“The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe. […]. We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. […] We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Discussions about street photography often tackle technicalities, recommendations for the best gear and most appropriate focal length, golden rules to never break and mortal sins likely to take you directly to photographer’s purgatory. Fascinating and important as these questions are, they bear the risk of deflecting our attention from the human being behind the lens. What about turning that very lens the other way round to scrutinize the photographer behind? As social and cultural beings, we experience the street and are part of life in it long before we even think about picking up a camera. Most often, these formative years upstream of our own photographic experience, happen without us ever reflecting on them, leading to unconscious perceptual filters and inner dial settings unbeknownst to ourselves. Walking through key terms of photography in a flipped perspective, we can step out of the automatic mode in which we wander, see and subsequently photograph the streets by reconsidering our own frame of mind.
Framing defines how we compose pictures and direct attention towards or away from something, how much context we provide and what position we assign to the main subject(s). Looking through the viewfinder or at the rear screen, we select a rectangular portion of the vast world around us. We do not choose randomly but start from one or several elements that stirred our attention and attracted our eye. Our mind finds a way to visually isolate a cognitively salient element from a large number of coexisting and competitive elements.
The obvious “what you see is what you get” logic of this seemingly simple statement is in reality the secret entrance door to our cultural and social settings. Similar to fish unable to see water, we are most often totally unaware of the cultural tint of the waters we navigate as photographers. In our own context, we might overlook a scene and walk past wonderful opportunities. Since it seems so very normal, we are unable to detect the interest it holds.
Culture can be defined as “a storehouse of pooled learning” or “a behavioral map, sieve and matrix” (Kluckhohn 1985). People in the street follow rules and obey cultural patterns of how to behave in everyday situations, such as queuing up, buying vegetables or simply walking the street without ever giving it a second thought. That includes photographers themselves. What unconscious rules do we follow in the street? Is the street as cultural life bubble freely accessible to all? What are the underlying spatial rules at work? Do we follow an inner clock or calendar out in the street? Is the street a mostly operational element allowing us to get from A to B? A place of transit – and/or a collective outdoor space for idle moments and socializing? These questions ultimately lead to a certain number of interpretations and even value judgments when we observe those around us. Holding hands, smoking, gesturing, spitting, playing might attract our eye differently according to our own prior experience and cultural settings.
As street photographers, we then use our lenses to capture to make sense of those situations. We hit the shutter since we chose to look and deemed it worthy of interest. Operating outside our own cultural context, we sometimes capture scenes without the cultural keys to decode them. This can be illustrated by the many photos taken in Kyoto of “Japanese” ladies wearing “kimonos”. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we see what we set out to see – the authentic local walking a scenic street. Our expectation and filters tinting our lens can prove to be misleading – in most cases, the ladies are not authentic locals wearing a kimono, but Asian tourists renting a Yukata outfit for a day for a fun day of selfie frenzy.
It can thus be useful to step back from our ways of seeing, leading inevitably to our way of photographing street. What we see is what we get – the more we see, the more we get. In addition to seeing more, we can also see things in the proverbial different light by knowing, acknowledging and changing our aperture.
What elements naturally trigger my attention? What attracts my eye?
Aperture defines how much light we allow to get in. As such, it sets the focus zone and depth of field.
As street photographers, we often tell a story in our pictures. These stories can call upon a single protagonist evolving in a somehow lonesome adventure or rely on many subjects in the frame organized in layered levels. A preference for one or the other scenario is less linked to the aperture we set on the camera than to our own preferred depth of field. Our eye can be more naturally attracted to multiple synchronous activities resulting in layering or on the contrary single out one activity in a more isolated frame. This explains the fascinating fact that two photographers operating at the same time in exactly the same place can come up with a deeply contrasting vision and thus capture of that shared context.
In addition to the frame previously discussed, our own aperture defines how much context we spontaneously perceive and use in our understanding of a given scene. Compositional rules are often given in terms of lines organizing and mapping out the picture. Similar lines also exist in what comes before we hit the shutter. In addition to horizontal and vertical, leading, implied and converging lines there are our very own default lines. If not consciously otherwise set, we will automatically run through preferred patterns of seeing. Looking at other photographers’ work is an immensely inspiring experience allowing us to learn and grow. The more we know about our inner dials and preferences, the easier it becomes for us to shift them. Choosing another setting on the camera alone often does not do the trick. What elements naturally trigger my attention? What attracts my eye? The reverse logic is also at work – where are my blind spots. This leads to another line of paramount importance in photography. Where do we draw the line of what we see and what we shun? The answer to this question is rooted in our very own reason to be out in the streets for photography and the balance we thrive to achieve between veracity and decency, imagination and documentation.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are necessarily untrue, but they necessarily uncomplete”Adichie 1992
At some point of the process, we need to choose a so-called color temperature and to decide what we define as the standard of white against which all other tones are set. Conveniently enough, cameras come with an in-built white balance than can be shifted with a simple tick. Post processing software offers endless possibilities to “correct” the white balance and to tone a picture in different ways. And yet, none of these technicalities calibrates our inner standard or backdrop against which we will measure what we see. What is our inner “white?” It is our responsibility to find the ethical and moral values on which we align our street photography beyond in addition to existing egal framework.
This is not only linked to what we see, but to what we do not see, otherwise said our blind spots and perceptual prisms. Prior exposure to cultural narratives peddled by the cinema, series, the travel industry and the news, makes us likely to cling to single stories on a given group of people or place. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are necessarily untrue, but that they are necessarily uncomplete” (Adichie 1992). There are more (visual) stories to tell about Paris than street cafés – or dog poo littered pavements. Both are widespread narratives and likely to create perceptual filters as long as they go unacknowledged. Looking for precisely these scenes blind us to contrasting and complementary stories. The resulting pictures will reinforce preconceived ideas and prevent us from seeing differently and learning more. Sitting down and listing the stories we have been exposed to help to identify the prevalent unconscious toning of our prism.
When I take my camera, it does not feel like picking up a weapon.
From the semantic perspective, it is quite striking how many metaphors for photography have rather “male” undertones tapping into the word fields of hunting and warfare – shooting, hunting, capturing, photo bombing. All of them rely on an unbalanced relationship of hunter and prey, with the latter not meant to walk away unscathed. The problem with metaphors is that they do not only reflect the way things are generally seen. They also influence how we will see them (Lakoff 1987). If we concede to the point that the party holding the camera is invested with a certain amount of power, then our responsibility to yield that power in in an ethical way is all the more important. Our own “white balance” deserve throrough scrutinizing, since those we “capture” or “shoot” would certainly appreciate to walk away well alive and free.
When I take my camera, it does not feel like picking up a weapon. It rather reminds me of a magic childhood feeling. Holding a kaleidoscope offered me a myriad of stories with every little shift and tilt. The same is true for my camera. There is the an ever new alignment of elements in the viewfinder. My very own speed and pace, exposure and focus, sensitivy and dynamic range make them fall into place. Maybe the best rule for photography is the ancient maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:
Questions for self inspection
- What is my exposure to and experience of the street before I started street photography?
- How would I describe the street as cultural and social place?
- What elements trigger my attention?
- What narratives have I been exposed to on a given place or group of people?
- What expression or metaphor best describes what the camera represents for me?
Annette Lang (@luxtasia on Instagram) is an anthropologist and cultural linguist having lived and worked in different countries. A self taught photographer, Annette uses her camera to capture her fascination for cultures, people and patterns.
Adichie, C. (2009). The Danger Of A Single Story. TED Conference. Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript.
Berger, J. (1972). Ways Of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Delpire, R. (2017). C’est de voir qu’il s’agit. Paris : Delpire Edition.
Kluckhohn, C. (1985). Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life, Richmond: University of Arizona Press.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.