Prioritizing Concept Over Aesthetic in Street and Social Documentary Photography

There seems to be a trend in current photography goals to achieve a “look” to one’s work. I feel this is a short-sighted goal, and that a consistent aesthetic is more the result of careful curation of a large body of work, rather than something that ought to be deliberately achieved.

I think that a common process for newcomers to a genre of photography is to research it, to see what styles of work already exists and what conversation they will be contributing to. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, but often I think this kind of analysis of the existing aesthetics leads people to adopt that visual language and reduces their own gradual trial and error approach towards perhaps something truly unique.

It really makes sense, despite being something I largely object to; people discover the work of photographers like Bruce Gilden, or Fan Ho, and realize, “oh, that’s what street photography is about,” and then they go out and create based around that approach.

By adopting a “look” rather than working through a process of intention and trial and error it also means that any of the semiotic or conceptual associations of that style are also adopted, whether or not that is the intention. For example, the “new wave” style of street photography borrows heavily from the film noir genre and involves the visual language of shadows and silhouettes, which have connotations of mystery, anonymity, and ambiguity.

While these may produce a nice aesthetic image they are not always the best starting point if the intent is to convey something specific. For example, I wouldn’t hire someone who photographs specifically in the new wave style to photograph a wedding — it simply wouldn’t tell the necessary story where character and expression would be the priority.

Instead, a better way to work in my opinion is to begin with the concept, or theme. This way I am not simply photographing in one style and forcing everything else to fit into that language. Instead, I will be able to adopt many different visual tools and apply them appropriately — perhaps not as easy as it sounds if you’re used to shooting in only one style.

For example, if we take one of those new wave connotations, mystery, and use that as our starting point, then there are any number of directions we could take that photograph. Not limited by aesthetic constraints we could photograph any number of situations or characters without even considering producing anything close to a new wave style image.

Creatively framing in a way that informs our narrative feels to be a much truer and simpler way to represent an idea, and I think it’s true for many themes we try and interpret photographically. A photograph of joy doesn’t necessarily limit the photographer to people laughing/smiling, sorrow isn’t limited to tears, and anger isn’t limited to violence. There are more abstract ways to portray a concept than these most basic forms, and in turn images produced with a strong intention give the audience a little more to unwrap and interpret; sometimes even in ways the photographer themselves didn’t see, leading to different readings of the same image.

While this does happen in work based around an aesthetic, there is little left to the intent of the photographer. Instead, the audience simply projects their association with that style rather than there being something of substance there in the first place. Again, in the case of those new wave light architecture, silhouette shots, any actual meaning is entirely a matter of reading into things on the part of the audience, and rarely the intention of the artist. All of those ideas of mystery and ambiguity are not the starting point for those kinds of images, the aesthetic is.

In my opinion, the mentality of “aesthetic first” makes for some very beautiful but inherently empty images. Working with concept first means that all the layers of semiotics, story, and in general the content of the image will be more unique to that image – allowing the photographer to make photographs with rich meaning and wonderful aesthetic while still allowing for the potential for the audience to read into them if the context is removed. Regardless of the way the work is presented that initial intent is key for a photographer to really elevate the storytelling potential of an image.

I think that what’s been eroded to an extent is the role of trial and error, research, and introspection, in the pursuit of “aesthetic.” Instead of working towards producing a body of work based around stories, personal projects it becomes about the overall look and aesthetic, without depth – and again this is fine if the intent of the photographer is to simply go through the motions, but when they genuinely want to produce work with depth it’s a shame to be caught up in the superficial aspects of the craft.

Currently, this informs one of my most given pieces of advice to my students: concept first. Understand what stories you’re looking to tell, what values you hold when it comes to situations and moments. Once they have that then any aesthetic decision around composition is a series of compromises around what’s available. This locks the focus towards the moment and situation, and away from any prerequisites like light, or color palette.

This ties into my exercise of describing the world to myself while out shooting. If something makes for an interesting description, even slightly, then it’ll usually translate quite well into an image. More often than not that description involves an activity, something actually happening, as opposed to just the way something looks.

This means my work is currently based around action, interaction, gesture, and emotion – but the light and color don’t play into what I’m looking for at all, not in the way it used to when I shot with a new wave approach. Currently, things like light and composition are things for me to work around, not towards, and to create an image despite of not because of.

If the only aspect of an image worth complimenting is to do with the composition or the light then it means I haven’t gone far enough to find a good enough character, moment, or situation. If I can look at a photograph and understand the why of the image, beyond it simply being pretty to look at then I’d say that’s a photograph I will continue to be happy with for a long time.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.