A Proxemics Approach to Street and Travel Photography (Part 1)

Street photography is one of the oldest and most challenging forms of photography. In a broad definition, "street photography" is any photography where the subject is not preselected by the photographer, and the photographer does not have direct interaction with the subject. A very obvious situation where this dynamic exists is in travel photography in a country foreign to the photographer and where the photographer does not speak the language.

For purposes of this article, we will use the term "street photography" as defined above, with the understanding that the definition is debatable and is used differently by different photographers. Additionally, we use the term here to mean a style of photography which documents people in public spaces, but seeks not to intrude upon the peace and privacy of others.

Recent years have seen a social crisis around street photography. The public has started negatively reacting to something that just a few decades ago was accepted and routine for photographers. One reason for this breakdown is that the democratization of cameras paired with the rapid decrease in travel costs has led many photographers to treat their street photography subjects as normative. Photographers have gotten away from looking at their subjects as individual human beings. More specifically, many photographers approach their street photography with insufficient empathy for the situations in which they find their subjects, setting off flashes in a subject's face, intruding into their personal space to snap a picture, or otherwise confronting unknown subjects. This results in negative interactions, leading to a cycle where subjects complain (and in some cases sue photographers or seek legislation to limit photography) and often the photographers who engage in this approach lose their zeal for street photography.

The moment the patterns converged.
Proxemics provides a framework to get back in touch with the individuality of each subject, consider the contexts of culture and the event underlying the action sought to be photographed, and provides tools for making intimate evaluations while still keeping a respectful distance. Indeed, this approach is the one used during the formative age of street photography, as practiced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger, and André Kertész.

Edward Hall was a cross-cultural anthropologist. He wrote two books (The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966)) that had major impacts on architecture by opening up thinking on cultural differences in the use of space. He coined the term "proxemics" to describe the space expectations different people have, and how people structure and use physical space in their interactions with each other. Hall contended that the structuring of physical space in interactions is universal (i.e. humanistic), but that the interpretations of space, and the expressions by individuals in using that space, will vary considerably based upon their cultural identity.

An understanding of proxemics can radically change your approach to street photography. Proxemics opens up a new world of not only seeing patterns of human behavior, but anticipating those patterns so you can better time the decisive moments.

Next, we will discuss the "decisive moment."