a lavender festival, the roller derby, art installations, a rodeo, fireworks, Sunday drum circles, and the granddaddy of them all South by Southwest music festival. Although not all of these may be strictly “street” shots, the intent is the same. Candid shots, street portraits and “in the moment” captures are in abundance and all in my own backyard.
Without the pressure of knowing that I am shooting on location while traveling it is possible to slow my pace and really observe life happening without the burden of a travel schedule. I can block out an entire morning or afternoon or even day to observe the events and the people without feeling that I must keep moving to experience all there is to see. I can shoot with intent even urging myself to be somewhat contemplative in this practice. Moving about in a Zen zone, I believe I can capture more of the essence of what is occurring and include more emotion in my shots. After all, as street photographers we have only a split second to capture the story of the moment while including the real story behind the story. That is my personal mission.
Correcting the notion that interesting people and things might only exist abroad has opened my eyes not only to better street photography but also to life in general. My street eyes and heart have made me a more engaged person without a camera in hand as well as improving my practice of becoming a contemplative photographer. I believe that the 12″ behind my camera is truly a place of creativity rather than a place of technical angst.