For this week, I am pleased to cover street photographer Stephen Leslie. He is a close friend of Charlie Kirk, and has gorgeous color film street photography from the streets of London. As a film maker and script writer, he is able to translate his images into soulful stories that look into the lives of those who he captures. Not only that, but he is currently selling his book “Snaps” which showcases 10 years of his best street photography and is using the profits to benefit Japan. Keep reading to see his inspirational images and understand how he shoots street photography.
1. Hey Stephen tell us a bit about your background with street photography. When did you start shooting street and what prompted you to do so?
I started about eleven or twelve years ago, I had been working at the BBC making documentary films and when I gave that up to write I wanted a way of keeping my eye in so I bought a Yashica T5 and started taking photos on the street every day. Writing is a lonely, sedentary profession so it was a great relief to take a break everyday, go out and make myself take some photographs, it also prevented me from becoming morbidly obese. This was before I had access to the web and certainly before flickr came along so I would get the photos developed and then stick them in to a diary and write little captions. Gradually I became addicted to the extent I had to stop for a while because I wore out two T5s through over-use. I kept on photographing when I went travelling and then discovering flickr really got me started again in earnest. Now I know I’ll never stop, I’ve given in to the addiction, it’s pointless trying to fight it.
2. Looking through the majority of your images they all seem to be in colour. What draws you towards the colour format rather than black and white?
I’ve got nothing against B&W but it began as a financial imposition, it was cheaper for me to get colour film developed than b&w. Then it just sort of stuck, I still take b&w from time to time but I love the surprises you get with colour, the way that a mundane detail can suddenly come to the fore. The photograph above could only really work in colour.
3. Describe your street photography style for our readers. What do you try and capture in your images?
I photograph stuff that looks interesting to me, mainly it’s people or bizarre situations, I like photographs with some humour in them, I like ‘characters’, I have a mild large-moustache obsession and I like the individual style of many old people that live around my part of North London. Focusing on old people is also good as they tend to have more interesting faces and I can usually out-run them if they object to being photographed. Having said that I’ve recently started taking a medium format camera out on the street and asking people if I can take their portrait. I still consider this to be “street photography” even though I know some people would disagree but to me it’s the same as using flash, that creates an effect whereby the subject knows they’re being photographed and so does asking. At least that’s my theory.
4. In your flickr profile you state that you were “lured away by the evils and convenience of digital for a while but are now firmly back in the bosom of film” Tell us the story of how you came to that decision and what are the strengths of film over digital.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration I don’t really think digital is evil, it’s very convenient, it can be a great tool and a way to spend absolutely loads of money every few years desperately trying to keep up with all the latest advances and trends. Personally I think a vital element of photography is the gap between pressing the shutter, finishing a roll and then processing. What makes film special for me (aside from it’s look – that’s an entirely separate argument) is the wait and the anticipation to see if you got it right. Digital obliterates the wait, it’s impatient whereas film forces you to be patient and that in turn makes you think a bit more each time you take a shot – that and the limit of having only 36 shots on a roll (or even less if you’re using medium format).
5. There has been a huge buzz on the web about the selling of your book Snaps for the people of Japan. Describe to us what inspired you to do this soulful act of charity and how you decided which images to include from your ten years of shooting.
Well unfortunately the huge buzz hasn’t yet translated in to much money but the simple answer is I was due to go to Tokyo on holiday with my wife and 6 month old baby at the start of April. When the earthquake and subsequent disaster struck we had to cancel and so donating a book and a print to the Charity Auction initiative was the very least I could do. The group is still up and running on flickr and I urge people to take a look and get bidding. There are some fantastic prints still available and all for a very good cause.
As for the book it’s just some of my favourite images from the past ten years, although I discovered putting a book together is extremely tricky as it makes you edit and re-examine your work in minute detail. Throughout the book I tried to match up images to set opposite each other – hence the double meaning of the title, Snaps. This was both a blessing and a curse as it meant maybe including some photos that wouldn’t otherwise have made it except to support another shot. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from doing this and next time will avoid smart-arse titles.
6. What do you think differentiates a “good” street photographer versus a “bad” one?
I have no idea. I’m pretty sure you can’t take a good street photo with a zoom lens, you have to be genuinely close and your subjects have to be in context. Good street photography should seem effortless, tell a story, always be interesting, occasionally be funny and try to avoid clichés. Bad street photography is boring and cliché ridden.
7. Describe the favorite street photograph you’ve taken. When and where did you take it? Why is it special to you?
That’s very difficult to answer as it changes from day to day, depending on my mood. At the moment it’s probably this one as it was such a unexpected and strange thing to see. Plus it was the first good photograph I’d taken while out carrying my baby son in a harness. I had thought for a while that having a baby and taking photographs were mutually exclusive pursuits but this was the photograph that disproved that worry. So that’s why it’s extra special to me.
8.As a script writer and film maker living and working in London, how do your professional interests combine with your photography?
Quite simply, photography helps me stay sane and counterbalances the manifold frustrations and disappointments that are part and parcel of working in the film industry. Making a film is an immensely long, drawn out process that involves lots of other people – many of whom will let you down along the way – photography is something I can do myself and the end result is quick and, hopefully, satisfying. Photography is my antidote to film making.
9. What tips would you give to aspiring street photographers in your community?
Always, always carry a camera. It’s almost a given that the one time you go out without your camera that’s when you’ll see a naked midget on a pogo-stick chasing a Great Dane up the road and you’ll curse yourself for not having the means to photograph it. In fact I guarantee the next time you go out without your camera you’ll see something fantastic you wish you’d photographed. It’s called sod’s law.
The other thing I would insist on is to look at the work of other photographers who’ve been there and done that before you, personal favourites of mine are Eliot Erwitt, Martin Parr, Saul Leiter, Richard Kalvar, Jaques Henri Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Billingham, the list goes on and on…..
10. Are there any shout outs you would like to give?
Huge shout out to Charlie Kirk and all the Burn My Eye crew. They know who they are but no one else does. Yet.
Got a question for Stephen or would like to show him some love? Leave a comment below!