The Soul of the Street Photographer

A Stroll in the Rain. Korea, 2009.

A Stroll in the Rain. Korea, 2009.

Here is an essay that I wrote on Street Photography that I plan on including in the introduction of my Street Photography Book that I plan on publishing. It is a bit long, but I hope you enjoy it:

The Soul of the Street Photographer

I feel that street photography is the most pure out of all the forms of photography. In all other forms of photography, the photographer is always trying to strive to take a photo of something that is out of this world; be it a majestic sunset, a mysterious creature, or a flower so beautiful that we are shocked in awe by it.

However street photography does the exact opposite.

The photographer takes what is in this world, no matter how dull or mundane, and turns it into a piece of art. The man who is sipping a cup of coffee at the coffee shop, or the woman who is carrying her groceries home, or the couple who is sharing an embrace at the corner of a crosswalk. These are all very ordinary events and we all just let it pass by our very eyes. We don’t pay attention to these things, let alone see it as something “beautiful.”

Body Language. Korea, 2009

Body Language. Korea, 2009

That is where the role of the street photographer comes in. He captures that one instant and makes it immortal and frames it, and allows everyone to actually take a second out of their busy schedules and contemplate on it. Nobody truly notices these moments in their lives, and with the help of the street photographer, these people start cherishing these small yet wonderful things in their lives.

The idea to look at a very ordinary scene and to interpret it in a different way is the most difficult part of a street photographer. By paying special attention to lines, curves, shadows, light, and context, a photographer strives to make this ordinary scene into somewhat of a stage in which he wishes his actors to interact with somehow.

Despair. Toronto, 2009

Despair. Toronto, 2009

A street photographer has very little control over his images, as he simply tries to capture little bits and pieces of everyday life which are fleeting and once they disappear, they are gone forever. All a street photographer can do is frame his shot, check his camera settings, and click his shutter. He cannot control his environment as his stage is dynamic and constantly changing and evolving. The types of people who are constantly walking in and out or the way they act with the environment or other people are uncontrollable. So to take a truly great street photograph, the street photographer has to have a little bit of luck on his side to have the ideal conditions just when he hits that shutter.

This however, doesn’t mean that a street photographer doesn’t have skill and is simply “lucky” when taking images of his photographs. Granted that whatever scene a street photographer comes upon is beyond his control, a street photographer is the one who is able to creatively take with what he has and make it into a story.

The Conductor. Los Angeles, 2009

The Conductor. Los Angeles, 2009

If anything, a street photographer shouldn’t even be regarded as a photographer, but rather a storyteller of sorts who is able to capture a certain scene and have the viewer interpret it in a certain way. A true successful street photograph is one that piques the viewer’s interest, and has him or her constantly guessing and interpreting what “is going on” in the photo.

However the street photographer as a storyteller has the most difficult job of them all; to tell a story without having any control over it. Compared to a writer who makes up his own stories, a street photographer must work with what he has to tell a certain story or tale.

Downtrodden. Venice, 2009

Downtrodden. Venice, 2009

To be a successful street photographer, one must have a passion for seeing the world and exploring all the beauties behind it. How can one expect to capture great moments in life without actually going out to the world and seeing all of these things happening? Often individuals look at some of the world’s finest street photographs and mutter to themselves, “I could have taken that photo if I was there.” But the fact is, that the person was not there at that certain moment and if that person could not truly see like a street photographer, that person would have simply let that moment pass by.

If the street photographer is not at a certain place at a certain moment when something fantastic occurs, how can he not expect to capture it? It is metaphysically impossible not to do so.

Hand on Chin. Paris, 2009

Hand on Chin. Paris, 2009

While taking photographs in the streets, the street photographer is instilled with an incredible sense of freedom. He is like a lion to his jungle and is free to roam wherever he wishes. Nobody can tell him where to go, what to see, or what to do; he simply does as he likes. Only his instinct controls him where to go next.

While roaming around his urban jungle, he almost melds and becomes part of the environment. Although others are aware of his presence, nobody pays special attention to his motives or movements. The street photographer will be able to take multiple photos at incredibly close proximities to people, without having them even notice or without having them even caring. But to walk around and not be given notice to, he must be fluid in his movements and be careful not to disturb any of the life around him.

The Corridor. Prague, 2009

The Corridor. Prague, 2009

The street photographer is also adventurous and is willing to take the path less followed with the hopes of finding a moment of serendipity and genius. The street photographer will go down that mysterious alley or up those misleading stairs while others will not. The street photographer wishes to see new things and places and is not content with staying in the same place for much too long. When he finds himself in a foreign and daunting environment, he does not react with fear but rather with a sense of curiosity and is willing to explore.

A street photographer is also more preoccupied with his photographers rather than worrying about his gear. The fallacy of many photographers is that they often chase the newest cameras and lenses hoping that these expensive tools will help their shortcomings as a photographer.  Granted that a point-and-shoot camera can have considerable lag when it comes to taking photos which makes it difficult to capture a certain moment in time, a simple DSLR or even film rangefinder can do the trick. The quality of his images are not dependent on how sharp they are, but rather the intrinsic quality of composition, genius, and creativity apparent.

Owl Eyes. London, 2009

Owl Eyes. London, 2009

However the only concern a street photographer must have when it comes to the question of camera equipment is by having his trusty primes nearby. Although zoom lenses may be more practical in other types of photography by allowing photographer to use multiple focal lengths, they are not as effective as tools when it comes to street photography. Their smaller aperture and larger size make them too slow for night settings and too conspicuous for street settings.

Prime lenses also help street photographers to be more creative with their work, by further imposing even more limits on what little control they have of their scenes. On top of not having control of the people around them, they are restricted to only a certain focal length which may invite them to think of more creative ways of capturing a certain scene which may have not been thought of before with a zoom lens. For example, if a street photographer had a zoom lens and saw something interesting in the distance, he may be simply tempted to zoom into the scene which disconnects him from the environment. However if a street photographer chose to use a wide-angle lens, it may invite him to become “part of the scene” and get closer to get stronger images which really put the viewers into the shoes of the photographer.

However all-in-all, a street photographer is a lover of life. He does not discriminate and sees all people as beautiful in their own inherent ways. He constantly pushes himself to immerse himself amongst people, and not only be a voyeur but a full-on participant. A street photographer cherishes every moment that he experiences and lives, and most importantly, strives to share those little slices of life with others.

Together in the Rain. Korea, 2009

Together in the Rain. Korea, 2009

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  • Corporate photographer London

    Love this style of street photography- much better than the ‘reportage’ style that anything goes, these are very well crafted photographs with great composition.

    • Eric Kim

      Thanks a ton Grantly! I just took a peek at your blog and great corporate portraits! You have a great knack of capturing the “essence” of people. How long have you been taking corporate portraits?

      Also if you don’t mind me asking, where did you find my blog?

      • Corporate photographer London

        Its a pleasure to comment on good photography- I have been working as a photographer for over 20 years mainly in the corporate world. I found your blog via a twitter- you have a similar style to me in that you get a good shot out of a ordinary situation. Grant

        • Corporate photographer London

          are you keeping busy?

  • material lives

    I love this essay, Eric. As with all of your writing, I appreciate your honest attempt to capture in writing what makes photography and human existence compelling for you. Even when you are setting opinions down, your writing always conveys your humility, something I deeply admire.

    Two minor things: because there is so much gender bias already in the field of photography (and media in general) and theoretical writing, I’d love to see you either make your pronoun use gender neutral or (what I prefer), change your use of “he” to “I.” This photo essay is about your photography practices more than anything else. Also, while I do agree that you are in part telling a story “without having any control over it,” sometimes you do exert control, such as in the shot I love so much of the woman in Korea (I think) walking with an umbrella down a set of stairs. I think you said that you captured that photo, as with many others, by seeing a setting you liked (the descending stairs) and then waiting for someone to walk by who added contrast.

    You are a gifted photographer. Part of this is that, from my perspective, you have an open mind and heart and truly relate to the people whom you are photographing. And you add to this a readiness to challenge yourself and become one with the setting.

    Thanks for this. I will use it in *all* of my future composition courses, because you attend to argumentative style, tone, rhetoric, composition, etc.

    • Eric Kim

      Thank you so much for this thoughtful response Cydney. I too prefer to be gender-neutral in my writing, but for some reason it didn’t seem to flow in this essay. I think this is because when I used the word “he,” I was referring to myself in 3rd person, in which using “I” would be more appropriate as you said.

      It is nice to have my own writing mentor–and especially someone of your caliber! Hope to meet you once more before I leave tomorrow too :)

  • material lives

    I didn’t see your response until just now! I think you are out of town already . . . or are you getting to go to the Farmers’ Market?

  • Haydar

    Hi Eric,
    It’s always a big pleasure for me to read your experiences on street photgraphy, just a small thing; if even I want to believe on “While taking photographs in the streets, the street photographer is instilled with an incredible sense of freedom”, in todays world it’s not right for 100%.
    It was a big coincindes that this morning, I see this article on my Twitter, –>
    I still hope someday we all be free.

    • Eric Kim

      Hi Haydar,

      It does seem to appear that nowadays street photography is indeed getting more difficult, with ridiculous laws being enacted all over the country (and globe). Hopefully the community can continue to speak up against this injustice.

  • Martin

    To me, the second image – body language – really shows what street photography can do: It’s an everyday thing – two friends having a drink and a chat, there is no styling or lighting or trickery involved – we just see the immense beauty of a slightly excited moment. Beauty we all get to be part of every day.

    • Eric Kim

      Beautifully stated Martin :) Thanks for sharing!

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