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!

Join the Conversation


  1. i like the “one-liner” ideas, the image “the stork next to a water pipe that looks exactly like it”, this bring out the contrast of different subject relationship which normally missed out by us . like what mentioned in your recent “PROXIMITY” exhibition in Singapore, shooting with “heart” (see things what normal people cannot see) can spark different creativity and view among people. shall i fix the “one-liner” ideas next time when i’m taking street photo just like we use the fix focal-length to take street photo, then we can really shoot with the “heart” …

  2. Eric, why do fine art and street photography have to be two different things? There are many classic street photography items that qualify as fine art without questions being asked. HCB has tons of these in his portfolio and the ones from Vivian Maier that stick to my mind are also to be considered.

    My own images happen to be fine art images (they sell like that) taken on the street of street scenes. While those images get trashed on HCSP on Flickr, they get rewarded in competitions and sell on fine art fairs for hundreds of pounds. What’s my point? I think many ‘street photographers’ take themselves and their genre too serious, introducing artificial limitations to what street photography is and what it’s not. The way I look at it: street photography must be good photography first before it can be considered good street photography. Along that path, many street photography images end up being excellent fine art images.

  3. What was the purpose of bringing up the race of the child, woman, and couple when the races of other subjects were not explored?

    That may speak volumes of your work and how you view Americans of color. Review over several shots you have taken. In particular, the Chicago waiter with the unorthodox smile. I was seriously put off as it seemed to be a stereotyped, Hollywood view of Black porters from the 1930s.

    You have portrayed Latinos as “gangsters” or props.

    As a photographer of color, you have a vested interest in the portrayals of urban America. I would believe that your readers would be well-served with images (and words) which help construct this unique vantage point.

    1. Thank you for the comment bc. The majority of America is white, and everyone else of color is technically a minority. Race does play a huge role in problems that plague America. For example, black and Latino people are disproportionately affected by obesity when compared to others, due to socio-economic issues. Same goes with black and latino youth joining gangs and getting locked up at a higher percentage when compared to white people. It is a serious problem which is based on inequality, unfair policies, and racism.

      Many of my images are stereotypical, and I think it challenges the viewer to reconsider their own views on race and how they view those around them. Being Asian myself, there are tons of issues which plague Asians as well which I am currently exploring on a project based on “first world asia”.

      Hope this helps clarify some of my thoughts. However thank you for bringing up this issue. I don’t think it can be addressed in a comment alone.. An article on the subject would be much more adequate.

  4. Very nice article, Kim. I think, one more aspect of street photography which intrigues me a lot is that it depicts change in time. As I watch the pictures made in the last century, I find it very interesting to be able to see how the cities looked in this period or how the people looked, how they dressed. Not only this but more importantly the pictures show the moods or emotions of these people. You can see how the people’s lifestyle has changed over the years, whether the relative happiness has increased or decreased, whether technology has brought people closer together or made them farther apart. I wonder when the next generations will look at the pictures we are making today, would they find world in those pictures very different too? This in itself is history and deserves to be documented.

  5. Eric, you keeping writing these thought provoking articles, well done! I must admit I love looking at old street photos from 20 or more years ago, some from a nostalgia point of view of when I was a kid. Seeing how our daily life has changed. But I still enjoy and mainly take the ‘one liner’ images as you call them. I was selling my prints at an art expo yesterday and I got a real kick from seeing people smiling or laughing at my images. In other words provoking a reaction to my work and in a happy way. Someone called them ‘visual jokes’ and I am quite happy for my work to be perceived in that way.

  6. Yes, Eric this is fantastic and needed to be said. I always enjoyed Erwitt, but felt that many of his images were a little too ‘fluffy’ for me. Certainly not all, just some. I much prefer the collective works of Martin Parr, Friedlander and Winogrand and I’m happy that you pointed out the contradiction that Winogrand had a point of view about society in many of his photos even though he stated otherwise.

    This is by far your best post yet.

  7. I can see the arguments both ways.

    I would argue that some of the more poignant images happen more by accident rather than by searching for them. There is also something to be said about an image that people enjoy at face value – where they don’t need to be told why that image is of any significance.

  8. great piece of work eric… i’ve learn’t in only my 24 years of being on this earth someone will always have a bad word to say about anything anyone but themselves create!

    Keep it up!

  9. Hi Eric,

    Ansel Adam’s writes in the introduction from his book “The making of 40 photographs,”:

    “I cannot, and will not, attempt to describe, analyze or define the creative-emotional motivations of my work, or the work of others. Description of the inspiration or the meaning of a work of photography, or any other medium of art, lies in the work itself.”

    This seem to share your idea of “the death of the author.”

    When I was in high school we had these two established artist come in to give us a “masterclass” in mask making. When I finished mine, one of them noticed that I had painted on blue eyes instead of brown like my own, (almost everyone painted their own eye colour). She went on with this ten minute dissertation on possible interpretations then she turned to me and asked why. My answer? “I could not find the brown paint.”

    So I don’t think our intent really matters when taking a photograph. Yes, as a photographer, we might be curious, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is the photograph itself and how one perceives it.

  10. Eric, this is interesting article. However, it would be more appropriate for you to be a little more sensitive to write about individual’s well being, whether someone regardless of race, culture, language and such association of given labels often used by society. Now that we live in very modernized society, it would better to use more proper words.

    For example, in your City of Angles as you like to illustrate on some side of its ugliness in Los Angeles when it comes to citizens or tourists or whomever that might be… In one of your photos, of this obese lady, I would think it is more appropriate to use this term “Afro American” instead of rather obvious, perhaps too harsh word as in ‘black’. But it is true, in that image, of this obese Afro American lady with little green popsicle, with nice contrast with other obese lady in background, by/in/for itself as strong image.

    Someone else in comment mentioned that you wrote about Latinos were given a label as gangsters, perhaps that you should sit back and re-examine and re-think with choice of words.

    It is like comparing between apple and orange, there is no such a thing when it comes to human beings. We all live in one world, and we live together in one world together.

    Thanks to photography, this give us a better understanding by studying, learning with different thinking – perhaps new thinking with nice feeling attitude. Unfortunately, we all live in a ugly world, and life can be unfair. However, it is up to anyone with their thinking.

    Just a thought… Just saying, Eric. (smile)

  11. Eric, this is interesting article. However, it would be more appropriate for you to be a little more sensitive to write about individual’s well being, whether someone regardless of race, culture, language and such association of given labels often used by society. Now that we live in very modernized society, it would better to use more proper words.

    For example, in your City of Angles as you like to illustrate on some side of its ugliness in Los Angeles when it comes to citizens or tourists or whomever that might be… In one of your photos, of this obese lady, I would think it is more appropriate to use this term “Afro American” instead of rather obvious, perhaps too harsh word as in ‘black’. But it is true, in that image, of this obese Afro American lady with little green popsicle, with nice contrast with other obese lady in background, by/in/for itself as strong image.

    Someone else in comment mentioned that you wrote about Latinos were given a label as gangsters, perhaps that you should sit back and re-examine and re-think with choice of words.

    It is like comparing between apple and orange, there is no such a thing when it comes to human beings. We all live in one world, and we live together in one world together.

    Thanks to photography, this give us a better understanding by studying, learning with different thinking – perhaps new thinking with nice feeling attitude. Unfortunately, we all live in a ugly world, and life can be unfair. However, it is up to anyone with their thinking.

    Just a thought… Just saying, Eric. (smile)

    1. I merely pointed out how Eric noted the race of the subjects in these pictures.

      True, the juxtaposition of the woman’s color, the ice pop, and the gold are all stunning. But then say that. Instead, he referenced the woman’s color in way that he didn’t reference the color of the women in other photographs.

      For the image of the child, it says a lot about the gun play in the United States…and possibly, Black America. But by referring to the child as “the little black boy” it causes the reader of the blog to take a different tact on the shot than they would have.

      By no means am I inferring anything from Eric’s shot and use of people of color. I was just jarred than race was noted in these shots when he didn’t do anywhere else.

      Honestly, the pictures should stand on their own merit. And they do.

      1. My apologies for using word choices that may not be as politically correct as of nowadays. Didn’t mean any disrespect. But I think I should have mentioned the races of others in my images, for example the white woman with the two red bulls in her hand. It is typically white or Caucasian people who are stereotyped as striving for this “Hollywood lifestyle”

        One thing I also didn’t mention in my article is how Martin parr does concentrate on white people in his images as well. For example, his series on tourists are predominately white..as well as Asian. His images showing disparity of wealth also show mostly white people as well.

        I am glad that the issue of race was brought up, as it is something that I haven’t been thinking about as much as I should have .. As it is an important issue that we shouldn’t shy away from. Thanks again bc

        1. ” For example, his series on tourists are predominantly white…as well as Asians ”

          I suggest ” yellow and brown” instead of Asians.
          These are the four colours of mankind…..white,black,yellow,brown……something like CMYK….isn’t it. :)

  12. Hey, this comment posting that I just had edited just now and entered. It seems double posted for some reason. It is so painfully slow to post for some reason. For that, my apologies in advance.

  13. For me, Street photography is me trying to capture THE moment of one event happening around me. I do speak to the people i shoot, sometimes before, sometimes after, to have a good feel of who they really are. When i take a photo, there’s already an image of who that person is, and that’s biased. Only through interaction, i am able to capture the real them in that sense.

  14. Very interesting article! My recent interest in street photography has me thinking a lot about these ideas. Normally, I prefer “Art for art’s sake.” Mark Rothko is one of my favorite artists because of the spiritual or emotional impact I feel, which is completely free from anyone else’s interpretation- a completely personal experience. But street photography (in my novice’s eye) seems to push beyond “art for art’s sake.” It, by its very nature, is making a statement about people or society. Conceptually, I do not care for work with an outright social agenda, but rather enjoy personal interpretations each viewer brings to a scene from the street.

    Reading B.C. Lorio’s comment also made me think…

    Is his view, you are portraying all Latino’s as “gangsters.” Is this a reflection of an objective goal you had in shooting the picture (whether conscious or not), or is this a subjective interpretation of your work influenced by the concerns and ideas he brings to the image. His comment made me think because, in my interpretation, he is substituting his subjective interpretation of the image for your objective (conscious or not) goal in taking the picture. The philosophical question this is raising for me is whether or not it is OK for the viewer of the image to determine what the artist’s intent was. If the artist sets out with a specific message in mind, then should he/she state explicitly what that message is, or should he/she be ok with another interpretation of the work being substituted as the meaning of the work. I prefer the idea of fofeiting an explicit meaning in a photograph as to allow individuals to interpret the image as they please (as long as the interpretation remains their own and is not attributed to the artist). So in this view, I suppose I would be suggesting the artist should seek images that are compelling because of the multitude of interpretations that could be brought to the photograph.

    I am relatively new to thinking about street photography and the artistic position it holds, so forgive me if my comments are off base or confusing… I was thinking aloud more than anything…

    1. ” The philosophical question this is raising for me is whether or not it is OK for the viewer of the image to determine what the artist’s intent was. If the artist sets out with a specific message in mind, then should he/she state explicitly what that message is, or should he/she be ok with another interpretation of the work being substituted as the meaning of the work. I prefer the idea of fofeiting an explicit meaning in a photograph as to allow individuals to interpret the image as they please (as long as the interpretation remains their own and is not attributed to the artist). So in this view, I suppose I would be suggesting the artist should seek images that are compelling because of the multitude of interpretations that could be brought to the photograph.”

      I wholeheartedly agree with you.

      I may have simply been a bit to wary on word choice in this blog. I honestly don’t think it was Eric’s objective but merely writing without caution.

      And listen, I’m new to this street photography thing too. But as with any hobby or art, all opinions are welcome as we all try to grow and learn together.

      1. Thanks for the Reply B.C.

        This is a very interesting topic and gets to the heart of why we do street photography. Do we have a message for the world? What do we want the goal of our images to be? Does a street photograph require concrete content to make a compelling image?

        I’m sorry if my comment singled you out- Your comments made me think about the role of intent and interpretation in photography, which helped my clarify my own aims with street photography. I appreciate the dialogue sparked by your observations. It is definitely the range of interpretations which I find interesting in a lot of pictures.

        1. Great dialogue and thoughts gentlemen. What my ultimate intent in this blog is to do is spur conversation and thoughts…and great discussion. Hope my prior comment to bc helped clarify some of my thoughts

  15. I think it’s always a good thing to think more deeply about what we do, and why we do it. That’s true in any venture, let alone photography.
    It’s probably easier to overlook doing that in ‘street’ photography, since it’s often the visual equivalent of jazz music — unstructured, without preconceptions, improvised, intuitive. Garry Winogrand is hardly the first nor the last to firmly reject definitions for the work.

    However, I think people can often read too much into the images made in street photography. They end up manufacturing depth and intent where, frankly, none exists (or ever did). I notice this in my work, to be fair. But I notice it in a few examples you referenced in this article — frankly, that shot of Mr. Jorgenson’s was just a shot of a woman sleeping on whatever pillow she could find. I just don’t see anything more in it than that.
    And poking fun at stupid tourists is hardly new or profound, now is it?

    When I looked at your images for the “City of Angels” project, what occurred to me is how often street photographs can find their greater meaning in numbers — how, as a collection, the meaning we seek for them can be found. It struck me that the themes you mention would be a lot plainer to see, and a lot more convincingly made, with a whole bunch of photographs from that collection.
    It takes a damn good photograph to really stand out on its own, but it gets a lot easier for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.

  16. I’ve been a long time reader of the blog. It’s been one of the things that really jump-started me as a street photographer. I’m appreciative of your energy and enthusiasm. However, this article is a bridge too far.

    I too am not the biggest fan of one liners. They have their place. They’re funny and exuberant. I agree when you say that they are shallow. They are street haiku.

    But then again, all of street photography plays a haiku role. Street is the haiku of photojournalism. It is the bubbling up of society onto the public surface. It is an exciting place where photo-worthy moments are made (or created by the photographer). However, it is also a dull place, especially for self-styled photosociologists. There is no child labor, no back room prostitution, no civil rights protests (okay there are, but immediately you jump genres into photojournalism).

    Whether it be pro wrestling or the KKK, motorcycle gangs or new Chinese industrial parks, I’m sure that Mr. Becker would agree that good social documentarians get close. They come in out of the street to the private sphere, the world of the story. What story have you found?

    Perhaps your obese woman has a genetic disorder. Maybe she has a stressful existence where she lacks either the time or money necessary to eat healthy. She might be incredibly self-conscious. Then again, she might enjoy Klondike bars and be perfectly happy with her weight.

    Maybe your tanned smoker has lived the rough lifestyle you’re on about. Perhaps she is also a loving mother, or a speed freak, or a businesswoman on break, or a bar owner, or an actress. It might be interesting to know more. Did you find out?

    Martin Parr takes pictures of tourists being ridiculous. They’re good, they’re funny, they’re sad. Tourists sometimes behave badly. Then I get to thinking and wonder if much of street photography isn’t its own form of tourism where the street is the nation, the people the monuments, and the street photographer the tourist. Little is known about a place or person besides the readily available details on the surface. Surface scratching street photography accompanied by sociological statements is Orientalism writ small, where the other (in this case the random person whose photo you’ve taken) is simultaneously mysticized and disprivileged. It’s like saying “Oh, India was dirty but the Taj Mahal was grand”.

    On the other hand, take Eugene Smith’s “Dream Street”. It’s partially street photography of the prying, some might say exploitative, kind. However, his intentions are revealed as an optimistic portrait of a city and a country through his words, but mainly those thousands of words his photos speak. He was not out to make his “actors” standard bearers of the ills of society. Instead, they carry a hopefulness, the dreams of a nation. They were exploited for a worthy goal. I’d be happy to someday see my face in a project like “Dream Street”. Not so with your sociological critiques.

    Let your images be open to interpretation, as much of timeless photojournalism and street photography is, but be wary of how you interpret, especially when it comes to your own work. The street may be your stage and the people your actors, but they are first and foremost people. People who lead complex lives and deserve more than a random flash in the face accompanied by a theoretical dress down.

    What would the world be like if there were millions of street photographers ready to invade your privacy then use you as an illustration of the negative aspects of your society? If that were the case and the subjects became aware, Leica sprockets would litter the streets.


    Social concern is great if it digs deep and is pure. Street is not necessarily the realm of the deep and pure. Get closer (as some are fond of saying) and/or don’t aspire to be a sociologist. Don’t dump on people whose realities you don’t know. If anything, let the viewer do it.


    1. Speaking of W.Eugene Smith. one of my favs..his photo of a Japanese mother bathing her child, deformed by mercury, in a tub, bathed in light is “beautiful” in its horror.

  17. I like this article!!

    I can’t stand the wacky school of street photography, were the picture needs a laugh track. I like to shoot ideas and express myself, and show people things they should see. It’s extremely challenging!

    Funny images are also good, but truly humorous images (like comedy) express strong ideas.

  18. Eric:

    It’s funny yesterday I read your article about how not be a creepy street photographer, which I actually think you are becoming from what I have read above.

    Sociological analysis doesn’t really come from taking random pictures of strangers and then attaching long imagined analyses to them. If you want to get beyond the surface with your photography then do the work and get to know them. Otherwise what you don’t know about remain silent.

    1. Thanks for the comment pat. When it comes to street photography and working on projects, you will not get as intimate with your subjects as documentary photography. This is the challenge and the difficulty. However when it comes to projects, having certain sociological themes or motifs in mind when you are out shooting will shape your resulting images…in terms of what you choose to shoot. Not only that, but the editing process is where the project really comes to play…as you shape your subjective view of the world through the images you ultimately decide to choose.

  19. I think that its more important going out the street with an idea on mind about a serious project perfectly planned that going out the street hunting unwaiting and unplanned scenes without a sociological “leivmotiv”. I think.

  20. Photography style of an individual is largely a reflection of his or her sensibilities. And therefore capturing humor, hope, stress or reflection of society is indeed of importance. But thats exactly what photojournalism is all about. Street Photography will always have a bit of surrealism, a photographers vision of how he perceives and wishes to see reality. Finding humor when there is none in reality is just one example.

    Personally for me, unless my photographs reflect a sensitive view of people, their lives and their environment it does not work for me. And that is one of the reasons why capture color coordinated shots, juxtapositions with signs etc are smart and make you smile but thats what they are nothing more than that. Some appreciate it – i like it but does it make a photographer a contributor to society i am doubtful.

  21. Nice to read a discussion about the role of art, social responsibillity . . . as opposed to the usual Facebook drivel (e.g., “Too tired to work out today!”).

    It is always fascinating to see how others read photographs. I will offer as an illustration takes on Eric’s photos that.

    My first take on the Red Bull lady was to question whether her gaunt face and short hair reflected recent illness. I work with someone who recently recovered from radiation treatment and her short hair and angularity came to mind. So, for all I know, the Red Bull lady has known for a week her cancer’s come back, and she’s in a “screw it, I will indulge a little” moment. In that reading, she isn’t a symbol of everything that’s wrong with LA, but rather an illustration of the defiant part of each of us.

    My first take on the fellow with the neck tattoos was the strength and character in his eyes. So to me this photo said, “Behind all this getup there is a strong soul here.” I loved this one for the expressiveness. I lived in LA for many years, and there are many opportunities to very different photos that convey a simplistic “Here’s a gangster” message. So this one was a favorite.

    My first take on the green popsicle lady was that, yeah, she’s big, but hey, she wasn’t hiding behind her glasses, like the woman to her left. Then my eye was rather drawn to the huge ring on her pinky. Strong character, this one.

    What’s the real meaning? That’s a centuries-old debate, though I still enjoy reading or hearing the debate.

    I will close by saying I do appreciate the blog posts that go beyond gear talk — and that’s not just because I can’t afford a Leica, like some of you guys. And I am always impressed by the quality of the comments I see posted here.

    Keep it up.

  22. My take on this is that if you consciously inject socially relevant messages in your SP, you run the risk of introducing your own personal bias on whatever issue your trying to address. If a socially relevant message comes across from your SP, it should be just “incidental” — i.e., just pure happenstance. I think that photos that tackle social issues should be left to the photojournalists and documentarians because they are specially trained on this particular genre.

  23. Nice thread here.

    It is important to be honest(that includes being serious) about what we’re up to in Street Photography. The motive might not surface as quickly as we ‘d like it to, surely in the beginning, and even maybe in the long run, because there might not be any, let alone sociological, aside tryin’ to make photographs, and maybe even good ones.
    Most of us will go for the anecdotic ones because drawn to anecdotes, overwhelmed by the so-called stories made up about some “masters’ photographs, or just go for graphic effects and the luck that goes sometimes with it.
    Or simply because of the over and over again heard and practiced recipes for making good ones, no matter how good or bad the recipes on content and compositon as well as decisve moment recipes are. And again so many photographers trying to pin a cerebral content to justify the use of a technique, if not just the existence of the photograph that merely serves the purpose of filling a frame with a technique and that screams, for good or bad, that if it is objectively well shot then it’s close to good, even though dead empty as content is concerned, just like objectively well shot/composed and whatnot can be an empty shell as it is. And it’s fine as long as you acknowledge and hold honestly that position that.
    Personally, I would not try to portray or analyze society using photography. I’d use it to have a look at myself. Beyond that, whatever the hip people of photography say, photography is too shallow a medium anyway to go in deep.

    Cheers and happy shooting.

  24. I agree with Devin Jones. I think your sociologist mindset may be inhibiting your photography.

    You appear to have set out from the start on your LA series to show what you consider to be the seedy side of LA, but is that what you’re really capturing? For instance, the woman who you consider to have “succumbed” to a lifestyle you don’t agree with. Really? From a sociological perspective, I’m more interested in you, and how you’ve apparently been molded by media, society, and other influences to see beforehand that cigarettes are some sort of social evil that betrays social weakness, and wearing a bright pink T and track jacket is some sort of give-a-way that this person has been overcome by the LA lifestyle. Your statement is much more interesting than the photograph.

    Photographs capture something different for each viewer. I see a woman who looks like she’s had a hard life, maybe because she’s raised a few kids and has sacrificed to get them through. Maybe her skin condition is genetic. Maybe that’s not the case at all, and she’s had a hard work day and just wants to get home. Maybe she’s a millionaire who decided she didn’t want to dress for work today, and is heading home to pack for her trip to Rome. I’m sure there are plenty of millionaires who smoke and drink Red Bull.

    While you can form an impression from a photograph, it may or may not be accurate. You may be constructing your own reality on each shot, in which case your work would be fiction.That’s why sociologists spend so much time talking to people, not just photographing them.

    I like your shots and I think I understand what you’re trying to do, but let me draw my own conclusions. Let your work speak for itself. To me those two shots don’t do much to document LA. They could have been taken anywhere. Get a shot of a gang member in east L.A. shooting someone, or a shot of a hobo down by the tracks passed out in torn clothes and a puddle of his own urine, and then you’ve documented the seedy side of L.A.. May I suggest you take a look at the work of street photographer John Free to see what I’m talking about – about how to really capture what you seem to be looking for. Good luck!

    1. Rather than seeing the external appearance of a woman who seems to be burnt-out on the LA lifestyle, you are seeing beyond the externalities and reading into the myriad of lifestyles that could have led to this picture rather than making an obvious snap-judgement.

      But what is more interesting to me is how you have been molded by society (or more likely University) to make a post-modern “meta” critique of Eric’s analysis.


      Nothing wrong with that though…

      Just having some fun :)

      1. I don’t think this comment is about “meta”critique. It’s about ethics. There’s nothing postmodern about it.

        Leave yourself open to interpretation all you want. Explain, and suddenly you’re the one making the judgments. Not good, especially if you are saying something negative, and especially if you have little connection to the subject.

        1. From Wikipedia: Postmodernism postulates that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change. It emphasises the role of language, power relations, and motivations in the formation of ideas and beliefs. In particular it attacks the use of sharp binary classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial; it holds realities to be plural and relative, and to be dependent on who the interested parties are and the nature of these interests. It claims that there is no absolute truth and that the way people perceive the world is subjective.

  25. Eric,

    This is a very deep topic, and I’m not sure if what I’m about to write is going to make any sense at all, but I’ll give it to you straight:

    – You don’t see what’s out there. You see who you are. Why something looks appealing or interesting and thus compels your attention has to do with the concept from depth psychology, known as projection. There is something inside of you that you are not fully aware of yourself, and so it is projected out there. You see it out there in the world. This can be a positive or a negative thing. If a negative thing, it’s known as the shadow. If positive, it’s known as an anima projection. A simple way of putting this is to say that what compels you to go for certain images is your own subjectivity.

    Now, what kinds of “images” are swirling unknown in your subconscious which then get projected out into the world as beauty and ugliness? Look at your photographs. When you are most freely shooting what interests you, you are photographing projections of your own inner images which carry a “charge” for you.

    If you were to ask many photographers what they get out of shooting in the street, I’d gather that in the end, their descriptions would have a lot in common with certain kinds of therapy. Art therapy, role playing kinds of therapy, etc… You are in effect creating a kind of photogram of your own psyche which you can then look at with your eyes. Yes, for many people, what’s in there is pretty trite and stereotypical – not very imaginative. Why? Because in our mass society, our imaginations have been dominated by mass media, mass products, mass art, mass thinking. That’s also why, when you see the photography of a truly independent thinker whose imagination is unique – their photos look so different.

    Now, with digital photography, everyone has become a photographer – unconsciously choosing external representations of what’s inside of them – their own subjectivity. This is both a tremendous opportunity for psychological growth, but also a hazard. The hazard is that we’re ignorant of the power of the image – the “charged” image – the image which is charged with emotion. When ingested his charged image has the power of a kind of semi-autonomous sub-personality in our psyche. In other words, it has to power to direct our thinking, feeling, and willing. It acts as a kind of psychological complex. The people who create advertising know this very well.

    So with practically everyone on planet earth now poised to become photographers, you can see the potential of this art to actually begin to transform. The key thing is to not only educate photographers on the craft of taking and making photographs, but also to give them the tools and language to understand the IMAGE and all of it’s implications.

    If this is something that interests you and you’d like to explore this vast subject, then I can recommend the work of James Hillman.

    Joe Camosy

  26. Dear Eric

    I have read your article a couple of times. And the comments made to it.

    What you do here is very good: You ask some important questions, and I quite agree with you: Street photography is starved on good theory, on reflection, on ideas. Street photography should definitely be taken seriously. I know of no other area of photography that is so rewarding, but also so very difficult. Personal bias :-).

    The idea that: “Hey, I have a camera and there is the street so now I am a street photographer”, is far to common and sites on street photography shows that only too well.

    I am not sure that I accept all the answers given. One liners are perfectly acceptable as long as the person in questions knows what he/she is doing. One liners have the advantage over more complex stuff, that they are understood by many. And that is a good thing if it is understanding you are after.

    Complex shots do not necessarily promote an idea better than non complex shooting – one liners. My 2P.

    Anyway, thanks you for starting this debate. I certainly will link in to it.

    Copenhagen, Denmark

    Attachment: Italian One Liner :-).

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment Knut.

      I feel that in the end regardless of what you are shooting, it comes down to intent. I do love “one liner” shots myself, but I still feel that the photographer should have the intent of showing some unique sort of humanity through his/her shots.

      Glad to always hear your thoughts!


  27. yeah a big problem is when people hunt instead of just taking photos of what interests them… trying too hard/contrived

  28. Dear Eric,
    I really like the pictures of Los Angeles, the portrait of man with a mustache and tattoos is amazing, could you tell me how you made ​​it: the camera and lens, exposure time, aperture, flash settings and any other technical data. Forgive my curiosity.
    Thanks and best regards from Italy.

  29. Nice article.

    Small correction: Martin Parr’s Last Resort was shot in New Brighton near Liverpool not Brighton Beach. One is in the north of England whist the other is on the south coast.


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  36. I am amazed how you literary dumped some of the greatest contemporary photographers to justify your photos and mindset.
    Friedlander and the rest of those photographers from 60s onward were not “street photographers”. Just because they photographed on the street doesn’t mean they were sociologists like you who tried to illustrate “one liners” you have in your head:
    LA is such a corrupt city they have two Redbulls at the same time in sloppy makeup
    Consumerism means sleeping a Louie Vuitton dreaming about riches, wealth, and prosperity

    A black busty woman wearing a small necklace holding a ‘tiny’ (?) Popsicle means overindulgence.

    It is your naive and simplistic attitude to photography that is shallow sir.

    Showing a poor child on the ghettos does not have an impact on a person from a humanistic standpoint any more
    Please study about post modern photography instead of just watching them and trying to figure it out based on your sociological readings. They have nothing to do with that
    (in a hurry!). Good luck

  37. 15 years ago, I just photographed architecture in many of the big cities around the world. I didn’t like anyone getting in the way, so I’d wait and wait and wait until everyone was clear. Normally it was because someone would be wearing a fluoro coloured top or something wouldn’t quite match with the colours in the scene…

    In the busier cities, the streets, I obviously couldn’t do this all the time. And then one day, I took a photo (with film) in Vienna in 2000. It was black and white, 3200 ISO. A little old lady happened to be crossing the street. Pretty soon it was my favourite photo of the whole trip. And it had a person in it. Now I look back on all those images and they all look *incredibly* sterile. I’d be ashamed to show them to anyone.

    Right now I usually like to photo anything that is going to change. I’d describe it simply as “people doing things”. I do this because I am reminded of photos taken of the workers having a lunch break on the empire state building for example. How do they work today in comparison? How are all the trades going to change as they are replaced by robotic technology?

    A photo is a snapshot in time. No one thinks to take them, but as the decades roll on, some of the most basic photos turn out to be real gems.

    20 years ago, nobody had a mobile phone. Now they are everywhere. I could fill up an entire journal of images of people distracted by their phones. Perhaps in 20 years people will have integrated this technology with the “brain computer interface” (BCI). We can already do this. It’s not science just fiction anymore. It’s reality. So what will happen to the mobile phones?

    So for me, getting people in their environment is key, but it can’t be posed. For that reason I like wide angle, ultrawide angle and even fisheyes.

    Another thing for me that I know about society is that many people are very stressed out indeed. If you look at the top 10 killers like heart disease, stroke, cancer, etc, practically all of them have some link to stress. Then on the other end of the scale, you have depression (and even that is linked to anxiety).

    One of the best books I have read which helps explain people’s behaviour is “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler. Too much to go into here, but ultimately we are bombarded daily by too much choice which leads to ever-more stress. I don’t know how to translate that into an image… so perhaps it will end up being one of my first series when I get back to Sydney…


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