On Your Goal and Statement as a Street Photographer

Jay Burton On The Streets 1 Comment

“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.” Calvin & Hobbes (Bill Watterson)

I was, from what I’ve been told, a rather strange baby. I’ve seen some old video cassettes of me, filmed on those 90s camcorders, and my parents have told me enough stories for me to develop a fairly accurate perception of my babyness. In one word, I guess I was calm. My parents would plonk me down in the middle of the room, and I would just sit there, with a smile on my face, gladly observing everything around me. I didn’t really crawl at all. There was apparently enough for me to see from my one spot on the floor.

This tranquil curiosity stayed with me throughout my childhood. I would often see patterns everywhere, or notice small insignificant things when out and about. I suppose I was a daydreamer. Looking back, it’s really no surprise that I got into photography as a teenager. Working in a bakery on weekends to pay for it all, I bought the Canon 500D almost twelve years ago, and spent the next few years experimenting away and learning how to take nice photos, or at least okay ones.

Fast forward to a year and a half ago when I discovered street photography: The standard 35mm was too large for me. I was and always am attracted to the details: a cigarette in a hand, peeping out from an open door, abstract reflections in windows, people gazing off into the distance from afar, or really cool socks. I chose 90mm and never looked back. I also realised that I took my best photos after staying in the same spot for five to ten minutes. Staying put like that made me see things that aren’t obvious when walking by, and that’s where the magic happens for me. I guess I’ve been practicing street photography since before I could walk.

I made my photography website in 2020 during lockdown. We all had some time on our hands, I guess. This is what I wrote as a sort of artist statement, because you need to write something right?

My goal is to inspire people to slow down and look at the beauty around them. Sometimes I see the most amazing thing, and the hundreds of people around me just walk by, thinking about their issues. My dream is to see a world where all people can be vulnerable to the beauty around them.

This statement definitely represents how I feel, and for a while it seemed good enough. But since writing this short statement I’ve come across many photography websites and realised that many photographers have written the same concept, albeit a bit differently. For example, here is part of Pete McCutchen’s statement:

My goal is to inspire those who see my work to look more carefully at the world around them, to discover beauty in unusual places.

© Jay Burton

So today, I want to dive into this topic. I want to find out how we all talk about the work we do, look at similarities and differences, how goals translate into mission statements, and especially, find out if all this is actually important or not.

Thankfully, I have a great network of street photographers to help me on this journey, here at the Swiss Street Collective.

I asked everyone what their goal was as a street photographer, whether it’s important to have an artist statement, and what theirs is if they have one. Here are some answers:

Ulka Chauhan had clearly already thought about all of this before. When asking about her goal as a street photographer she answered this: “As a photographer my goal is to create work that is meaningful and touches others.  My work is often at the intersection of genres such as street, portraiture and documentary; all of which to me are a means to an end – to tell stories around topics that capture my intrigue.  I enjoy creating narratives through both word and image.”  

Marianne Burri’s goal is more personal: To have fun, to improve, and to simply create.

Before answering why create, Bastian Peter asks how art is created. For him, everything starts with the urge to create. From there, his “why” is about storytelling, the curious, and the beautiful. Personally, his goal is to evolve, never repeat himself, and avoid clichés.

Moving on to the artist statement: opinions diverge! Bastian believes that an artist statement is only useful commercially, because gallery curators require one when exhibiting your work. For him, art should speak for itself, and the viewer should figure it out. “Art doesn’t come to you. You need to go to it.”

Marianne on the other hand does see the use of an artist statement. She reminded me that even Jeff Koons had one when he started out, and she sees the need in opening herself as an artist to the external world.

Ulka had another take. Instead of seeing a statement as useful or not, she sees it as personal preference. She loves the symbiotic relationship between pictures and words, so a statement is a natural extension of that. “So much of the way we witness the world around us is influenced by our individual background and experiences. Writing a statement that encapsulates your personal story helps add context to your work.” Her statement is based around her two worlds of Switzerland and India. “I have been commuting between Zürich and Mumbai for the past several years. While both countries are part of my larger consciousness of home, I am as much of an outsider as I am an insider in both places.  These varied geographies and perspectives inform my work and shape my visual language”

Thanks everyone for answering the questions! Great responses all around.

It’s time to ask the internet what it thinks of all of this. And boy is this a heated topic!

Plenty of articles start of with a comic strip from Calvin & Hobbes, so I will adopt this unwritten rule and place it here.

© Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson

The internet agrees on one thing, that most statements aren’t all that good. “There is a stultifying, eyeball-rolling, headache-inducing norm out there,” says John Pilson. “As an artist, they are almost always awkward and painful to write, and as a viewer they are similarly painful and uninformative to read.” says Iris Jaffe in this anti-statement statement. One tip on what not to do says the following: The worst way to start an artist statement is with the following words: “Every since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved making art.” Seeing how I started this blog post, I took that comment personally.

Shockingly, it seems that visual artists struggle to use words. If we preferred expressing ourselves through text, we would just be writers, wouldn’t we? As Bastian says, why bother explaining our work with poorly written words when our images speak for themselves? Our work is intuitive, subconscious. There’s no need for words…

I get that, and especially when it comes to street photography. If you’re a project photographer or a painter, you make conscious decisions about the type of work you create. But does a street photographer truly have a goal, or are we simply taking photos of what we are attracted to? The great Saul Leiter always avoided talking about his goals or artist statements. He always said that he simply took photos. Of course, many street photographers take specific, conscious photos and have probably developed a goal and statement. Ulka’s work revolves around her curious situation of living and working in both Switzerland and India. Her photos have a context and are wrapped in a project, and so it’s fairly easy for her to talk about it, and explain how her work is important to her.

We don’t need to put words on our work while we are making it. In my last blog I finished by talking about qualia, or your subjective experience of the world. The way you feel when you listen to your favourite music is something that you alone can perceive. You can try to explain that feeling with as many words as you want, but you will never be able to share what it truly means to you. The same is true with what we create. Our photos are all profoundly our own, and words can never explain the way we see the world. Statements may seem bland or artificial because, by definition, we are attempting to share our qualia with other people. A statement is only needed when other people are introduced to our art, after all.

© Jay Burton

So why bother at all? If you’re never going to “get” me, and bad statements are worse than no statement at all, is it time to delete the about page on my website?

Well there are just as many reasons to write an artist statement as there are reasons not to. I am a strong believer that art is only truly art when viewed by other people. The “other” is therefore part of the equation. A statement supplies us with the words we need to communicate our personal vision to those who can’t read thoughts, which as far as I know is everyone.

Furthermore, any gallery that showcases your work will want a statement from you. That’s also true when applying for grants, or during interviews. And if you’re not around to give a bit of context about your art, aren’t you afraid that the viewer will miss something important?

Statements can also be a good idea independently of “the other”. It can help you find clarity within your own work. By explaining what you are doing, you are forced to examine yourself and discover what you’re all about.

This blog post summarizes things nicely:

An artist statement answers the questions “What am I looking at and why should my viewers care?”, “What am I about?”, “Is there anything special my viewer should know about me or the work?” and “Why am I doing what I am doing?”

So… Who are you, really?

I am reminded here of the author Gish Jen, who discusses personal identity in her novels. “We have this model of the self, where we are like an avocado. We have this pit inside ourselves, that is our essence, our identity. It is unique, it is solid, and we must be true to that pit.” (extracted from big think) In other words, you probably think of your identity as something pretty fixed.

This feels like a good time for a philosophical tangent. Bear with me.

Imagine a box. Write your name on it and fill that box up with everything that makes you who you are. Your DNA, roles, hobbies, mannerisms, favourite camera brands, political leanings and so forth. Then take away the box. The self is just shorthand for all the junk in the box. And the fact that there is no box points out that there’s no single underlying thing that holds it all together. This thought experiment explains David Hume’s Bundle Theory. If having a certain identity means possessing the same set of properties, then how could anyone really maintain the same identity from one moment to the next? Over time, some of the stuff in the bundle goes away, and new stuff shows up. So, if you look at the bundle that is me now and compare it with the bundle that my mom and dad brought home from the hospital, they would be almost completely different. Am I really the same person as that baby sitting in a room, observing things around me for hours on end?

So Hume said we’re all just ever-changing bundles of impressions that our minds are fooled into thinking of as constant because they’re packaged in these fleshy receptacles that basically look the same from one day to the next. (Extracted from Crash Course)

© Jay Burton

I’ve come across many creators who find it strange that something that they created years and years ago can be discovered by someone in the present day. The artists themselves have changed, and no longer have the same worldview as when they created their work. You can even argue that they’re not the same person anymore, as Hume would. And yet somehow today, someone discovers this work and meets the artist from ten years ago, not the present-day one. 

For me this is the best reason to talk about my goals and write an artist statement today. A statement isn’t true forever, it represents who I am today. In ten years when I look back at the body of work I am creating now, I want to be able to access that person. I want to be reminded of what was important to me, and why I was doing what I was doing. When bringing up a memory from my teenage years, I can see what happened clearly, but I can’t really remember the way I thought. So a statement is a kind of time stamp, a reminder of where I once was in my journey. Hopefully I won’t cringe when reading it in ten years. But I guess that’s inevitable.

I haven’t even been taking street photos for two years yet, and I already feel an evolution. Only a few months ago I found it almost impossible to talk about my goals as a street photographer and write a statement. I was still experimenting and discovering street photography, taking photos of what I was attracted to. My statement at the beginning of this blog post reflects that. But recently I found myself drawn to abstract night photography and am developing a project around it. I take less and less photos during the daytime and wait for the night, looking for very specific things to photograph. Instead of wandering the streets, I now feel like I have a goal. Maybe with my newfound goal, I’ll also be able to write a corresponding statement.

Is that all there is to say, after all? There are those of us who take photos of what we are attracted to, nothing more. Our goal is to show our worldview, our Weltanschauung as Calvin would say. And there are those who have specific projects or contexts, who search for specific things to photograph. They therefore have specific goals and find it easier to write a statement.

In any case I will soon attempt my own artist statement for 2022. Will you try yours?

Until next time.

I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.  –  Saul Leiter

If you want to write your artist statement, here are some articles that may help you: 

Consider this question: Where in the work that you have made am I seeing something of the human being who created it? (link here)

https://pdnonline.com/features/fine-art-photography/conquering-dreaded-artist-statement-expert-advice-writing-art-photography/

https://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/how-to-write-an-artist-statement-and-why-its-so-important–cms-27632

https://www.artdex.com/the-complete-guide-to-writing-an-artist-statement-in-2021/

Comments 1

  1. Jay, thank you for this insightful article. He gave me a lot of input with all the links and ideas. And, most importantly, he showed me the importance of writing an artist statement. I’ve thought a lot about my goals over the past few years. Your article makes me sit down and put something down on paper. Many many thanks. Erhard

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