We all want to make a memorable street photograph. An image that burns inside our memory. An image that touches our heart and touches our soul. We want that image to be epic, energetic, edgy, and emotional. And of course, we want external validation for our image (via respect from other photographers, validation on social media, and possibly having our image be timeless).
I look at a lot of images. A lot. When I’m not shooting, I’m thinking, living, eating, and breathing street photography. I constantly look at images from the masters, from my friends, and also critically evaluate my own work.
One of my aspirations in life is to make a memorable body of work. In the past 8 years I have been shooting street photography, I don’t think I have made a truly great street photograph (yet). I think I have made a few memorable images (red cowboy and guy sleeping on beach in marseille).
I wanted to write this article to think about the question: what makes a truly memorable street photograph and how could we achieve it?
What doesn’t make a memorable street photograph
I think before we talk about what makes a memorable street photograph, let’s talk about what doesn’t make a memorable street photograph.
What doesn’t make a memorable street photograph:
- Cliche: has been done before (but better)
- Boring: isn’t interesting enough to hold our attention
- Aesthetically ugly: HDR, selective color, ugly high-ISO, unleashing color palette, flat lighting
- Cheesy: also known as “twee” in the UK. A cheesy photo isn’t deep, it feels more post-cardy than anything
- Pleasant: photos that don’t offend people, and don’t elicit an emotional connection to the viewer. Photos that you will see in IKEA’s “art” section.
- Poorly composed: messy backgrounds, overlapping figures, too much negative space which doesn’t add to the image, loosely composed, no strong central subject, awkward perspective
- Unemotional: photograph might be composed well, but has no emotion and soul. It doesn’t hit you in the heart.
- Doesn’t say anything about humanity
- Easily consumed: photos that are too obvious what they are about. Photos that don’t have mystery. Photos that you understand just by looking at for a second.
- Complicated: you don’t know what the photograph is about, and doesn’t have a strong singular message. Note: complex images are desirable, but complicated isn’t.
So to make a memorable street photograph, just do the exact opposite of the things above.
Making meaningful photographs
I think we should strive to make meaningful photographs, not just memorable photographs.
A meaningful photograph is one that tells us something about humanity. It talks about the human condition. It is reflective. It speaks from the heart.
A memorable photograph is generally a meaningful photograph.
Making it personal
I also feel that a meaningful photograph is personal. As street photographers, we are often outwards looking (rather than inwards looking). We photograph strangers on the streets (who we don’t know), in unfamiliar places in public (often away from our neighborhoods or while traveling).
However I feel that the best street photographers are the most personal ones.
For example, Bruce Gilden (love him or hate him) shoots who he is. He is a rough and tough New Yorker, and he doesn’t bullshit around in his photos. They are his personal vision of the world. His father was a gangster type, and he looks for similar characters on the streets.
Daido Moriyama describes him as a stray dog. He wanders the streets, and his photos show a sense of emptiness and loneliness. His photographs help him explore who he is as a person.
Junku Nishimura photos bring me back to the past. There is a strong sense of nostalgia in his images– he reconnects with his past through his image making.
Personally, I try to make my street photographs sociological. I consider myself first a sociologist and second a photographer. For me, street photography is a tool that helps me better explore, understand, and analyze society around myself. I try to show my commentary and critique of society through the images I make.
So for you, consider the question: “How are my street photographs a reflection of who I am as a human being?” Do you see the world in a negative or a positive way? Do your photos reflect your personal vision of the world? Do your photos show a little bit of yourself? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve in your images?
I think street photography should be more than just photos of people walking by funny looking billboards or of dudes jumping over puddles.
A street photograph that isn’t personal is easily forgettable.
I think before we think about making “memorable” photos– we should first and foremost consider on making meaningful photographs.
Meaningful photographs are about ourselves. Meaningful photographs are personal. Meaningful photos are emotional. Meaningful photographs are for yourself and not others.
Shoot with your heart on your sleeve, and let the emotions pour out of your imagery. That is the best way to make a memorable and meaningful street photograph.
What is personally meaningful for you in street photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below