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Monday, 05 January 2009


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Terrific comment; I learn much from TOP's wise readers!

Ken’s a great shooter and I really appreciate his comments. This decision about whether to establish rapport first or just start shooting is a snap judgment we all have to make, and I’m sure Ken’s right – you tend to get more and better stuff working from the “inside”. But sometimes it’s hard to resist the edginess and immediacy of a drive-by shot. Danny Lyon vs. William Klein . . . a tough call sometimes.

And don't miss to cast your vote for The Online Photographer here:

Yeah, Ken gets it.

I started my working life as a shy, zero eye-contact, dirty-tied, pocket-protected Engineer. Opinionated, good at languages, but shy.

Well, the language skills got me working in Sales and Marketing for a swaggering ex-Army helicopter pilot. Once we'd worked out we could trust each other, we were a killer team. He taught me to apply those analytical skills to human behaviour and relationships, and some of the basic techniques of appropriate, focussed, extrovert behaviour.

And so the adventures started. Leaping from the sauna into the icey water in Siberia with some senior locals; duetting "Flower of Scotland" in front of surprised Kazakh oil workers; and suchlike rowdiness. We were only after major aerospace contracts though, nothing tricky and in-your-face like fine art photographs.

For me it's learned behaviour: I can do it, but I'm full of respect for a "natural", and even more respect for a natural who can explain why and how they pulled it off. So, I'm not being tongue-in-cheek paragraph above about art photographs: that's a real skill.

A bit of panache makes life more fun and can go a long way. But actually one of my proudest achievements was queueing to get my aged parents into the Kremlin. You're supposed to check your bag in earlier for security reasons. A little bit of body language and well-chosen words was enough to save my old Dad from three flights of slippery stairs and another queue in the January cold.


Ken's comment is well-taken, but his suggested approach really changes the situation entirely, removes the drive-by approach and defuses the objections that arose from that. I don't believe objections about hit and run photography are condescending to those in Asia (or New York) whose privacy is being discussed. Nor does it bespeak frustration over being unwilling to shoot street photography. Some of us simply find the results are often hokey, one-dimensional, uninteresting. Fake "stories" about fake "people." When the results are like that, some of us feel free to think critically about the exploitation involved in reaching them.

The type of involved, face-to-face documentation Ken's approach entails, however, sharing a few moments, a smoke, a peanut butter cup, meeting the Dad, is an entirely different type of photography, with much more satisfying results and less concern about exploitation.

As a photographer we all carry some sort of responsibility about the photographs we make. For those of us who have chosen to shoot on the street, or anywhere for that matter, the ultimate responsibility we have is to GET THE PICTURE.

To get the picture we often have to override our own sense of uncomfortableness, or at least I always do, and move in and make the photo any way we know how. I take this responsibility very seriously, and this gives me a total sense of purpose that allows me to side step my fear.

No one who sees me has any doubt about what I'm doing either, I carry a big camera that makes a lot of noise and I work with normal and wide lenses so I'm within conversational distance. I'm never sneaky and always smile, it seems to work for me. Often, conversations break out and I get to meet people and hear their stories. It's a wonderful way to go through life.

The bottom line, if you believe in your work, are comfortable in your own skin, openly act with a sense of honesty, purpose and authority, then you can be successful on the street in big cities, small towns and foreign countries.

By far my favorite of all time is 'The Third Man'. Talk about incredible B/W imagery! and nostalgic music? Gedoutdahere!!!

Great advice if on assignment:

The smoke things worked for year for many things but I had to give it up or die trying. Read Tobias Wolff's Smokers for more proof.

This however does not work for "street" shooting. At least the way I define street. Of course loads of things overlap and a good healthy sense of who you are and what you are doing goes a long way. If you act like you are stealing things and not taking pictures all bets are off.

Such as shots like these:



Excellent advice and a great read Kenneth

"Featured Comment by improbable: "This touches on something which gets lost in all the gear talk: a lot of the work in making certain kinds of art is in things, like getting access, which aren't visible in the final result."

And also in doing some things that you hate to do. I just got finished reading the Joe McNally book ("The Moment it Clicks,") which I found pretty compelling. Here's one quote from the book:

"I missed a whole bunch of my kids' growing up. Every traveling shooter does. I have a memory of a day when I was leaving for a four-week trip to Africa for National Geographic. My daughter Caitlin and I were in the driveway. It was hot and the sun was harsh. She was about three years old and had watched the familiar ritual of dad loading the taxi to go to the airport many times. I hugged her hard. Told her the usual things. She didn't understand or care about what I was saying. I knew that. The things we say in these moments to our kids make us feel better, not them. The cab pulled out and I twisted around and looked back, desperately waving. She couldn't see me. The light was too bright. She waved once, and left her arm pressed against her forehead, shielding her eyes. The sun was glaring through the dirty window, and she faded from view, hot and yellowish, like an old Polaroid from the 50s. I slid down in the seat and began to weep. I wept for her, for me, but mostly because the siren call of my first big story with a yellow border around it was more powerful than the call of fatherhood."

Making friends with strangers to gain their acceptance is great, but there are a lot of posts that assume that getting over our fear and getting the picture at all costs is the only thing that counts.

What about the feelings of the people being photographed? For me, our art does not justify invading other people's privacy and upsetting them.

I read a post (not here) where someone posted a telephoto shot through a window of a doctor's office where a woman was in tears across the desk from the doctor. Obviously she was getting bad medical news, and this private moment of vulnerability was posted on the web with the question "Should I post this picture?" All the posts were congrantulatory over what a great picture it was and enthusiastic about it being posted.

What self-involved jerks we photographers can be.

This touches on something which gets lost in all the gear talk: a lot of the work in making certain kinds of art is in things like getting access which aren't visible in the final result. Maybe it's all about getting included in the circle of guys playing cards. Maybe it's having a contact inside the hospital who's sympathetic to your project. Maybe it's getting sponsored to join this climbing team. Maybe it's arranging your life so that you can spend a day a week walking the streets. I guess what I'm saying is that imagining "how would I shoot that if I were standing there 5 sec before" often misses the point, the hard work might be all before that, and might be mostly about non-photographic skills.

Entirely unrelated, but you may like this comic - I don't know if it's an old one:


Great read (Ken's comment) and it lead me to see his website for the first time (thanks for that !)

Regarding Blake's comment - you might see others as self-involved jerks; I see people who argue along your line as being too easily offended on behalf of others - a common trait among Americans and Europeans. I think Ken touched on that in the part of his comment some didn't like. I see a lot of photos that I wouldn't have the nerve to take or at least that I'm not outgoing enough to be in a situation to take. I don't see many photos that I consider an invasion of privacy. Those guys playing cards were in view of John and presumably anyone else who walked by their tent; now they're in view of many more. I don't see the problem.

It's amazing the space you can share with a another human being. I think people are trusting by nature, the only time that changes is when they are faced with something that worries them. It's seldom a camera that causes worry, it's the behaviour of the person on the end of the camera. I'd rather lug around a medium format camera on the street with a good sense of the the place and the people I'm shooting than a leica and poor intuition.

Cameras don't upset people, people do.

They come in their thousands, shuffling feet and happy snaps, canons and big black bricks in hand........... pointin' and shootin' at me. Those pesky red dot boys are the worst, the decisive moment I'll give them ....

Reading Mike Peters' comment "the ultimate responsibility we have is to GET THE PICTURE" is like a bank robber saying it's to "GET THE MONEY"... it's the 'paparazzi gone wild' mentality.
Looking through Mr. Peters' own street work, obviously his subjects were complicit in the making of those photos through direct eye contact and implied approval. I wonder what their reaction might have been had he poked his lens unexpectedly through the front door of their home (or hut)? My guess is that most would have shot back at an invasive intruder, and rightfully so.

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