"Street photography" can be applied to many different types of image-making, from the confrontational style of Eric Kim, to the fly on the wall approach of Henri Cartier Bresson. No matter how it's applied, however, it's a type of documentary work that requires the photographer to approach strangers. The subject is often unaware, but not always. As I use the term, street photography is a form of documentary work: the observation of people in their daily lives. It makes full use of photography's ability to objectively observe. As such, it should have the least interaction between photographer and subject possible.
Many photographers struggle with street photography for a variety reasons, one of the most common of which is shyness. Photography is intrusive, and it feels even more so when the subject is a stranger. Even though it's not, it feels exponentially more intrusive when the subject is doing something unusual, which is usually why the photographer notices the subject. Many photographers overcome the shyness and intrusion issues by directly interacting with the subject. The confrontational approach is epitomized by Eric Kim. Confrontation, however, changes the nature of the observation. Images that are made as a result of interaction between the photographer and subject are no longer documentary. (This is true even if you are intimate with your subject. Pictures of family and friends are no different from pictures of strangers in this regard. The awareness of the subject and his or her interaction with the photographer is what changes an image from being documentary to being something else.) Instead, the image becomes one of someone who is reacting to a photographer. That isn't the subject of this article.
Privacy and respect aside, one of the reasons for concern about intrusiveness when taking pictures of strangers in public comes from a misconception about attention. The photographer assumes that the subject will notice the photograph being taken and doesn't want to intrude, much less have a confrontation. That's not how attention works.
Zack Arias has posted about a series of pictures he made of people using their smart phones. Critically, he talked about his efforts to see just how close he could get to someone without having them notice he was there. He writes:
I started this project last year about people lost in their devices. . . . I was walking the streets shooting your garden variety street stuff and took a photo of a girl engrossed in her phone. . . . I have found that we get so focused on the screen in front of us we’re oblivious to the world going on around us. . . . 9 times out of 10 I can be a few feet from someone on their phone and they never knew I took their photo. . . . As I work this project I’m looking for layers of devices. It’s really not difficult to find which seems to be becoming a disturbing trend. They’re everywhere and we’re stuck to them and oblivious to everything around us.
He titled the series, pejoratively, "de_VICE."
With all due respect to Zack, who is a great photographer and a fine person, he is simply wrong. It has nothing to do with the phone. It has to do with the human brain. It has to do with what happens to us when we focus. Illustrated here, I've taken plenty of pictures of people "lost in" many things, and I assure you they weren't paying attention to their surroundings at all and none of them noticed me making an image. The examples are limitless: from reading, to dancing, to talking, to writing in journals, to soothing a loved one, when a person is focused, their consciousness is not worried about what's going on around them. Indeed, we often strive to be "lost in the moment" when we're enjoying ourselves and consider it a sign of being fully engaged with what we care about. (It may be that as an editorial photographer who is new to street work, Zack simply hadn't had the opportunity to make these observations on his own. We can only interpret the world by how we experience it.)
Extreme examples often illustrate the general rule. If you take a motorcycle riding class, one of the first things you will be taught is "head up, eyes up, bike up." The body goes where the eyes look, because that's where the attention goes. Whatever it is we focus on, we go to. That works really well when tossing a baseball, or chasing down a deer for dinner, but when neophyte riders look at the ground, the bike follows them down. That's how attention works.
As a psychological concept, "attention" encompasses several functions. As we observe our surroundings, there is "recognition" attention which enables us to match sounds with sights, and determine what's interesting to us. Once we pick out something of interest, "selective attention" takes over. This is what we think of as "focus" or "concentration." Once we have something of interest to absorb our minds, our consciousness becomes consumed with it. As anyone who's sat in grade school knows, however, selective attention can't be forced—you're either interested in something, or you aren't. If you aren't interested, your mind "wanders" back to recognition attention, searching for something with which to engage.
Meanwhile, the ability to switch attention remains in the form of "vigilance" attention. Even as we look at an iPhone, or a book, or engage in an intense conversation, we still maintain situational awareness. Our minds continue to take in information, and we respond to it as necessary. If someone walks past the cafe and calls our name, we respond. If it starts to drizzle, we seek shelter. If the temperature drops . . . you get the idea. And then, when that situation is addressed, we shift back to where we left off, be it the page of the novel, the Facebook conversation, the music, or whatever else we were enjoying and engaged in.
How does this relate to street photography? The answer lies in empathy. Observe your own attention. Just as Zack was able to approach people on their phones, I'd be able to walk up to Zack while he is absorbed in taking a photograph and he wouldn't know how close I was, because his consciousness would be full of all the things required to make the great images he makes: exposure, contrast, composition, angle, not to mention the attention he would be paying to his subject in order to get the kind of response he wants. Observe yourself when you're wrapped up in a conversation, book, movie, or anything else you're enjoying. Notice how you don't pay attention to your surroundings, or even time, in the same way when you're looking for something interesting.
Now, take your observations and apply them to other people. If you see someone doing something interesting, the odds are very high that the person will not notice you taking a picture, just as you didn't notice the things going on around you while you were reading your book. There is no judgment in wanting to focus your attention somewhere. That's what living is all about: doing the things that bring us happiness. That could be something on your iPhone, or in a book, or in someone else's eyes, and it is not for me (and apologies to Zack, but not Zack's place either) to judge. There is no place for saying someone engrossed in their phone is somehow spending their time less wisely than someone taking a picture, much less someone engaged in a conversation. Judgment of subjects is a slippery slope, and I don't believe it has much of a place in documentary photography.
Rather than judge our subjects, we can use our observations about basic human psychology and attention to free ourselves from the concern that we are interrupting by engaging in street photography, and put that energy to better use composing great pictures.
words: Ramesh Bakhtiari, Ph.D & F. James Conley | images: F. James Conley