Brief: Closely consider the work of the practitioners discussed above, then try to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed. As you’ve seen, there are many ways in which you can go about this, but we can’t stress enough that the objective here is not to offend your subjects or deliberately invade anyone’s privacy. If you don’t have permission to shoot in a privately-owned space, then you should only attempt this work in a public space, where permission to shoot is not necessarily required.
This is a very interesting challenge, which some students will find incredibly difficult. Remember that the creative outcome of the practitioners discussed above has come about through a sustained approach, which is then heavily edited for presentation. You’ll need to shoot many images in order to be able to present five final images that work together as a set.
Think everything through carefully before attempting this exercise as the responsibility
for the outcome of the portraits rests entirely with you. If during the course of this exercise you are challenged in any way, be prepared to delete what you have shot. If you can
see that you are annoying someone, or making them feel uncomfortable, stop shooting immediately. You’ll be required to operate with a degree of common sense here and not take unnecessary risks. There are ways of completing this exercise without incurring risk, such as shooting the work at a party you’ve been invited to, where all the guests have been invited for a particular celebration.
The reflection about your methodology will be as important as the final five images, so be prepared to write about how you found the experience (around 500 words) and present your findings via your learning log or blog.
As a starting point, I will say that I do not have any problem with photographing people who are unaware of my actions. If they are out on the street, and not looking aggressive, then I don’t see a problem. Being an older woman, and therefore an unthreatening presence definitely helps. I don’t think I have ever been asked to stop by anyone, and I have taken many street photos.
For this particular exercise, I have had a couple of attempts, including the Gloucester Arts Festival last month and a visit to Devizes on market day this week. My process was different for each, and this had a clear effect on the outcome. In Gloucester, I took my regular camera equipment and made no secret that I was making photographs. Some of the subjects knew what I was doing and others were totally unaware. Here is a selection of the images from people who were unaware I was photographing them.
In Devizes, I used a different technique. My camera was strung around my neck and hung at waist level, and I took these pictures using a remote camera shutter. This had the effect of ensuring that subjects were genuinely unaware of when I made the images, but also I could not see what I was doing myself. When I came to look at what I had taken afterwards, there were quite a few pictures of the pavement and/or people’s feet, but in amongst them were a few reasonable shots. Here’s a selection of those. (The camera angle has not been changed – this is what came out because of the way it was being held).
So far, so good, but….. I have been reading Street Photography Now (Howarth & McLaren, 2010) and what I have produced above does not really fit in with their description of street photography:
A great street photograph must elicit more than a quick glance and moment of recognition from the viewer. A sense of mystery and intrigue should remain, and what is withheld is often as important as what is revealed. (p.10)
…in a single frame, it can distil a remarkable amount of truth, showing the everyday with such wit or honesty that it will time and again, amaze, delight or move us. (Nick Turpin quote, p.10)
Looking through some of the images in the book, I see what he means. Admittedly, they are some of the best street photographs around, but all say something particular, whether it be the juxtaposition of two wildly differing ideas, something that looks plain ridiculous, or something that just makes you look again and think, “Why?”.
There isn’t much in the above selections that has a sense of mystery and intrigue, except perhaps the man asleep on the ground with a mango by his head. (Why?) Of the two sets, I think the first was better overall, that being because I was choosing what to photograph and how to frame it more than in the second series. However, I think the essence of street photography overall is that subjects present themselves to you, if you are actively looking, and there is an element of serendipity about the process which cannot be forced. Some days produce good subjects and others do not. That is part of the enjoyment of street photography – it is a fishing trip, and every time one is hoping for the big catch; most days however, minnows or even nothing at all even toys with the line. Despite this, there is a pleasure in street photography even without the big catch. Being able to capture the feel of a location through a series of images can be just as satisfying as the single great shot. There is also much fun to be had focusing on a particular set of circumstances or actions and going in search of them.
NB I have written a separate post on the ethics of street photography here. This is germane to this blog post as well, but is now marked Private. Please get in touch if you would like to see it specifically.
Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2010) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.