Peter Zhang on Documenting the Changing Face of SOMA

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016

I met Peter Zhang at one of my SF street photography workshops, and was blown away by his up-close street photos (shot at 28mm with a Ricoh GR) of the changing neighborhood of SoMa (South of Mission in San Francisco). Check out how he got started, as well as his personal and vivid color street photographs:

Eric: How did you get started in street photography?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016

Peter: Back in May 2015, when I had just started learning some photography 101 basics in preparation for a trip to Europe, I met my friend Dan Foley at a camera store, who is a photographer and also works at the store. Soon later, he introduced me to the concept of street photography and told me about the story of Vivian Maier.

As I had a chance to thumb through a Vivian Maier’s photo book, I was blown away by her pictures. I had never seen such cinematic yet candid images of human beings before. I was thinking to myself, if a nanny could create such images, why can’t I? From that day on, I have not stopped learning and practicing street photography.

Two months later, I bought my Ricoh GR. Since then I had been seriously shooting. The portability of Ricoh GR eliminated all my excuses not to shoot as often as I can.

Why do you shoot street photography?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
  • I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we are all human beings but we are so diverse and so different that we cannot possibly learn enough about every culture, every people, and every society on earth. Street photography helps me document the interesting people and things I see. It turns easily forgotten everyday life into a visual quest.
  • I have always admired artists for creating something beautiful from nothing. I’ve always had the fantasy to be one of them while I always failed painting, sketching or designing as a child or adult. Street photography gave me an opportunity to create and hopefully sometimes a pictures turns out art worthy.
  • Street photography helps me see beautiful and sad moments I would not have paid attention to before. Life becomes more adventurous when I shoot. It makes me treasure what I have more rather than getting bored, feeling dissatisfied or numb with the same routine everyday.
  • I feel more connected with the society and other people when I observe or interact with subjects. Street photography helps me become a more friendly and caring person because the more I shoot the more empathy I grow.
  • I don’t know how long I could live or how long I could keep shooting for. But as long as I shoot, I’m creating some legacy for my children and later generations to learn about the life of this age.

How do you shoot on the street?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
  • Most of the time, I shoot with a Ricoh GR on my way to work, on lunch break and/or on my way home. I purposefully extended a walking section of the commute by not taking my company shuttle from the subway station to the office. That’s about 1-2 miles of walking. After work on a good day, I might extend the walk even longer into busier areas of the city of San Francisco.
  • I shoot from almost any point below eye level. The reason is that I prefer to be discrete, I don’t like confrontation or simply I’m afraid because of the situation. Sometimes, I do bring up the camera but really fast, fast enough to make it not a hip shot but still barely framing or rather no time to frame. Every now and then, when I feel the vibes are right and I’m not in rush, I engage for a portrait or consent with a smile and compliments as a starter.
  • I take a lot of my shots on the move, meaning no or barely stopping while firing the shutter. To be able to do so, I have a shutter speed set to 1/1000s – 1/1250s, aperture adjusted quickly on the fly from F2.8-F11, and ISO set to AUTO. I use the GR’s presets (MY1-MY3) to save my default settings. MY1 uses manual focus with focus distance set to 0.7M so I can quick switch to it to get a closeup shot with one hand. MY2 uses snap focus with focus distance set to 1M but I can change it quickly with a couple of button presses without looking at LCD. MY3 is almost the same as MY2 except that the focus distance is set to 2M. This way of shooting allows me to fully take advantage of Ricoh GR’s large DOF and remain with the maximum discreteness.
  • Occasionally, when I shoot at night or when I travel, I use a mirrorless camera (Fuji X100S now) for it’s better framing with OVF and better low light performance. I like to use zone focus during the day and even at night. If I’m shooting non-fast-moving subjects, I also use autofocus to focus and compose quickly. Again, I’ll use LCD to frame if I feel the need to be discrete.

What are some of your street photography tips?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
  1. Avoid direct eye contact if you try to be invisible
  2. Set walking distance goals so you don’t slack off half way shooting
  3. Get familiar with one focal length and one camera so much so that you’re pretty much able to frame blindly
  4. Don’t post a lot because as you grow many old shots you liked will look like shit.
  5. Shoot with a friend sometimes. It helps you gain confidence.
  6. Have stories prepared for confrontation. Play the tourist card, student project, etc.
  7. Shoot a lot and consistently. Nothing is more important than this.
  8. Research a lot, read a lot and look at GREAT photos on a regular basis to help you develop an eye for editing.
  9. Challenge yourself with shots you’re uncomfortable to take. e.g. Subjects who looks a bit intimidating.
  10. Make more friends with other street photographers
  11. Don’t worry about ISO and the grains. Get the shot rather than hesitating and getting hung up on technicals.
  12. If you find yourself new and afraid, start off shooting non-subjects to get comfortable on the street. e.g. stuff abandoned on the street, boring people on their phones, someone’s back., etc.
  13. Shooting film can help grow confidence, framing skills and patience (I wish I did more)
  14. Share your work with families and friends. Educate them on the genre. Their support will mean a great deal to you.
  15. Don’t be afraid of shooting at night or in back weather. The shots might turn out more dramatic in those cases.
  16. Clean background is the key to the beginning of a good picture. A clean background alone won’t make a good picture but a messy background will ruin every picture.

Any other advice?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
  1. Let it be your passion or even obsession. Immersing yourself in what you truly love doing or what you’re determined to do is the best way to progress fast at anything.
  2. Stay hungry for the street. Only when you’re truly curious and on the hunt will your senses be heightened to help capture what means some special to you. Do whatever you can to stay inspired.
  3. Photograph families and friends. Apply what you learned or want to learn at shooting the street on the people you loved. Applied what learned from photographing the people you love back on the street. Photography should be an enhancement to your overall life experience.
  4. Street photography is not about talent. It’s mostly hard work which requires investing time, effort, and commitment.
  5. The strongest pictures usually convey a message aside from being artistic. They usually tell a story or something about the society or human condition.

Who are some of your street photography influences?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016

What inspired you to start shooting SOMA?

SOMA / Peter Zhang, 2016
SOMA / Peter Zhang, 2016

In 2015, I had a chance to see a photography exhibition at De Young museum called South of Market, which is a project by Janet Delaney done in the South of Market area of San Francisco from 1978-1986. It is a truly remarkable long-term project that documented significant redevelopment and socioeconomic changes in the area back in the day. I was very impressed and inspired by her photos. I could not believe how much SoMa has changed since the 70s and 80s. I’ve been working in SoMa for a little over two years but I don’t think I know much about it except the tech scene here. Janet’s photos got me interested in seeing SoMa with fresh eyes from different perspectives.

Without any formal training in photography, knowing very little about street photography or documentary photography, and having to work an office job from 9 to 5, I didn’t think I could create anything remotely as meaningful and profound as Janet’s. But since I had just purchased a Ricoh GR, I thought I could at least try and take some snapshots on my commute in SoMa, to simply document what’s around me or practice my street photography which I had just started learning. So far it’s been about only 8 months since I started shooting SoMa. I don’t know how long I’ll keep shooting SoMa but as long as I can.

Later in 2015, to my surprise Janet Delaney’s South of Market photographs showed up in my office building’s lobby as a private exhibition. And Later on, I got to meet her in person in my office while he was doing the booking signing, which encouraged me more to continue with my own SoMa project.

What changes do you see happening in SOMA?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016

I haven’t observed SoMa long enough to summarize its changes but at least for the last two years, I’ve been seeing a lot of construction and renovation happening. Some are new office buildings being built from the ground up. Some are old warehouses being turned into new tech company offices. Some are new apartments being built to fulfill the rapidly growing housing market in San Francisco.

The irony is while billions of dollars being poured into SoMa’s ever-going redevelopment and tech industry, the homeless issue is far from being solved. As a matter of fact, it only intensifies. I remember seeing some homeless living in tents across the street from Airbnb’s headquarter on Brannan St being slowly relocated by local authorities during 2016 Super Bowl time but soon after they returned and started more tents. I remember seeing some other homeless sleeping and gathering street stuff they collected near the Caltrain railway, but sometime later, they’re all gone.

At the same time, SoMa’s gentrification process is happening so fast people usually don’t see the remaining problems. There are parts of SoMa where new restaurants pop up every so often and most of the people walking on the street are tech company employees with 6 figure salaries. They are parts of SoMa where I get really nervous walking by because people are living in bad conditions, some have mental problems, and some are drug addicts. The socioeconomic gap between the high-tech working class and the disadvantaged are unprecedentedly huge in this area as far as I can tell. Particular parts of SoMa still have high crime rate.

How is San Francisco as a whole changing, and what do you hope to communicate to the viewer through your SOMA photos?

Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016

I haven’t lived in San Francisco long enough, only a little over two years. Changes similar to SoMa are also happening in a few other districts, such as Mission, Dog Patch and Haight, except that it’s due to well paid young professionals moving in instead of tech companies moving their offices in. Gentrification seems to be the word often used to summarize the ongoing changes in San Francisco although it’s been happening for quite a while. Low income people are slowly moving out of the city because it’s difficult to live here if you don’t make six figures. The most obviously change that’s driving a lot of people out of the city is the ever-increasing cost of living. Housing cost has been skyrocketing and it shows no signs of stopping. The cost of everything else is probably more expensive than everywhere else in the U.S. but Manhattan. I feel there’s somewhat of an economic bubble in San Francisco. Maybe one day it’ll pop. Maybe it won’t.

Through my SoMa photos, I’m trying to direct viewers’ attention to some of the problems easily ignored under the glory of the tech scene in San Francisco as well as the everyday human condition in SoMa in general. I’m not here to judge or solve any problem. I’m only here to tell what I see as a regular commuter. A lot of the photographs are a moment of 1/1000s captured literally while I’m walking non-stop. As other SoMa commuters like me might choose to play on their smartphones, take a cleaner street or side of the street to walk on or turn their head down or away when they can see what I see, I try to make a photograph so everybody has a chance to see SoMa today and some of its souls in a more personal and intimate way.

Peter Zhang: SOMA


























Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016










Peter Zhang / SOMA, 2016
















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