I’ve been a street photographer for a while now, and I would like to share what I believe are 3 popular misconceptions about street photography — things I’ve seen pop up over and over.
#1: Street photography has to be shot on the streets
I was browsing the Web the other day when I saw a pretty nice image of fishermen on boats preparing to go fishing. Great, if not stunning. I couldn’t help but read the comments, and to my surprise, almost all of the comments were about this image not being street photography.
The thing about street photography is that you are boxed in right off the bat: it contains the word “street”. Therefore street photography should be about images made in the streets, right?
Well, actually, no, for that would make it a reductio ad absurdum. It’s a fancy smancy high fallutin’ way to say that an argument doesn’t stand when taken to its logical conclusion.
Here’s what I mean: if street photography is about shooting streets, so what would the above image be? A beach photography image? Images made in the house… would that be house photography? You get the point!
It’s more a problem that I’d like to admit. I receive quite a few emails from photographers around the world, and there’s quite a few that lament the fact that they do not live near a big city to do street photography.
Street photography has been boxed in by its own definition. Let me humbly suggest to you that street photography is probably a bad term, and a better term would be life photography. But it doesn’t have that sexy ring to it, does it?
I talked to a photographer a while back, apparently when he was in school, there was no such thing as “street photography” — the term didn’t exist back then, and it was under the name “Life Photography”. It’s true isn’t it? Look at vintage “street photography” images, and it will dawn on you that street photography is more about life on the streets than the streets themselves.
I believe street photography is an umbrella term, encompassing things from candid to portraits. It’s a spontaneous response to life as it happens in front of your eyes. For me, it’s everything I do, from taking pictures of my kids to actually physically shooting the streets. The world is a canvas.
Everyone’s free to have their own definition of “street photography.” There is no God-given definition or official council that can dictate what is and what isn’t street photography. So while I do understand the commenter’s point of view, I’d like to humbly suggest that having a strict definition of street photography might end up hindering us rather than help us.
#2. Street photography is easy to do well
When I was a kid, I learned a game called Othello, also known as Reversi. I can teach you the rules in 30 seconds if I wanted to. The tagline of the game is: “Minutes to learn, a lifetime to master”.
And I think no other tagline is as appropriate for street photography.
Street photography is probably one of the most accessible forms of photography — there are no lights, triggers, or expensive lenses needed. But accessibility is also what makes it incredibly hard. Plus, with street being an umbrella term, you probably need to be well-versed in many genres (e.g. portraiture) in order to handle what comes your way.
But many see it as easy, and there are some consequences to that. The first being an unbelievable amount of pride: I find the lack of humility sound in many street photographers staggering.
Who said that the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know? I think the same applies for street photography. The more you shoot, the more you see how much it requires. Hence the humbler you should become.
But that isn’t usually the case is it? Seeing it as easy also leads to complacency, what I believe is the street shooter’s arch-enemy.
#3: Street photography is all about getting closer
For some reason nowadays, it seems that many street photographers are more concerned about how-close-can-you-get than actually making a half-decent picture.
Become fearless, grow a large pair, and get in people’s faces with a smile. Since when did getting close become a primary objective? Objectively, it only makes your subject larger in the frame, no?
I mean, yeah sure, get close, but it’s really not the end all of everything. I don’t understand the fascination with getting close to people in order to photograph them. See a person, get in very close. What else will you have other than a close-up picture? At the very best this takes care of one element of the image, the compositional aspect, but what about others, like the emotional?
Street photography is not just about getting physically close, just like getting to know someone is not just about getting physically close to them. Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” But what if, instead of only getting physically closer, he also meant to get close to the images themselves more than the subject?
Let me humbly suggest to you that to reduce street photography to getting physically close is a superficial understanding of it. Photography is essentially a transfer of feelings, and you can’t fake it. The emotional resonance in your viewers is proportional to the emotional energy you put in it in the first place, and for that, your subject can both be close or far — it’s whatever the image requires.
I firmly believe that emotional closeness in your work is much more important to physical closeness to your subjects. I think that’s as true in photography as it is also true in life.
So there you have it, the 3 biggest misconceptions I have found about street photography. I hope you agree with me that street photography doesn’t have to be limited to the streets, that it’s not as easy at it might appear, and that it’s not only about being physically close but also being emotionally close to your work.
P.S. If you have thoughts on other common misconceptions, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
About the author: Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese street photographer. He is the editor in chief of Inspired Eye Street Photography Magazine. He also teaches a photography method based on the eye, heart and the mind. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can also connect with him through Twitter.