Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Eric’s Note: When I started street photography, one of the photographers whose work always amazed me was that of Matt Stuart. He is part of the international street photography In-Public, and has caught some of the most incredible images I have ever seen. I was always curious about how he was able to capture his moments. In the video interview with Miniclick, he talks about his thoughts on street photography, commissions, ethics, his interest, and the future of photography. 

For your convenience I have also written together a transcript of the interview below, so read more to get all the goodies. Photographs courtesy of Matt Stuart.

Introduction

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

New Bond Street. Photograph by Matt Stuart

Hi, so my name is Matt Stuart. I’m in Brighton to do the Miniclick talk- which I am very flattered to be invited to do. I’m a street photographer, I work in London, I’ve been a street photographer for 18 years now. And I work as a professional photographer as well.

On street photography

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Covent Garden. Photograph by Matt Stuart

I think we are living in a world where everything is photo shopped or fake- and the fact that street photography is a trend for people to document what is going on in their lives and what is in their street, museum, or park—and showing these very insightful peaceful moments that actually existed, happened. I think it is fantastic- more relevant than ever.

On commissions

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Commission for the Tate Modern, Photograph by Matt Stuart

The dream assignment is actually to not do street photography. Generally those assignments have conditions attached. They must be ‘aspirational’- and it starts to condition your way of thinking. You are not as free as you should be. But the dream assignment would be, working in a museum- photographing people in a gallery. Same way in the streets—no discussion, take what you see,.

And there is another way I work, I do advertising, corporate work. So people will phone me up and say we need an advert that it looks like it is a captured moment, but we need the lady to be wearing a red jumper, the car to be green- and the dinosaur to be fluorescent pink. So you can’t obviously stumble upon those things. So you get the lights, the camera the action—and that’s what I do for work. Advertising, is totally different from street photography, which is no models, dinosaurs, no jumpers—oh sometimes you can get dinosaurs, but very rarely.

On ethics

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Shaftesbury Avenue. Photograph by Matt Stuart

I think it depends very much on the individual, and the person who is actually capturing the moment. I know personally, I’m not doing anything wrong as far as I’m concerned. I’m not hurting anybody. The moments I’m looing for generally are harmless, they’re not incriminating, I think some photographers work in different ways. I think there’s a fine line between what you should and shouldn’t do as a photographer in public.

As a street photographer, in comparison to paparazzi, we’re talking a different game. They’re about stealing unfortunate moments that they can spread around the world to embarrass people. But I think the ethics, the ethics I have, and those who I admire—they are admirable and they care about the people they photograph.

On the interest in street photography

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Trafalgar Square. Photograph by Matt Stuart

I mean the appeal in my work is obviously the wit, and humor, and also the fact that its something that anyone can do. I really do mean that, someone can pick up a camera and pick up these things in the streets. The fact that I have been doing it obsessively for 18 years means I get more of those moments than more people. But I do think it is very accessible.

A lot of people say, I sort of saw something like that—maybe I can do something like that. As a collection it may look like I’m some sort of roving lucky eye—but it is just hard work. I think people can relate to that.

On the future of photography

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Trafalgar Square. Photograph by Matt Stuart

I think street photography is in a very exciting place. Well, 10% of the pictures ever taken were taken last year. So everyone is taking pictures- and the most accessible one is going out of your house and snapping in your streets. So we are in an avalanche of street photography enthusiasts. I think in the context of the galleries and art world, we are way at the bottom—and I like that.

Because I’m not particularly interested in the art world, the galleries—I’m interested in photographing people in the street. I don’t need to edition pictures and plonk them up on walls.

More photos by Matt Stuart

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1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

1x1.trans Interview with Matt Stuart on Street Photography, Ethics, and the Future of Photography

Other Video Interviews

Stolen Moments: Interview with Matt Stuart, 2010

Conversations in Modernism by Ben Sherman with Matt Stuart

Other Interviews

Follow Matt

Matt is also leading a workshop with In-Public members David Gibson, Nils Jorgensen, and Nick Turpin in London on May 18-19th. More info here

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  • Bill

    Matt is a pretty special photographer and a real smart guy. My only exception to his comments was when he said this, ” [paparazzi are] about stealing unfortunate moments that they can spread around the world to embarrass people”. He then goes on to say that those he admires do not do this and “care about the people they photograph”. Sorry, but I have to call bullshit here. You can’t label this way and you certainly can’t have your cake and eat it too. Look a few images up. See that lady being helped up by medics with a neck brace? Is Matt suggesting that if she stumbled upon this image splattered all over the internet (as it is here) she wouldn’t be “embarrassed”? Come on.

    We’re street photographers, and there’s a level of commitment to the art that comes before the subject’s emotional response, whether it’s during the moment, or later when they see themselves in a book, a gallery wall, or some blog. I just thought it somewhat arrogant to suggest paparazzi are not in the same boat. Yes, they exploit but at the end of the day the only true separation between them and us is, we have the audacity to call our images art. They also have the intent to exploit, wherein we do not. But after you take the “intention” away, we’re both left with images of people in compromising positions. Ours just end up in books and galleries while there’s ends up in cheap magazines. Just saying, let’s keep things in perspective here.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for the comment Bill. I agree a lot has to be about intention. I think in street photography you can accidentally stumble upon unfortunate situations and capture it. Like you mention this is very different from photographing people purposefully — trying to find them in distressful situations (and profiting from it from tabloids and such).

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Danonino

    Everybody feels violated these days.. So if you want good street photographs, you will most definitely will have to violate people until you throw up. The most important thing and the only thing that matters when shooting street photography is your intentions and respect towards people. But no matter what, everything is a violation these days. So just shoot away. Shoot first, ask later.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Agree!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1255625091 Christos Kapatos

    always simple and inspirational !

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for the comment Christos, Matt inspires me a ton too!

  • http://twitter.com/Gazonthestreet Gazonthestreet

    Another interesting read Eric on one of my favourite contemporary street photographers. Co-incidently he walked past me twice yesterday whilst we were both out street shooting in London! May yet appear in one of his photos :-)

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Let’s hope so :)

  • http://www.simbius26.blogspot.com/ Brian Hinesley

    I understand why people are into his photos, through the juxtapositions, and photographic humor but i always feel like his composition, and lighting/tones fall flat. I am not saying he is a bad photographer, i am just nearly stating that his premise alone doesn’t hold up to what I would consider a good photograph. With someone like Joel Meyerowitz as an example of someone taking a good photograph, with clean composition, nice tones, and humor.

    http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m044dhbcPC1qazg3ko1_500.jpg <— Dog Image

    or Garry Winogrand with a well centered composition, good lighting, and a splash of humor.

    http://erickimphotography.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/garry-winogrand-monkeys.png

    Even though he shoots film, it still feels like digital with flat tones, and unsavory composition, now that could just be the times, or it could be just my love for the classic photographers but he just doesn't grab me.

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Thanks for your thoughts and feedback Brian. I think one of the most difficult things in street photography is to capture incredible moments while also having a good composition. It isn’t always possible to have both.

      Of course not all of Matt’s photos are perfect compositionally, but I think that for his most popular shots they are composed very well. Solid framing, good space in-between subjects, and I think that his color shots on film pop very well!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Donohoe/100000308877053 Paul Donohoe

    some negative and some positive reactions from me. Yes SP is hard work..it is NOT just about stepping out of your door and snapping away. Yes it is about caring for your subject..something a LOT of the so-called street photographers need to think about. And this guy might not be interested in having his images in galleries..well that’s cool ignore him!! what is the point of art if you don’t share it with other people…this guy is like those millionaires who say “I don’t care about money” And lastly, he doesn’t like the fakery in the world..yet he sets up images for advertisers that try to fool people into thinking they are “real” moments on a street…a lot to think about here and it goes to show we are all full of contradictions…this guy makes great photographs though

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Hey Paul, definitely agree– that street photography is hard work. I know that Matt works very hard in his street photography, but I think it is noble that he mentions the openness and accessibility of it to everyone else. I think he wants more people to participate, not less.

      Also I think that most people understand that advertisements are fake and arranged- and Matt certainly makes a clear distinction between his posed and unposed work.

      But once again, thanks for your thoughts!

  • http://twitter.com/miniclicktalks Miniclick

    Thanks for posting the video (and for transcribing it as well – saves us a job!!). The talk Matt gave to a packed house straight after this video was superb. If you get the chance to see him speak, it’s well worth going along.

  • Jorge

    I don’t get it. Shooting random people in the street. Why? They are mostly caught in somewhat compromising situations/poses. The photos suck (for me). But I know it’s me. I just can’t bring myself to point a camera at a total stranger… And I shoot weddings for very good living for crying out loud! But this type of photography to me is what I would weed through and throw out if I shot them. Again, I just don’t get…

  • Suzanne

    This quote applies to some of the comments here, I believe.

    “If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of
    resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.
    Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others.”

    Lovely work Mr Stuart.

  • ilparm

    Matt Stuart is a photographer who made his name and reputation shooting candid moments. Am I the only one who feels somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of someone like him now getting paid to fabricate pictures that look like candid moments? Makes you think…

    • Suzanne

      Dear Ilparm, It should make you feel just as uncomfortable as finding out that Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank had to do advertising work to make a living. Get over it, people need to make a living.

      • ilparm

        You missed the point I was making by a mile. You did not want to wait a single second to defend Matt that you did not even stop to actually read and process my post.

  • Jasper Rose

    I love Matt’s work!!!

    He always manages to make a photo more than just a photo and in to something that tells a story and conveys a message.

    Does he have any books for sale??

    Jasper

  • Minimodi

    Thanks fot charing! Matt is one of my favorites (of all time). I wanna go out and shoot now ;)

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  • http://www.clippingpathindia.com/photoshop-retouching.html Shumi

    Matt is just mind blowing in street photography. Love his work.