A Proxemics Approach to Street and Travel Photography (Part 2)

Part 1 introduced Edward Hall in the context of street photography. This part explores the application of his theories. But first, we start with the decisive moment."

What is a "Decisive Moment"?

Henri Cartier-Bresson wasn't the first to use the phrase, "decisive moment." That credit belongs to Jean François Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz. In his Memoirs of the cardinal de Retz, published in 1717, he said, "There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."

Cartier-Bresson, however, applied to photography the philosophy underlying Gondi's observation. Specifically, the concept that there is a "here and now" which can never be recaptured once it has passed. In a 1957 Washington Post interview, Cartier-Bresson explained:
Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
Unfortunately, this explanation has been taken by many to mean that there is just one significant moment. The underlying fear of missing that "singular moment" is what leads to the "spray and pray" approach of maximizing a digital camera's frame buffer, or draining the batteries on a film camera's motor drive.

But in fact there is no single decisive moment which captures an event—there are many such decisive moments, individually and for every artist. In the continually moving flow of time and the unfolding of action, it is the artist's task to find the essence of the event and choose one of the many which the artist determines will best match the event to the particular artist's conception of it.

Anticipating a decisive moment is a result of your perspective and the series of conscious and unconscious decisions that have lead you to the unfolding of an event: the representative moment is filtered through you as an artist. If you are engaged in the moment, you are likely unaware of the process—which is exactly how it should be. Your awareness is from your mind, and in the act of seeing as a photographer, you're uncovering the decisive moment based on your experience and perspective.
Some moments require waiting for specific action to unfold, and timing the exhale.
More to the point, the recognition of decisive moments is the result of the artist having an idea which the unfolding scene matches. On the level of the mind, the photographer is able to react quickly because what's being seen is simply an external representation of the idea already present in the mind.

Accordingly, to capture decisive moments, you have to have both an idea, and the ability to anticipate how the event will unfold so that you'll have time to pick your composition and timing. Ideas are discussed in depth here. Proxemics helps with the anticipation.

If there's a door, eventually someone will come through it.
An example will help. A good host is very in tune with the decisive moments of each guest. An act as simple as providing a napkin just before the tumbler starts to sweat is the host's recognition of the pattern of unfolding events. It requires not only an understanding that all glasses with ice in them will eventually form condensation, but also requires the host to observe the individual's pattern of behavior to know when that condensation will make the glass too slippery. Stepping in with the napkin solution is the decisive moment of hosting a party where the guest has a cold drink.  The pattern of condensation will repeat, but the decisive moment is when it becomes an issue for that specific guest.

To express some moments requires decisive light.
The host is not simply intuitive. The host's ability to excel at making the guests feel understood is the result of the effort required to observe not only the humanistic patterns of party guests, but the guest's individual response in that environment. Practiced, the host's skill becomes assimilated and gives the appearance of intuition. But it's always a function of the work awareness and understanding require.

Proxemic Theory**

Hall's interest was in observing the effect of space in human interactions and communication. What he put words to was what we all know and experience on a constant basis: individuals require a certain amount of space in which to function, and react in predictable ways when those space expectations are violated. The amount of physical space required varies situationally, as well as culturally. The response to a violation of an individual's physical space depends on context.
Remaining unintrusive works best in distances from personal distance out.

Hall described four general levels of distance in human interactions: intimate; personal; social; and public. Briefly:

  • Intimate distance is anywhere between six inches and eighteen inches. It is the distance of physical contact, and sensory input is nearly overwhelming: olfaction, feeling the heat from another's skin, amplified sound, and the distorted vision of close proximity. This is the distance of lovers or close family members.
  • Personal distance is roughly one and half to four feet.  Interactions at this distance are based on the possibilities of what one person can do to another, such as grabbing or grasping. Eye contact and facial expressions are relied on at this distance because they're more easily interpreted. When people stand together within this range, it's a strong signal about their relationship and their level of vulnerability. This is the distance of a shy child with a parent, or a couple who has been married for awhile. 
  • Social distance marks the limit of physical domination, and is therefore outside the distance of two people extending their arms out. Facial expressions are informative, and a normal level of voice can be used to communicate. This is the distance of people who work together, or who are at a casual social gathering.
  • Public distance is from between twelve feet and beyond. This distance is  a deep part of human evolution, and defines the area within which we feel we can perceive a threat and take defensive action. It's also the distance kept from people who are important public figures. 

A sense of being within personal distance can sometimes be achieved with longer lenses.
For each of these conceptual distances, there are variations based upon, among many other things, age, sex, cultural background, and hierarchy. But in every case, the interaction of two people within these concepts of space will change their behavior. People expect certain proxemic patterns based on past experiences in similar situations, and these expectations will trigger reactions (positive or negative) when the critical distance of any of these four levels is violated. A person appearing one way when isolated with a great deal of space around him will change his behavior as another person crosses into the various levels of proxemic space.

So long as you blend in, getting close isn't a problem.
The goal of the unobtrusive street photographer is to respectfully and without intrusion capture people as they are naturally engaged with one another, and to not, themselves, be the cause of a change in the subject's behavior. Understanding Hall's basic concepts can help you predict the decisive moment in any situation because you will be able to rapidly understand the relationship between people and anticipate their reactions as their proximity to one another changes.

Observing from public distance can reveal juxtapositions.  
In the next part, we'll put it on the street.

** Hall wrote two books and many articles describing the details of proxemics. For a complete understanding, the original material is highly recommended. For our purpose of applying proxemics to street photography, we will deal with a very simplified version.