(Recently, Cara Wilton asked me for me to write a guest post for her blog, “The Compact Camera”. The following is posted on here.)
The beauty of street photography is that, unlike other disciplines within photography, it is pretty much left up to “eye of the beholder”.
Troll around Flickr, 500PX, Tumblr, and other various aggregators of photography and you’ll find that just when you think you understand what classifies as “street”, someone else gives you an entirely unique spin on the genre.
And that’s where I believe that I come in.
You see, there is school of thought that edgy street photography must come from midtown Manhattan, Los Angeles, London, or Tokyo. And while I spend a great deal of time within the epicenter that is Manhattan, I prefer to explore the unseen parts of “The World’s Greatest City” (like “Washington Heights” and the Bronx). In addition, I have the audacity to explore urban New Jersey such as the ungentrified parts of Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Plainfield. By no means does this give me credibility amongst hipper photographers, but it allows for me to tell the story of oft-ignored cities. These are cities which were left behind from America’s industrial past. The attitudes of its citizens provide insight to a word that rarely sees The Shore and is a train ride away from the hope of New York City.
What I dislike are “voyeurs” who see urban America as some sort of zoo. People will come with their dSLRs, their daypacks, a bottle of water and trek around “safe” areas snapping away. It strikes me as if they are saying to themselves, “Ooh, look at how they’re living!” Not only is this paternalistic, but devalues the surroundings. I think that it is best to shoot areas which you know or have a general interest in.
As an adjunct professor, my students laugh at the fact that I actually walk the streets of Paterson, Union City, Newark and Jersey City. I believe their minds have been trained to see their towns as ugly. Yet, their eyes are aglow when they see some of the shots. They can’t believe that this is Their Town. Photographers, especially street photographers, should see this as their mission whether it’s their own neighborhood, their favorite part of town, or a new city.
I think that it is important that I reference these cities, because I’ve seen a lot of street photographers make a name for themselves by putting the camera in the face of a random person. While that may be the modus operandi in larger cities, where I shoot, that style is a license to kill. The streets of urban New Jersey is a mixture of hardened veterans from The Glory Years and recent immigrants. The former isn’t keen to “tourists” and the latter may have even greater concerns when their identity is revealed. I have to make sure to use a bit of common sense on what to shoot and walk to avoid. Some areas have a vibrant “underground economy”, obviously those transactions are never documented by my lens.
I enjoy being part of the environment. I talk to the residents, I go to the stories, I interact with store owners. This places everyone at ease with me, shows that I genuinely care, and allows my camera to capture intimate moments. By being an active player in the community, I am in sync with the rhythm of the neighborhood. Conversely, when not in full view, not only does the photographer look as if they’re prying in an intimate moment, but they lose “feel” of situation. Look at any great photograph. The essence of that moment is captured because the photographer knew when it was time for the shutter to click. Basically, they knew The People.
There are times which I rethink whether I need to leave my point-and-shoot and “graduate” to the dSLR. Right now, though, the point-and-shoot fits my needs. I do use manual settings, but I do not have to worry some of the concerns that come with adSLR. Often, I find that people are less intimidated with the point-and-shoot as, in their minds, it looks “less professional”. I’m thrilled with the results.
Only a year into street photography, I like the direction my work is going in. I think that I’m able to catch beauty in what the “average” eye may simply walk past. I hope that my shots capture an identifiable moment like the lyrics to your favorite song. And if any picture can do that, then the photographer has reached their goal.