You are an experienced photographer, and have been photographing beautiful abstracts, nature/wildlife and urban scenes. You are also a professional photographer in a marketing agency. How did you move from that to becoming a street photographer?
That question is spot on! I remember working every Saturday in a bakery when I was 16 to afford my first camera and gear (Canon 500D). I absolutely loved taking photos and learning and experimenting with all types of photography. It was a great time for me. Years later when I started freelancing I suddenly spent all of my time covering events or shooting portraits, and after a while I started to fall out of love with photography. Or at least I stopped shooting for pleasure.
I think that another difficult aspect is transitioning from learning photography to actually finding your voice and purpose as a “real” photographer. It wasn’t fulfilling to experiment and learn anymore. I was definitely blocked for a while there. Fast forward to beginning 2020, I decided to embark on the 365 challenge: Take one photo everyday and post it to Instagram for one year. In mere weeks I rediscovered why I loved taking photos, and for the first time, by necessity to produce an image every day, I ended up trying street photography. And it’s been a blast. I feel like I wasted years of potential photos and want to make up for it every day now! There’s something about street photography that I just love. It’s all about seeing the beauty of everything around you, capturing in one image the feeling of a fleeting moment. It’s changed my whole way of walking through life. I see beautiful artwork everywhere now. All I do is point at it and shoot it! Another thing I love is merging my love for abstraction into street photography. Reflections in windows, textures, contrasts and so on. It’s really fun.
What is your experience of doing street photography in Switzerland, perhaps compared to other countries? Sometimes I feel like the Swiss don’t even know what a street photographer is. Most people look at me weirdly wondering what I’m doing taking photos of that wall, but they also never talk to me. I think the correct social etiquette in Switzerland is to mind your own business! When someone notices that I’m pointing my camera at them, I usually smile and wave and get the same response. If the person looks annoyed, I’ll apologize in person and ask if they prefer me to delete the photo. I haven’t deleted one yet!
Sometimes I feel like the Swiss don’t even know what a street photographer is.
One factor to take into account about Switzerland is the small, quiet towns we have compared to other countries. Sometimes I feel kind of stupid being a street photographer in the most beautiful country in the world. Why couldn’t I be into landscape photography? I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over so that I can visit vibrant cities like London or New York, places with neon lights at night, steam vents, and night life. Have you ever walked through Geneva at night? Ghost town. That being said it forces us to be more creative with our photography, and I’m still very happy with some of the photos I took this year. I suppose it’s normal to want to travel to other cities to grow our portfolio! How has the pandemic affected you and your street photography? I think there’s opportunity everywhere. Yes, during lockdown I was taking photos of my wall instead of the streets, but since then I’ve been really enjoying it. All these empty streets and masks create an added mystery to the world. Because of masked faces, you’re really drawn to a person’s eyes. Some photos would probably be average on a normal day, but add that mask and you’ve got yourself a great picture.
My partner and I are also creating a zine for our local town, showcasing images of our home during the pandemic. This crisis will go down in history and it’s great to have documented it and to be able to share it with our neighbors. Lockdown also forced me to try out other types of photos. I took out my macro lens and rediscovered my flat. I enjoyed taking abstracts of paint, milk, and food coloring for example. By the end I was definitely ready to get back out there, but I still had fun. There are potential photos everywhere, even at home. On the flip side, the pandemic did destroy the freelancing side of my work, as I make most of my money from event photography. The Swiss government really helped out us freelancers during these trying times, and I’m immensely thankful for that.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges (as a street photographer)? And what are perhaps some ways to overcome those challenges? Well as mentioned I’m truly just starting out as a street photographer, so I haven’t come across all of those fun challenges yet. I know that it’s harder for street photographers to show their work in galleries because street photography isn’t really accepted as an art form. Some of my closest friends don’t even see the value of what I shoot! Another big issue that all street photographers share is feeling like a stalker when taking photos of people in the street. Nobody wants to have a camera randomly pointed at their face, and we must accept that we’ll make people uncomfortable. If I’m seen, I just try to be as friendly as possible. I don’t try to hide or avoid the person. All of the other challenges I can think of are true for every photographer. Photography is one of the most accessible art forms out there and it’s remarkably difficult to stand out. Street photography is what most people start out with as well, so there is a lot of competition and a lot of beginners as well. The path ahead is a long one! I guess we just have to keep at it and try to get our work seen by as many people as possible. Bit by bit good photographers will shine, and hopefully street photography will become more and more accepted.
As photographers, we often like to talk (and think) about gear. Maybe to a fault sometimes haha. What are your thoughts about gear for street photography in particular? Do you have a favorite setup? A favorite focal length? Ah gear… I work with a bunch of filmmakers who require even more gear than photographers. Sometimes we can waste whole days researching the perfect plastic gadget to put on our tripod. Gear is of course vital, especially when going pro, and you do need to know your stuff. However, I do think a lot of photographers focus way too much on gear. Just look at photography youtube channels. It’s 80% gear reviews and 20% actual photography content. I think what’s freeing about street photography is that motion blur, noise, and even out of focus shots are accepted and can even add to the photo itself. We’re less bound by the need for the sharpest possible image like for landscape or portrait photography.
As for myself, I started street photography with my professional gear, which was hilarious. I had my Canon 5DMiii with a 70-300 full frame lens on it. It was massive and everyone stared at me. It got to the point where I was clearly embarrassed to take certain shots, so I started researching a smaller alternative. After borrowing 5 cameras from friends and researching for about two months, I finally bought the Fujifilm X-T30 with a 35mm and 90mm (eq) fuji lens. And boy it’s been amazing. I’m taking on average 2000 shots per month and I almost hate taking out the canon for professional jobs now. I very rarely use the 35mm which is considered the standard for street photographers. It’s just too wide for me. I much prefer getting close and shooting details with the 90mm, so much so that my next lens will be a 135mm eq. for sure. So to summarize, it’s always important to do your research and to find the right gear for you, but don’t go too crazy. I’ve seen some great street photographers online who shoot with their iPhone. If you want to get into street photography, whip out your smartphone and get started! What is your approach in street photography?
I think one of the biggest illusions that people have about creative people is that we actually do feel creative all the time. “The natural state of an artist is to be blocked.” A designer friend once told me. You have to work hard and create the right setting to unblock yourself and get creative.
So first things first, my camera is always in my hand with the lens cap off. If my camera is in my backpack I’ll miss shots and get frustrated.
After that, depending on what type of street photography you’re into you will approach things very differently. Some people focus on subjects so will hang around busy intersections, some prefer wide angles and scenes, so navigate toward interesting buildings or busy streets. I consider myself an abstract street photographer (if that means anything). I’m drawn towards reflections in windows, hands, feet, textures, or small details. I’ve realized that I’m most successful when I stay put in one place, waiting for a bus for example. It’s only after a few minutes at the same spot, looking around, that I get a feel for the mood of the area and notice those hidden scenes that I love capturing. I guess that makes me lucky. I find great shots in boring places.
It’s definitely more of an intuitive process for me, although definitely not random. I do look for particular things when walking around (interesting windows, reflections, colors, shadows, etc). I have a mental list of shots that I want to take and move around a scene looking and preparing for them. Other times I just see a perfect shot while walking and snap it in about five seconds and move on!
Are you currently experimenting with new photography techniques, specifically for street photography? If yes, can you elaborate?
I love experimenting with my camera. Back when I was a teenager I was buying intervalometers for long exposure shots, infrared lenses for IR photography, and playing with bracketing, high key, low key, and blurry images. There’s so much that you can do, but it’s hard to do it well!
Currently there’s a huge wave of high contrast, black and white street photos everywhere I look. I understand why, the photos look really good, but way too many people are experimenting with that style and it’s very difficult to stand out, so I’m navigating away from it. I really like the idea of bringing out of focus shots, long exposure, and Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) into my process, classic tools for an abstract photographer! But it’s difficult to really take a good shot with these techniques and I still have some ways to go. Just because your photo is blurry doesn’t mean it’s suddenly amazing, if you know what I mean. I suggest @olga.karlovac on Instagram for an example of great abstract street photography.
How do you get your inspiration (for street photography)?
Instagram is my number 1 place to go. It’s not ideal to showcase your art there because the photos are tiny, but if you follow the right people and really spend time curating your feed, it can be a very inspiring platform.
I also recently started researching the classics and buying photo books from the best photographers of all time (Saul Leiter is unsurprisingly my favorite). Seeing what’s been done and looking at works vastly different to your own is very inspiring as well. For example, Nan Goldin showed me that blurry, out of focus photos can be just as powerful as sharp ones, if not better.
Other visual arts are great too. I always visit galleries and museums when traveling to a new city, and films really help me understand the importance of color grading and storytelling.
But the real thing that inspires me is walking the streets, looking around me, and finding those pockets of moments worth capturing, and the satisfaction of looking at a great photo that you just took.
But the real thing that inspires me is walking the streets, looking around me, and finding those pockets of moments worth capturing …
Never stop shooting!
As you know, we have recently launched the swissstreetcollective. You have been very supportive of creating a community of street photographers in Switzerland. What are some of the activities you would like to see from a platform like ours that might help in growing our network? As mentioned earlier, the Swiss seem to not even know what a street photographer is. I was starting to feel like the only street photographer of Switzerland because I’ve never even bumped into one. So all of a sudden seeing swissstreetcollective on Instagram was a great feeling, and I can’t wait to meet and talk and exchange with everyone in the network. Thank you for creating the space!We are lucky enough to live in a tiny country, so I’d love to participate in photo walks with the community someday soon, although navigating the four national languages may be a bit difficult. It’s also great to be able to share with likeminded individuals and talk about street photography online. Hopefully the platform will become a vibrant place to exchange.Further down the line I could imagine a regular zine or book, shared exhibitions, courses and even competitions. This will help the community but also help street photography become more and more accepted in Switzerland.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Jay!
It was my pleasure. Thank you for asking me here. I’m looking forward to reading great content all year!
Jay Burton’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jayburtonphotography/
Jay Burton’s website: https://www.jayburton.photography/
Interview conducted by Daniel Sigg