I was shooting on the streets with a dear visitor friend from India, Mithun Kumar on last Sunday. He was busy testing his newly purchased MMF-3 adapter that allows him to use the gorgeous Zuiko 70-300mm F4-5.6 lens on the much revered OM-D. He claimed that the focusing of the 70-300mm + OM-D + MMF-3 combo was noticably faster and more reliable in shooting than his previous use of the 70-300mm on Olympus DSLR E-620. I believe Mithun, and I think this has something to do with the optimization of Contrast Detect AF system, which the 70-300mm lens is compatible with. Good discovery indeed.
While shooting on the streets in this particular session, something came across my mind as I was framing my subjects on the streets. Photographers are often assumed to be documenting real life events, or shooting what is already there. For most case of photography this is proven true: a photograph of a cat is a photograph of a cat, no more or no less. Similarly goes to a portrait of a beautiful young lady, or a sweeping landscape of the ocean on a sunset. The responsibility of photographers telling the truth as he captures the details presented to him is even more significant when it comes to documentary purposes, such as reportage and journalism uses. However, the more I look into the world of street photography, the more I realize that street photography may be lacking the credibility when it comes to telling the truth, because I see more work of fiction.
Is street photography an honest representation of the world, or simply telling you strictly in limitation to what the street photographer wants to tell you? That is the question I want to explore in this blog entry.
All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 macro lens.
Against a Guard Rail
A ride to the Market
I have heard this saying somewhere, and that saying suddenly came back to me as I was sorting out my thoughts:
A photograph is simply a piece or a part of truth that the photographer chooses to tell you.
This means, the photographer may be hiding something, or not telling the whole truth. By doing so, we can also conclude that the photographer is deliberately lying to his audience, whether intentionally, or without knowing that he has hidden part of crucial information. This probably has no consequence or will not affect general audience in any manner, if the photography genre is harmless and purely for viewing pleasure. Ethical codes and the repercussions of not observing them will be destructive if such events were to occur for news or more mainstream media channels. Where does this leave street photography?
In strict traditional definition of street photography (which I do not exactly adhere to, in case you have not noticed), a street photograph should be completely unstaged, and the photographer should just shoot the scene as is, with no intervention or meddling in any way. If the image was purely unstaged, only then it can truly represent what the real life situation is, telling the truth, without the photographer's input or interruptions to contaminate the photograph. For example, a mother may be rocking a baby while sitting by the road side, and she has the sad, worn-out, weary and dreadful look on her face as she was comforting her child, and that powerful emotion is what will make that photograph tick, subsequently being the important truth that the street photograph was trying to speak: the suffering and difficulties of the mother and child. The photograph is real, and truth stays in tact, as long as the photographer did not "pollute" the situation. Supposing the photographer chose to walk into the personal space of the mother and child, stand about less than a meter away from them, pointed the wide angle lens (35mm is pretty wide) and snapped a photograph, do you still think the original truth being so overwhelming powerful in the first place still exists in the later approach? The mother would notice the photographer's presence, and him being too close, will impose a message of "threat", and the invasion of personal space will yield some sort of discomfort. The scene changed, and in this case, I do not think the photographer was telling the truth anymore. Even if he did capture that bit of information, it was only the part that he has orchestrated, or decided worthy for his own "criteria" of good photograph.
No, there is nothing wrong in creating fiction out of photography. You can choose to tell your own stories, and create your own world in your photographs. However, it is completely wrong to lie to your audience, and tell them that what you shoot is the truth, knowing that what you have shot was already manipulated in a way that it suited your own agenda and goals in your so called "street photography". All over the internet now you will notice many modern street photographers, calling themselves "showing you the world that you have not seen before", displaying their photographs that contain questionable truths. They work on projects, and by projects, it means selecting only the photographs which are relevant to the "theme" of the project and discard everything else that the photographer thought would not qualify to fit into the whole presentation. Yes, if you have not realized this, a lot of those so called street photographers chose to omit many truths and just show you the part of truth that they want to show you. They bend and break the photographs to fit their own image of how their world is supposed to look like. Yet, when they show you their photography work, they proudly claim that those are the work of art that have strong leverage of what is real out there.
Is there really any way to tell if the photographer is lying? Unfortunately there really isn't considering all the elaborate thoughts and tight process of "editing" (choosing the selective "few" images out of a pile) which only fits the truth (or shall I say lie, now) that the photographer intended to project.
Who do you think you are?
Street portraits are more honest than what most modern photographers would call street photography. For street portrait shooting, all you have to do is get close, ask for permission (either verbally or with some sort of advanced body language and killer smile) and you shoot just what was there: the portrait of a person on the street. How well the photograph is executed depends solely on the photographer, will you be able to engage the stranger in a good connection that it shows in your photograph? Whichever way the portrait was captured, there was no way the photographer can lie, the portrait is a portrait. End of story.
I cannot say the same with many kinds of street photography (which defines itself apart from street portrait, because you cannot ask permission or intrude the scene) in general. One of the most popularly practiced method (which I also shamelessly admit I do) is to find an interesting background, and wait for an interesting subject to walk into that background, completing the image. The background may be a large painting, a life-size poster or advertisement, or formed of interestingly shaped geometrical patterns or lines. If the whole image was already pre-visualized and so carefully planned from the beginning, having the perfect composition in mind, knowing exactly what the outcome would be, how then can you claim the photograph to be unstaged? I dare say that most street photographers, one time or another, some more often than others would use this method of finding a nice background and wait for that "decisive moment" to occur. That was not exactly a decisive moment if you ask me, it was a moment that the photographer deliberately created and made happen. It was a DECIDED moment. And in that decided moment, it was no longer the truth that the photographer shot, it was a work of fiction. Because everything has been decided. The stage, the background, and the choice of subject that comes into the frame. There is no truth in this kind of image if you ask me, yet the photographer in the end of his final display of the image will tell you all sorts of wondrous descriptions on the "misery or depression or emotional conflict" and all kinds of drama that he was capturing in the photograph. Shockingly, that was all there was, the things that only what the photographer wanted you to believe and see, nothing more. Fiction, is the truth being bent out of shape, to serve the photographers "artistic vision".
There is an emerging group of photographers that have become increasingly daring to attack the strangers on the street. Attack, because they walk in incredibly close to the strangers and whack the photograph out of them. Such technique, is popularized by Bruce Gilden (though not originated from him) and have received more and more attention lately. They want to capture the expression of "shock and awe" and they believe being caught off guard, humans show their true self even for that just one brief moment. Of course, such technique has received many critical response, and I can say most of them were not pleasant or positive. I see this method of getting scarily close to the subjects as "staging your own photography opportunity", rather than waiting for photography opportunity to present themselves, see with our artistic eye and capture it (which most photographers do anyway). How much can you tell of a person when you caught them off guard? 80% of the reaction is probably defensive, since you are posing a threat going so close, and 20% would be annoyance or agitation. Such negative emotion are being recorded, and strangely those modern photographers claim to enjoy seeing the negativity in their photograph. They somehow "twisted" those negativity to work for them, claiming that they have photographed the "darker" side of the city or people. Another beautiful work of fiction, no less. Those photographs were nothing more than images of people being in the state of shock, trying to get away from the camera, or asking you not to shoot them, and in the street photographer's world, those truths have been manipulated to the society being self-conscious, scared of being found out, having secrets, and not comfortable being themselves in public space. I am not sure about you but I sure do not like this kind of fiction. Lies rarely cause anything good to come out in the end, and I strongly believe this applies to photography as well.
Waiting for the door to open
Mithun Kumar, with his awesome 70-300mm lens on OM-D
Looking at what I am currently shooting, my own style as I do my shutter therapy on the streets (not sure if it was qualified to be a style), I may not fit into the mold of most modern street photographers. I am not sure why but I do not find the interest or motivation to produce fiction. I find truth to be a lot more compelling and interesting than fiction, and I have always did my best to show my photographs as real as possible, being direct and straightforward, minus all the dramas. I think most people who have viewed my photographs for a while know that I have done my best to present them as honest as I can.
Sometimes, we do question ourselves and what we do, whether we are on the right track, or if we are doing something wrong. I get comments and feedback from you beautiful readers all the time, and that have helped me to grow and improve as a photographer. Recently one comment actually moved me, and I shall publish it here because that comment really got me thinking not only about my own shooting but also how much I have differed from the mainstream street photography style:
"I know that in a way these are just test shots but you are also a great photographer. My wife, who has never been a big fan of street photography, has been forced to re-evaluate her position. In the past her complaint was that street photography seemed only gritty and mostly depressing. She has been looking at your work for a while now and is beginning to wonder if she can ever consistently take pictures as uplifting, respectful and beautiful as yours.
She is so stubborn that I have to give you the highest marks for changing her mind!"
Posted by Lorenzo Valenzuela on my 75mm F1.8 review blog entry (click).
What struck me most in that comment has nothing to do with the positive compliments (ok I lied my ego got inflated out of proportions for a while there, come on, who would not?) but truthfully, it was the obvious statement on how different my images are from the usual street photography genre. I am not sure if diverging from the norm will be such a great thing, but seriously, it was not exactly a conscious choice to make, When I shoot on the streets, I concentrated on the things that caught my mind. I shoot what attracted my attention, may it be a kid riding on a bicycle, an old man reading a news paper, or a lonely flower blooming by the road. I believe it has a lot to do with the way I see things, and I shoot them as truthfully as I can. No work of fiction. Just plainly what I saw, and I translated that into my photographs.
I chose truth over fiction.
So what say you, and what is your take on street photography? Truth or fiction?