UrbanWeird Photography
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Photo Sketchbook

Thoughts on general photography and personal photographic process.

The Hegemony of Street

Shibamata Ladies (focal length: 169 mm)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how I photograph people for my photographic work. I’ve been trying to rid myself of the guilt of not following some of the “rules” of street photography (street photography typically involves finding and photographing interesting aspects of the day-to-day public activities of people in an urban or not-so-urban environment) that have become more solidified over the years. I cannot count how many times I listened to a photography podcast, watched a video, or read an article talking about street photography by inevitably including a list of do’s and don’ts but then saying after all that that there are no rules. Let’s face it, they have become rules, and we are all guilty of them becoming rules - the influencers who consciously or unconsciously use words like “should”, “do”, “don’t”, and “better (not) to…” and the rest of us for thinking of their opinions as what we “should” or what is “better (not) to” do. Street photography and photography in general has become a hegemony, which for better or worse is a natural state of the social human condition.

One opinion that I’ve noticed become more of a rule is that wider lenses (usually between 24 and 50 mm) should be used for street photography. Now, my usual “walk-around lens” is 24-70 mm, well within the realm of the confines of this rule. But I also like to bring my longer 70-200 mm lens because I am not exclusively a street photographer and need that lens to get close-ups of architecture that is just physically out of reach. If I see an interesting interaction between people or between people/a person and the urban landscape and they are not in close proximity, I will use my longer lens if that is what is on my camera at the time. Why not? If I follow this wide lens rule, I will most likely miss the opportunity because the human elements will have moved on by the time I got “close enough”.

Also, I prefer not to get into stranger’s faces or even striking up a conversation while photographing - or just in general. This is not my norm; not my personality. Using the long end of my 70-200 mm lens and not being an extrovert or spontaneous conversationalist does not discount me from creating interesting street images. I don’t need to be “in it” and interacting with the person/people to create a street image. I like just to stand or sit back then watch and listen with my eyes even while creating the image – still remaining a bit distant. This distance I found is one style of my street photography. If I delve deep enough into my psyche, it is probably due to the fact that I am an expat and naturally feel a distance from the culture of which I am not really a member.

As some of you may know, the main focus with my photography is the city, and people just happen to be part of the city. Several of my street images are not focused on the people/person but the urban landscape with him/her/them as part of it; people are unpredictable compositional components of the larger urban landscape.

Another reasons using a wide lens has become thought of as a rule. One is that some think it “creepy” to use a longer lens (stalker-ish). However, it may be thought of as just as creepy or creepier for someone to walk right up to a stranger – not even the jarring and fabulous Bruce Gilden-style but a style that just encroaches enough on that nebulous region of ‘personal space’ - and take an image of him/her not because it’s one’s preferred style but just because it was what they’ve been told street photography should entail.

I’m an in no way condemning such a style of street photography. In fact, I love looking at such images. But it is a style that certain photographers prefer, not a rule that everyone should follow.

Instead of us all focusing on what someone says should be done or us assuming that is what they say because of their influence, an alternative may be to look at a photographer’s style and keep in mind that what they do is what they believe they should do and what is better for them to do. It is all our responsibility to start breaking down this hegemony because we are all its builders.

Brian Wood-KoiwaComment