Why Street Photographers Need To Take Themselves More Seriously

Elliot Erwitt

(Above image by Magnum Photographer Elliott Erwitt)

I consider myself first a sociologist, then a photographer. If anything, being a street photographer allows me to synthesize these two loves. On top of that, I am a lover of knowledge, theory, experimentation, as well as teaching. Fortunately being able to teach street photography for a living makes my life fulfilled.

I am currently reading an essay by Howard Becker (a famous sociologist) who also happened to be interested in art worlds (and especially photography). He is the author in which most of the sociological backbone of my upcoming UC Riverside Online course is coming from when teaching some of the theory behind street photography.

Lee Friedlander

The essay is titled “Photography and Sociology“. An interesting critique he mentioned in his essay that just lept off the page was his critique that most photographers don’t have enough depth and theory behind their photography. For example, take this excerpt:

Lee Friedlander, asked to verbalize the explicit social criticism his pictures seem to make, answered by saying, “I was taught that one picture was worth a thousand words, weren’t you?” (Friends of Photography 1972:10). (And the recorder of the exchange adds that the audience of photographers and photography buffs burst into applause.)

Considering that photography is a relatively new art form, it took a long time for it to be “accepted” by the art world as a true “art form”. However nowadays if you go to top-notch museums it is typically fine art that dominates. Street photography is still struggling to become generally regarded as “art” (I think things like the London Street Photography Festival and people like Nick Turpin—pushing for street photography to be regarded as art are doing a damn fine job though).

Nick Turpin. A great social statement about the changing London social landscape.

Therefore when it comes to street photography, I feel that our current understanding of what we do is too shallow. While I love the “one-liner” images out there and funny juxtapositions, we need to think more critically about the images we take and why we take them. It is a great thing to encourage laughter and amusement through our images—but there needs to be more.

Let’s take Elliott Erwitt for example. He is regarded the king of “one-liners”—many of his images making interesting visual puns and jokes which are instantly obvious. Take for example the picture of a man with a pitbull in his lap, with another pitbull leashed up next to him. Or for example the stork next to a water pipe that looks exactly like it. I love images like that, but they pale in comparison to his images that make more of a strong social statement—for example the image of the black man drinking at the water fountain that says “colored only” or the image of the little black boy smiling and pointing a gun at his head. Those social critique images make us challenge how we see our relationships with other people and the way we see the world.

Elliott Erwitt. Classic "one-liner".
Elliott Erwitt. Another "one-liner".

Becker argues that we all have a complex underlying theory behind why we take photos  in our mind which we all have—but we may not realize it. Whenever we pick up our cameras, frame our scenes, and decide to take an image—it is a personal decision. Our decision—nobody else’s. We choose the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and angle to create an image that we wish to create. Therefore inherently we are all predisposed to be interested in certain things, and there are reasons why we are drawn to it.

Therefore we need to go deeper into our mind and subconscious and think about why we take certain images. After all, your photographs show a damn lot of who you are as a person.

Take for example Daido Moriyama. I recently watched his documentary and it perfectly illustrates how his images describe who he is as a person. Lost, confused, and torn up inside. Despite what people may feel about him as a photographer, he shows who he is through his images. His images are high in contrasty, with a strong vignette, and grainy. They are often dark, confused, blurry, and out-of-focus. Daido often refers to himself as a “stray dog” (a nice homage to his famous image of the homeless dog) and he roams the streets and takes photos of whatever interests him. For him it is the darker side of life.

Daido Moriyama. Stray Dog.

Let’s also take Martin Parr for an example. I think the best way I have heard his images described was that when you look at his images, you are not sure whether to “…laugh or cry”. His images are full of humor (you can tell he is a funny guy) but at the same time he is very critical of the people around him. In his series of tourists taken all around the world, he highlights how ridiculous and out-of-place they look—and frankly how dumb they look. In his series on the Brighton Beach, he shows consumerism at its worst—leaving nothing but trash, dazed people, and the decline of society. This is all juxtaposed interestingly with vivid and bright colors.

Martin Parr

Lately I have been thinking more about my own images. For the longest time I would just go out and take photos of whoever interested me. I wasn’t quite sure why I was drawn to certain people and not others. The more I thought about it, I started to see some reoccurring themes in my images. Old ladies, hats, sunglasses, gangster-types, kids, hand gestures, flashy clothes, and expressive facial emotions. Being able to put down into paper what types of characters interested me, I started to better understand my own photography and why I took photos.

From my "City of Angels" project

Thinking about why I take images, I now realize I am still a sociologist (and more specifically) an ethnographer armed with a camera (instead of a pen and pad). I am absolutely fascinated by people, society, and different social worlds and wish to explore, theorize, and capture all of it with my camera.

Although I am having difficulty capture society through my lens, I think I have done it with reasonable success with a couple of my images. Take for example the picture I took of a woman in LA who is drinking two cans of red bull, has a cigarette in her right hand, a bright pink t-shirt, a track jacket, and what appears to be too much tanning or work done to her face. I feel that image describes my critique of LA—especially the aspiring models and actors. Many of them succumb to these lifestyles that just tear them down mentally and physically, and it can get quite ugly.

From my "City of Angels" project

Another example includes an obese black woman, who is eating a tiny green popsicle—yet is wearing a small and delicate golden necklace around her neck. To me this image shows another ugly side of LA—a critique of the overindulgence that we not only have with food, but with technology, fads, and information. The irony of the image makes the image even stronger.

From my "City of Angels" project

Now am I trying to tell people that their photos are meaningless and lack depth? No. You cannot say one image is inherently “better” than another image—but you can argue if an image has more impact on a person from a humanistic standpoint—and what one is trying to say about society.

One image that illustrates an effective street photograph (that says more than it may seem) is a recent image by Nils Jorgensen titled, “What dreams may come.” It is a photo taken on an airplane of a woman sleeping with her face in her Louie Vuitton bag. The image looks quite dreamy and surreal which almost makes it look like an advertisement. Upon first glance it is quite interesting, as it is a woman sleeping with her face inside a really expensive bag. But if you think more critically about the image, it is once again a huge critique on consumerism in today’s society, and how all we may be dreaming about is riches, wealth, and prosperity (and nothing else).

Nils Jorgensen

Sometimes when I analyze an image people critique me for saying that I am thinking “too much” about the image. After all, Garry Winogrand said that photographs are just light reflected off the surface, and he would vehemtly oppose any thought that his stories told stories or had some sort of “objective”. However the irony is that many of his images were incredibly political in nature (whether he intended to or not). For example, the image of an interracial couple holding two chimps or the disabled man amongst a group of war veterans.

Garry Winogrand

So does our intent matter when we are taking photographs? Yes. But at the same time we should allow our images to be open to interpretation too as well.

I was introduced this idea of “the death of the author” in which it didn’t matter what the author intended out of a book—the only thing that mattered was what the audience took from it. The reason why this idea was called “the death of the author” was because if an author wrote an incredibly riveting book with tons of different interpretations, you would have to kill the author to never let anybody know the author’s original intent.

In conclusion my statement is that we should deeply consider why we shoot street photography and what kind of deeper meaning we want through our images. I assert that our images should be about documenting society and having some sort of critique or commentary. We should capture images that inspire people, that make us rethink about our own lives, or bring certain social issues to light. But the most important thing is that we are aware of what we are doing—and doing it with our heart in the right place.

Why do you shoot street photography and what further message are you trying to make? Share your thoughts in the comments below – and please point out your opinions & disagreements with my article above as well!