(Above image by Alex Webb from his Istanbul Book)
Something I have becoming more focused on is working on street photography projects. Street photography projects are important because they help you stay focused when shooting, and help you make more of a statement with a collection of images (rather than just individual images). If you have never started your own street photography project (or want some inspiration), keep reading to learn how you can start your own street photography project!
I feel that nowadays with online social networking photo-websites such as Flickr put far too much emphasis on single images. If you open someone’s Flickr profile, the first thing you encounter is their “photo-stream”. It shows a bunch of random images that are arranged in terms of what time you uploaded the images.
Although Flickr does have sets, the average viewer will look first at a few thumbnails of your work that interests you.
James Dodd, an influential street photographer (Founder of Statement Images and co-founder of the Street Reverb Magazine) recently shut down his Flickr account, and left a parting note. Something of interest was this blurb:
“I no longer understand why I put work online beyond [Flickr] being through habit. This is especially true in the context of singular images in the way flickr represents them when I consider that my work largely relates around a series structure at the moment.”
When I read that sentence, it struck a note with me. Although I love the online community of Flickr and the opportunity to share and exhibit your work with millions around the world, it is still too focused on singular images and not enough on series of images. Although there are sets and galleries you can add your images to, I would say those sets and galleries come second to the photo-stream.
My personal conversion
I, like many other photographers, started with a digital camera and all I knew was the internet for sharing my work. The way that I would work is to go out with my camera, strive to get a good shot, and finally upload it online when I got that one “keeper” that I was looking for. I worked very much in this same manner for most of my photography career.
A few months ago, my good friend and fellow street photographer Charlie Kirk gave me a challenge: to not upload any images to social media networking sites for an entire year, and present my best images at the end. At first when I heard his suggestion, it was something totally unfathomable.
I consider myself an incredibly online connected person, and to not upload any of my images for that long seemed ridiculous. If I didn’t upload my images online for that long, how would people react? Would people lose interest in my photography and never check out my work/blog again? Would I be able to resist the urge to upload my work (which I used to do nearly everyday?
Many of these internal questions plagued me, but I still agreed that it seemed like a good idea. Charlie’s reasoning was that when it came to famous photographers, you never remembered more than 10 of their images. Not only that, but waiting an entire year before sharing my images would be a good experiment for myself to become more self-critical when it came to editing my work (selecting my best work).
I then went on my quest to not upload any photographs online and after a few weeks (to a bit of my surprise) nothing bad happened. The internet didn’t stop and people didn’t quit visiting my blog. Rather, I felt an incredible sense of calm, as I didn’t have the pressure to constantly produce and upload my work.
Quality over quantity.
Considering that there was no longer any immediacy to upload my images, I could finally let my images sit and marinate before I could decide if they were any good or not. As Garry Winogrand said, “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgment that the photograph is good.” We need to distance ourselves from our work before we can look at them more objectively—rather than the memory of taking the photo which is rather fleeting. Winogrand would also famously wait around a year before developing any of his film or even looking at them. Talk about committed.
My first serious project
The first serious project I had embarked on was “The City of Angels” – an exploration of Los Angeles through my street photography of the local inhabitants. I wasn’t quite sure what I had in mind when I started my project, but I knew that I wanted a set of 15-20 images of how I felt about Los Angeles.
It was a project that I had been constantly working on for around a year, and I learned a lot through my own difficulties while also studying more photo books.
For this project I also would upload my images steadily to Flickr (while working on it)—which I will debate the pros/cons of later in this article.
Some of my personal learning points:
- It took me at least a year to establish a strong series of images which I was comfortable presenting in a project.
- I prefer my series to be around 15-20 images (anything less feels a bit lacking, anything more starts to lose focus).
- The sequencing of the images in my project is something that greatly affects the effect of my images.
- Getting constant feedback and critique was of upmost importance.
- The statement of the project is as important as the images to convey a message to others.
In a recent article that I published titled: “Why Street Photographers Need To Take Themselves More Seriously” I got lots of constructive criticism and feedback about my “City of Angels” project. Here are some points I plan on further implementing in my future projects.
- Be more critical to the representation of race in my images (thanks BC!)
- Be more comprehensive and thorough when explaining the concept/theory behind my projects
- Continue working with film, and edit ruthlessly
- “First World Asia”
- Explore the effects of globalization of “First World Asia” in relation to the developing Asian countries (thanks to Danny Santos for the idea!)
- “Korea: The Presentation of Self”
- In Korea, every other girl in the street has a Louie Vuitton handbag and everyone has the latest phone and hottest clothing. I think this says a lot of Korean culture, in which appearances are everything.
- “Singapore: Capitalism”
- Orchard Road was recently voted as the shopping mecca of the world (it beat New York and Tokyo) and the capitalism of the city has its pros and cons. I will try to explore the affect of capitalism in Singapore through my photographs.
Why projects vs single images?
I feel that if you are a photographer just starting off, there is no wrong in focusing on single images. However once you start becoming comfortable with how to use your camera, the basics of composition and exposure, and what type of photography you enjoy (street photography for example)—you should focus on projects.
Why focus on projects? Single images are great, but they are limited in their story-telling ability. In an interview, Magnum photographer Alec Soth states:
“A photograph is only a minute fragment of an experience, but quite a precise, detailed, and telling fragment. And although it might only provide little clues, the photographer is telling us that they are very important clues.
Of course, photographs can succeed in telling stories when they are collectively put into a narrative sequence, like in a film, or grouped into “chapters”, like in a novel.” [Read more]
Therefore you can make a statement with a single image, but when put together in a series or a project, they make a much more powerful impact to the viewer.
I also recently read “Capitolio” – a photobook on Venezuela by Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson which contained a similar thought. In a video interview (included in the iTunes store for the iPad) Anderson stated that he intended his entire book to be seen as a flow, and that if individual photographs were cherry-picked from the book, they wouldn’t make any sense.
Starting your own street photography project
Now that you have a little bit of background of myself and my transformation from single images to street photography projects, here is some advice I suggest based on my personal mistakes/learnings:
1.Have a great concept
To come up with a great concept is quite difficult, however this is what will be the backbone for your project. The more clear and precise your concept is, the more focused your project will be—which will result in images that better fit your project.
Coming up with a great concept should lie with what personally interests you. A photography project can either involve the following:
a) A place where you live and already are immersed in
You don’t need to live somewhere exotic like Paris to get a great series of images. Magnum photographer Martin Parr has a great knack of doing projects where we least expect great photography to be done (touristy beaches, fast food restaurants, and supermarkets).
b) A reflection of who you are
A quote by Bruce Gilden which inspired me was, “Shoot who you are!” Gilden often shoots hard guys and gangster-types in his images, which he says was influenced by his upbringing and his father (who he also describes as a gangster-type). Considering that I am a sociologist, I shoot what is also sociologically fascinating to me, such as issues like obesity, capitalism, greed, technology, and fashion.
Try to dig deep and think of creating a series that describes who you are as a person. Make it personal. Don’t try to create a dark and gloomy series if you are a happy and cheery person. Also don’t shoot the homeless if you come from a prosperous background.
2. Stay consistent with your gear
Although it is not a requirement that you have to stay consistent with your gear for a street photography project, I recommend it. Why? If you stay consistent with your gear (camera, lens, film type (black and white vs color), etc) it gives more cohesion to your images.
For example, you probably want to stay consistent with your focal length with your images. It is visually confusing to the viewer if you switch between two extreme focal lengths (let’s say 28mm vs 200mm).
If you are shooting film, it doesn’t make sense if you shot some images in your project with b/w film on a Leica and color film with a large-format camera.
Staying consistent with your gear will give you a consistent look to your images, and help you stay focused on the project itself rather than constantly worrying about your gear.
3. Shoot for a year
A project doesn’t have to be as long as a year, but generally speaking the longer you work on a project the better it will be. The reason being is that the longer you work on it, the more images you will collect, the more time you will have to think about your images, as well as gather feedback/edit your work.
A year is an arbitrary number, but most photographers who have published books and are established seem to be in a general consensus that at least a year is necessary to create somewhat substantial work. Other photographers have even worked on a lifetime to complete a project.
4. Don’t share your project publically until it is finished
Although there are pros to uploading images while you are working on a project (it helps you stay motivated, you get feedback/critique while you are working on it, etc) I still feel that a project should only be publically published when you consider it done.
How do you consider when a project is done or not? Like suggested prior, you can use a certain timeframe (a week, a month, a year, ten years, etc) or when you “feel it is done” (something totally subjective).
5. Collect feedback along the way
Just because you don’t publish a project publically until it is done doesn’t mean that you can’t get feedback. What I suggest is the following to get great feedback on your images (and it doesn’t involve the internet).
Have a project you are working on either in print-form, on a laptop, or an iPad and get feedback in-person. Why in-person? You will always get better feedback in-person versus the internet. If you meet someone in-person, they will give you more thorough feedback and take more time to focus on what you are working on. Although the internet is a great place to collect feedback (especially if you don’t have any fellow street photographers who can critique your work that live closeby) I still prefer in-person feedback/critique.
If you are restricted to only the internet, upload a series of images in some private forum (Facebook, Flickr, online forum) and ask people what people think of your project concept, images, sequencing, etc. Take people’s considerations/feedback/critique to heart, but remember—it is you who needs to make the ultimate editing decision on what you decide to publish.
6. Edit your project
I would argue that the shooting part of a project is easy—the editing portion is the most difficult (choosing your best images).
My theory behind editing a series is that less is more. I would prefer to see a series of 15 images that tell a story or have a message that are extremely relevant vs 100 images that are loosely connected.
Is there a certain cap on how many images should be in a project? Not at all. It all depends on the medium. If you plan on taking your street photography project and have it exhibited in a museum or gallery, you will probably be restricted to 15-20 images tops. If you plan on publishing it online, I still recommend around 15-20 images (people on the internet have a limited attention span). If you plan on publishing a book, you are probably looking somewhere between 60-100 images.
7. Sequence your project
Once you have the images you need for your project, time to sequence them.
Sequencing is another extremely important part of a project. To sequence a photo-series is like sentences/chapters in a book. They should have some sort of flow—in terms of a beginning, middle, and end.
On the other hand, sequencing is something that is ultimately something subjective. There is no real “science” behind what “good sequencing” is versus “bad sequencing”. However in the end, you should still have a reasonable explanation why you decided to sequence your project a certain way.
I would argue the two most important images in a street photography are the beginning and concluding images. Why? The beginning image is what opens up your viewer to your project—and draws them in. Very much like the cover of a book—if you have a boring introductory image they might not be inspired to look at the rest of the images. However if it entices them, they are more likely to look through your project.
The concluding image is also of upmost importance, as it is the final “parting word” that you give to your viewer. That will be the last image embedded in the viewer’s mind and what they will ultimately take away.
There are different ways you can sequence images, below are some following ideas:
- By time (chronologically or by time of day)
- By subject matter (landscapes in the beginning, portraits in the middle, and action-shots in the middle)
- By emotion (progression from happy->angry people)
As you can see, these are very rough ideas. Ultimately I think that sequencing should be more about what you personally feel “flows” rather than trying to be too scientific about it. To get a good sense of how other people sequence their shots, check out some of the recommended projects/books I will state later in this post.
Also when looking at other street photography projects, ask yourself, “Why did this photographer decide to include this image in this sequence?” This will help you better understand the photographers’ project and to develop your own projects.
8. Publish your project
There are many ways you can publish your photography project, including:
- Personal website
- Book (via traditional publisher or self-published such as Blurb)
- Gallery exhibition
I also recommend if you publish your project online, to reach out to photography blogs or sites to gain more exposure for your work. Some sites I would recommend:
- Invisible Photographer Asia (for those in Asia)
- Street Reverb Magazine
- La Pura Vida
- My blog!
Below are some street photography books/projects that I highly recommend you check out:
- The Last Resort by Martin Parr
- Small World by Martin Parr
- Istanbul by Alex Webb
- From Here to There by Alec Soth
- Haiti by Bruce Gilden
- Facing New York by Bruce Gilden
- Niagara by Alec Soth – Commentary via Magnum in Motion
- Sleeping by the Mississippi by Alec Soth
- Minutes to Midnight by Trent Parke
- The Rat Story by Bruce Gilden
- Till Human Voices Wake Us by Kramer O’ Neil – The Book
- Empty Messages by Alex JD Smith (ongoing)
- Pacific Boredom by Ludmilla Morrais
- Los Angeles, Summer of 2006 by Bryan Formhals
For more great photo-essays (some of them street photography) check out Magnum in Motion.
Upcoming Street Photography Workshops
If you would like to learn more about street photography and projects, check out one of my upcoming workshops in your neighborhood.