Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Talking About Subjects & Objects in Street Photography

Run Don't Walk (Melbourne Australia June 2014)

I read yet another definition of Street Photography yesterday. And boy oh boy aren't there a lot of them around these days? But never mind that. What I want to talk about here is just a few words that really stood out for me. The writer was giving his definition and said something about "objects" in the street. At first I read on, then, suddenly, I realised he wasn't talking about the buildings, cars, buses or other inanimate things one sees on the street; he was actually referring to the people in the street as objects—as things.

People as things? I don't think so. But, as I read on, there it was again, and then again. This so-called "expert" on street photography was describing people as objects. Sorry, I know I'm repeating myself here, but I was and I still am just so flabbergasted at such an idea. And, just think how many people are going to read that article. Makes me shudder.

Anyway, it put me in mind of something a fellow Twitterer said to me a while ago. I forget what we were talking about, but I had used the word subject in a post, referring to the people I photograph in the street. Here's his reply:

I wouldn't even call them subjects. Sounds too clinical. I'd opt for collaborators. It's a partnership.
And he was right. Is right I should say.  Regular readers will know that I have been trying for a while now to start a conversation that will lead to a less aggressive, less acquisitive and gentler way of speaking about street photography (here's my blog post about language in street photography).

I have for some time talked about "people I photograph" rather than using the word subject. A change that has to do with my desire to change the language, but in truth prompted by my fellow Twitterer's comment quoted above.

As a street photographer, calling a person I photograph a subject really implies that that person is subject to, or in some way not on the same level, or holding the same power as me, simply because I am the one with the camera making a photograph of them. If anything I feel that the person being photographed is the one directing the process. By this I mean that they are the ones who invite or do not invite the photographer (that's me) to photograph them.
Of course for many this is all very esoteric and perhaps is even seen as complicating what some would argue is a very simple process. And of course, street photography when practised well is a very simple process.

How is it simple? Well, I don't mean simple as in easy: it's not always easy. No, I mean simple as in straightforward. We talk about being "in the zone" when on the street photographing. And when we are in the zone we are in touch with the feeling—the vibe if you like—on the street and in a deep way we are connected with the other people around us. In this way we just know if we are given "permission" to photograph them or not. Of course it's not at all spoken, this permission; it's more about the intuition of the photographer connecting with the flow of energies and feelings of others around her or him.

So, it is about language. But it is about more than the words we use to describe our activities as street photographers. It is about an attitude toward other people and the environment we are working in. It is about a willingness to be open to the sub-conscious wishes of others and just knowing at a deep intuitive level what is and what is not okay.

I talk a lot about sharing moments with the people I photograph. By this I mean a two-way sharing that takes place as I feel the rightness of making a photograph of a person or group of people. In this respect those other people are very much my partners (as in having an equal participation and 'investment'), collaborators with me in the process of creating a photograph that is then a true representation of that moment.

Street Photography really is a team effort isn't it?


  1. Paul,
    An interesting discussion and certainly one worth having. Not having read the article that you reference it is difficult for me to know in what sense the author "objectifies" people in his work. On one level I understand the concept of treating everything you see as an object. I am a former graphic designer. One of the cardinal rules of good design is to use the space you are working on effectively. This involves the arrangement of "objects and white space in the most effective fashion." A well composed image either in camera or in post processing is the same thing, the arrangement of objects. The important variable in photography in my opinion, is intent and engagement which go hand in hand. Thousands of people can and do engage in "snapshit" I've come to see that as nothing more than an unpleasant side effect of digital photography, sort of like litter on the city streets. I know many wedding, portrait and fashion photographers whose vocabulary is peppered with the jargon of the trade, shoot, shot, taken, captured and nailed. What makes them good at their art is they engage with the objects of their attention. They interact on a personal level. Their subjects warm up to the camera and it shows in their images. That is a skill that can be learned if one is willing to work at it. So for me and for my style of photography it's all about intent and engagement, not too much about the jargon of the trade.

    And before I forget, your image of Elias would be excellent as a stand-alone photograph. The fact that you understand engagement takes it to a much higher level that any street photographer can aspire to.

    Take care


  2. A very interesting discussion. I have fought many a time with myself about the language of photography - not only as in street photography. Particularly I have had to put in quite some considerations around subject versus object - probably because I don't have English as my first language. What I have come to is in photographic terms subject means what you are photographing, the story, the feeling, the mood - whatever it is that is triggering you. In the photo above it could be "crossing the street" or "hurrying" or "a street scene of Melbourne". The people you direct the camera towards in this case isn't necessarily the subject - but more what I would call the subject matter. To use subject or subject matter about about people hasn't anything to do with disrespect in my opinion, but just using a general photographic language. As to objects, what I have concluded is that a photo has many elements (usually) that makes up the image; in the case here, trams, house, streets and people. These are objects - in my opinion - in the photo, and I don't distinguish between living or dead objects. Obviously. Well, that's what I have deducted over some time at least. And again my understand of English used as photographic language may be completely wrong...

  3. This is a test comment to see if my comments appear. I THINK I might have figured out the problem after so very long


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