The Spirit of the Flaneur in Street Photography

Dear friend,

The reason I love street photography is to harness the spirit of the “flâneur” — or the person who walks aimlessly, with grace, and doesn’t have a final destination in mind.

Charles Baudelaire on the Flaneur

Berkeley, 2013

The famous quote on being a Flaneur comes from the French essayist, Charles Baudelaire, in his lovely book: “The painter of modern life”.

Baudelaire sees the Flaneur as someone who disappears into the crowd, and becomes “one flesh” with the crowd, just like this concept of “collective effervescence”, suggested by sociologist Emile Durkheim.

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”

The spirit of the Flaneur in Street photography

Selfie with x over my head. Istanbul, 2013

I think Baudelaire sets up the happiness of the street photographer well — to feel immense joy, being drunken off the movement of the crowd —to be part of “fugitive” moments (fleeting moments):

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”

The Flaneur can be happy wherever

Yes, we’re local. Berkeley self portrait shadow, 2013

Also, the Flaneur can be happy wherever he or she is — to always feel at home:

“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”

Be both an observer and active participant

Question mark selfie in red

Also as street photographers, we are both spectators and active participants of life. We see the whole world with love, and see strangers as part of our family.

“The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not – to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas.”

Also, as photographers, we paint our happiness and joy of life with our viewfinders. We frame what brings us joy.

Do you feel the pulse of people on the streets?

Selfie with shadows. Berkeley, 2013

And, Bauldelaire says the Flaneur is a “lover of universal life”—and feels the electrifying energy of life:

“Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

Istanbul movement.

Three lessons on being a Flaneur and street photographer

Man in green shirt in wheelchair, and pink buses. Istanbul, 2013

So, what can we take away from Baudelaire and the art of being a Flaneur?

Primo, to find joy in everyday life, to see ourselves as part of one common humanity, and to walk aimlessly, without a destination in mind.

Pink nike shoes, red and green arrows. Singapore, 2013

Two, to find joy in the simple and everyday. For us to feel the electricity and pulse of being with other humans. Essentially, the street photographer as a dancer, who feeds off the energy from the movement of others on the streets.

India surreal street photograph of taxi. Mumbai, 2013

Three, for us to realize the fleeting nature of life. For us to capture those “fugitive moments” of everyday life. For us to meditate on our own mortality, and for us to smile, and find joy that life is fleeting.


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