Finding Street Subjects

I had a conversation with Nick and something struck me which I have not given much thought before, was how my photographs show elements of "family connections". Now looking back at the possibly tens of thousands of street photographs I have taken within the span of last one or two years, indeed I had taken a lot of photographs on the street based on strong family theme. It was perhaps subconscious decision or something in the relationship of parent-child, or older generation folks, as well as the difficulties and challenges that they faced that drew my attention. I guess I always knew I wanted to shoot subjects in their older days, initially because I thought the expression, the multiple lines all over the face and the smile that has been seasoned by more than half a century of life tell plenty of strong stories. Similarly goes to a mother taking care of her child, holding the baby in her arms, yet having that troubled and worried look on her face. Those are genuine emotions and expressions that cannot be hidden, and in the midst of the street busy-ness, the straightness and directness of such drama presented themselves very evidently, it just screamed to me and my camera to capture them. 

When I go out to shoot, I do not lock myself down to anything specific. I opened myself to any possibilities, and I will capture anything that caught my attention, which I will on the spot decide if it was worthy to work my camera with. Yes, through many sessions I have become selective of my subjects, but I believe the selection happens through the process of elimination, as I have taken the similar scene before and it did not come out the way I wanted. Hence I will ignore the similar "failures". 

In this entry, I shall post up a few photographs, and try to explain what drew me into capturing them. Perhaps the motivation that drove me to certain subjects were my real life struggles, and they do reflect how and what I see some things. 

All images in this entry were taken from the previous few shutter therapy sessions, at various locations (Pudu, Bukit Bintang and Petaling Street). Olympus DSLR E-520 and Zuiko Digital Lenses: 14-42mm F3.5-5.6, 40-150mm F3.5-4.5 and 25mm F2.8 pancake. 

I like shooting younger kids, mainly because of how they look at you. It was a mix of curiosity, with strong sense of sincerity and a hint of trust, because we adults are supposed to lead them into their future. Their innocence and honesty have not been tainted, hence the facial expression do not lie. Those kind of subjects call out to me strongly, because they remind me of my younger days, the days when there was not that much to worry about, not that much to care about. I guess I am reliving my past when I see their young and care-free lives through their piercing eyes. 

Occupation or career is another repetitive theme that I have played with a lot. The things that people do to earn a living. Not everyone can be as fortunate to have high income job, or a high return business. There is this saying that "the rich becomes richer, and the poor remains poor, or becomes poorer". I see how that evidently applies in the society here in Malaysia. It is a struggle, for most in the poor category to break off their barriers and limitations that hold them down. 

A classic example of a family connection sort of photograph that I always took. There is just something very strong seeing the bond between a parent and a child. It was the most natural thing that occurred in the world, and that itself is a strong photograph. Such affection being shown in public space, not just behind closed doors at home, makes it even more exciting to capture. 

I used to photograph homeless men and beggars a lot. I have cut down on my homeless men photos, mainly because they have become very redundant and I have run out of creative ways to shoot them. Some may say that shooting such under-privileged people was as if we were taking advantage of them, using their misery to our amusement or our personal gain. I begged to differ in opinion. When I was shooting them I did not care who they were, all street subjects I treated as equal, whether you were a filthy rich fat businessman, or a skinny under-fed kid, you all became one thing in common to me on the streets, my street subject. If I see something in you that is worth shooting, I will shoot. In this case, the beggar was gesturing the plastic cup to passer-bys so that they know he was a beggar and if they were kind enough to spare some loose change or Ringgit notes. 

Movement is another thing I like to portray in my photographs. Perhaps this has nothing to do with choice of street subjects. I like to induce motion in my photographs so they appear more dynamic. 

Yet, one more example of family oriented subjects. We were all walking in different directions, but it was apparent that our paths would cross. As I was seeing the mother and her boy in her arms approaching, I readied my camera. The I noticed she had some kind of pie in her other hand, and she was about to place that pie into the boy's mouth. In that critical moment I knew I had to capture this scene, the most natural thing happening in the world, the mother feeding her child. 

I like shooting older generation folks, it is no secret if you have been following this blog for a while now. They know a lot more than we think, eaten more salt and seen more than we could have ever imagine. It was the respect and admiration that I had for them, the fact that they have survived through so much to be where they are now, that I wanted to shoot them. The decades and decades of victories, disappointments, stories, love and hate, written all over the face. 

I take the train a lot. Hence it was no surprise I will have a few train shots once in a while. Again, play with movement. In this case, it was also play with shadow and light. I timed the shutter so that the train won't cover the highlight at the top right corner, and that highlight provided some sort of framing for the silhouetted man.  What I wanted to say in this photograph? Nothing fancy, just a man and a public train. Is that a crime for not having an imaginative caption or shooting something nothing more than ordinary? That is the problem with many new-comers in photography, they become too ambitious and tried to find that "National Geographic" sort of photography opportunities, that anything less than spectacular would not be deemed worthy to be photographed. To me, sometimes the best photography opportunity happen in the simplest of forms. They may be the most ordinary thing in our every day lives that we do not pay much attention to. It is the street photographer's job to "pay attention"!!

Life struggles. May it be physical, or anything else, always attracted me. It can be as simple as a challenge to walk, as shown in the image above. Why would I want to shoot something so negative and depressing, some would ask me. Well, in all honesty we would not stay in our "prime" conditions anyway, human health will deteriorate, whether we are willing to accept it or not. Nothing lasts forever, and one day all the struggles will catch up on us. It was often the things that we take for granted, like being able to walk, being able to see clearly, and being able to engage in long, meaningful conversations. 

All things aside, I love shooting my friends who are kind enough to share their thoughts, provide encouragement and motivation to continue shooting. Seeing them in action is perhaps the most entertaining thing on the street, after myself being involved in the shooting process of course !! Nick Wade and Luke Ding. 

I think everyone has different motivations when they picked up the camera and went for street shooting. Different subjects would call to different photographers. The only one wise suggestion that I can give to anyone is to stay open minded. If you think that there is nothing to photograph, or you cannot find good photography subjects, your definition of photography subjects should be re-evaluated. There is always something out there to shoot, if we open our eyes and hearts to them. Staying positive, and keeping up with that optimism will make a great difference. 

I have been asked by a few friends, why don't I enter any photography competitions? Well, it was very evident that the way I shoot, it was not designed to win any competitions, and even if I did join, I doubt I would win any prize. That was the very crucial point there, that I wanted to highlight. It was because I did not intend to compete, or prove anything to anyone, that my photographs can be of my own, and shows my identity, because I choose to shoot what I wanted to shoot, and all the considerations that I made during shooting are for myself only. If I were to compete and fit into the shoes of the judges and wider audience, maybe my photographs will be raised to a higher standard, but the work that I do may not represent my ideas and my own preferences. 

I think it is very important to stay true to yourself. Stay motivated and keep the shutter clicking. 


  1. Robin, I think there is a difference between being a street photographer and photographing on the street. The best of the breed are artists whose photographs carve the best elements from the oftentimes chaotic world in front of them. I believe you fall into this category. I will eventually tire of the random capturings of the less talented, but I don't tire of viewing your work. You have a gift and I hope you continue to share it with us!

    1. Thanks for such kind remarks Ken. I am not sure if I fall into the right category, but for now it does not really matter. We should shoot want we want to shoot, only by then we will love what we do. I will always share my photographs here !! No worries.

  2. Robin, your photos show the truth of the human condition, viewed through kind eyes. The world needs more of your photos.

    1. Wow, you are being too kind Reverend. Thanks !

  3. Robin, that next to last paragraph about why you don't enter photography contests is profound. You have so clearly expressed in words something that I have been struggling internally with for a couple of years myself. It is almost as if your words have "set me free". My local camera club, and the professional photographers' organization that I belong to continually chant the mantra that you "have to" submit your images to their competitions in order to become a better photographer. I did it several times because "I was supposed to", not because I wanted to. Only 3 or 4 of the 20 or so images that I submitted were judged high. It did not make me a better photographer, it made me depressed, and I began to doubt my abilities as a photographer. As I look back on my archives of photographs, I truly can see the improvement of my photography abilities over time. The photo competitions have nothing to do with that improvement. I realize that I am not a "really good" photographer, but I am a much happier photographer, and there is much more of my personality revealed to me from within my photographs, than when I was trying to impress someone else.

    1. Hello Gregg,
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts !! It really does mean a lot, and I am glad I am not alone in this. Joining competitions is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do need have that "desire" to compete. Sometimes, being too competitive can be destructive toward the photographer's growth too, because the motivation to shoot has become "wanting to win". I guess it all comes down to why we shoot in the first place. If we shoot for ourselves, we should be happy with what we do !!

  4. For your non-Malay readers I would point out that the idiom "eating much salt" has little to do with one's sodium intake. Usually it is used to describe the elderly having experienced much of life. But regarding street photography, we can say that Robin has eaten much salt, indeed. And he does it as therapy to lower his blood pressure.

    1. Santo, you have me cracked up there.
      I don't think I have eaten that much salt yet, in comparison to many others who have been there and made it. I am no where near where they are.

      Nonetheless, Shutter Therapy surely does LOWER my blood pressure !!! That is a valid point.

    2. Ha..ha.. I wonder where the idiom originated. Is there a Chinese saying along that line?

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