Street Photography Thursday August 30, 2007

Constantly, you hear photographers nervous and uncertain about street or candid photography. It has two dimensions, firstly subjective feelings of discomfort and awkwardness and secondly some problematic concerns of current society.

The first candid work I undertook was when I studied photography at school, using an Olympus OM10 and taking the Ilford FP4 into a makeshift darkroom I’d built at home. My Dad had bought the equipment, including his own Zenith SLR, to produce some marketing photography for his business. I used black bin liner to seal the light leakage around the door, and placed a plyboard panel over the box room window. I still have the negatives and a few prints from my trip to London, this one taken at Trafalgar Square:

I was very nervous. I dreaded people looking at me and noticing my camera, maybe demanding to know what I was doing. I had no answer prepared, I was simply a young lad enjoying taking pictures, thinking of my hero Cartier-Bresson. In fact in London, and any comparable place with huge and busy crowds of people, you are likely to be anonymous and unnoticed and people simply don’t have the time or care to worry about cameras. You can even point a big telephoto lens at them and they will approach you and then walk past, paying no attention. That’s what happened here; what this picture fails to convey is just how noisy, fast, and manic this area is at the Millenium Footbridge near London’s Tate Modern, where people don’t have the leisure to be suspicious:

You have to assess the likelihood of being challenged, more so if you are not in a busy place where, in the case of London, there are also millions of tourists with cameras. If you focus on a person, rather than the scene, you need to have a satisfactory and friendly answer ready. It doesn’t really matter what it is, actually; the person just wants reassurance about what you’re up to. During my first MA degree I took a video camera into the streets, potentially even more intrusive on people’s lives, and I didn’t appreciate what kind of reaction it could potentially provoke. At one moment a workman picked up a hammer, walked up menacingly and challenged me: I blurted out that it was a new camera I was merely testing. Actually I was documenting some street life, but don’t think he’d have understood my interest in a Cartier-Bresson attitude applied to digital video.

Grab shots are normally quite easy to get either with a long lens or like Cartier-Bresson, close to the person with a 50 mm or even wider. The mistake I made with the video camera was to linger on the subject, which attracts attention. A few documentaries of Cartier-Bresson exist, occasionally shown on TV, and what you see is him hiding the camera, pulling it out for a few seconds to get the shot then walking away, barely interrupted by the action. If anyone sees you doing that it’s less easy to object because it happens in an instant, they’re not sure what’s just happened, and all they can see is your back as you walk away.

Alternatively, you can approach a subject and talk with them to ask their permission. It depends on the person and the circumstances, and what kind of image you want. The idea is to establish yourself as comfortable in their environment, so they are comfortable with you. You have to create instant rapport, i.e. brief communication in which trust is established.

Close to where I live there’s an annual Caribbean Carnival, and a few pictures illustrate further possible scenarios. In the first case, the girls approached me and asked me to take their picture. They didn’t even want to see them, they just thought it was fun being photographed. I asked if they had e mail and then sent them a copy, which they enjoyed. In the second image, this friendly fellow asked if I wanted I shot of him and the lady. And in the third image the girls looked casually and directly into the camera in the manner of an unaffected pose. All very relaxed and friendly:

Sociologist Erving Goffman described what he called in his book of the same name, ‘the presentation of self in everyday life’. We have social roles, and interact in situations and with people according to commonly understood rules. In Britain, we queue in an orderly manner even if there are no signs designating that as appropriate or expected behaviour. In other countries that convention doesn’t exist and, similarly, the rules of driving in traffic are adversarial and anarchic. You have to know the social rules according to where you are, and waving a camera at someone in a public space is potentially hazardous and you have to understand the psychology and topicality of this.

In the eighteenth century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a prison making use of what he called the Panopticon. This was a circular arrangement where a guard located at the centre could survey the inmates at all times, and the powerful effect of this was they couldn’t know when they were being watched. In Bentham’s own words, this created a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience” as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” We live in surveillance times. Britain has more CCTV than any other Western country, and the popularity of Big Brother is part of this zeitgeist, where the more usual feeling of being watched is modified into a voyeuristic inversion.

In cinema, the camera gaze can be either charitable or malevolent: L. B. Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window intervenes in a case of murder, Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom films people as he murders them, and in American Beauty Ricky Fitz has an innocent and artistic enjoyment of video much like poetry but which is still, by definition, voyeuristic. Susan Sontag argued that the photographic gaze is always aggressive, because it creates an image the subject cannot see of themselves thus taking something from them. I disagree. It can undoubtedly be aggressive – paparazzi being the best example – but the camera gaze can also be gentle, artistic, and humanitarian.

It’s a complicated subject, but I suggest being aware of one’s social role as a photographer is part of the solution. If you have journalist ID, or are surrounded by a BBC news crew, you have little to worry about and have considerably more safety in, for example, the extreme situation of a war zone. If you are a freelance you have less social credibility and your situation is more precarious, not because your intent is any different but because you can’t prove it so easily. Then, we have a heightened awareness of two problematic topics potentially associated with cameras: terrorism and children. Both are disturbing and complex issues and while it’s important to defend the social and legal rights of photography, which is not illegal in public spaces, my feelings are somewhat inclined towards those issues rather than photography. It’s a sad fact they are major concerns and if a camera upsets either the public or the police, regardless of legitimate intent, it’s prudent to consider this.

But, I know of two problematic UK arrests, and there’s probably more, of amateur photographers: one was snapping happily near Heysham power station, and the other was in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know the full details but they appear to have been completely innocent, there was a reciprocal upset in the photographic community, and it’s undoubtedly true there’s sensitivity on these issues which is sometimes irrational and paranoid. A terrorist, for example, would not wave a camera around publicly and it’s dubious what supposed intelligence is obtained with such photographs, not because it’s undoubtedly sensitive (a power station) but because the structure is clearly and entirely visible anyway. I suspect the arrest was irrational, whereby a legitimate concern gets elevated into exaggerated response. Wandering around London more recently, I asked a policeman if I could take a picture from where he was standing of the Houses of Parliament. The answer was no, which again was irrational: all I had to do was cross the road and get the shot from slightly further away, which is what thousands of tourists do. What could I have possibly obtained from that slightly closer shot that was any different? But he was an armed policeman, doing a serious job, and I didn’t want to argue about his irrationality. Indeed had I done so I would probably have been arrested; ultimately not for being dangerous, not for being a terrorist, but for being a nuisance. It’s a question of attitude, and how that gets negotiated. Very silly – but I didn’t want to argue with a copper carrying a machine gun with his finger on the safety catch. With children it’s a serious concern that seems alarmingly prevalent and I sympathise with that, though it’s also true there’s exaggerated over sensitivity that impacts on legitimate photography.

The Guardian investigated this subject in relation to terrorism, and also noted its irrationality. Their photographer was stopped and challenged in a bizzarre fashion, and not even noticed in others which were about as sensitive as it gets for the normal public: close to Parliament (he got away with it), and Downing Street. Much of it seems to depend on what instructions cops and security staff are following, irrespective of the intelligence of enacting that in the real situation:

“Can I not take photos of your building?” I asked.
“They say it’s a terrorist threat, and the pavement you’re standing on is private property.”
“What about if I cross the road?”
“That’s fine,” he responded.
“And I can take pictures of your building from over there?”


If places like that are as sensitive as they say they are, the Guardian should investigate and interview a few people about their social negligence. If a photograph of a building should not be in terrorist hands, it’s clearly not fine if someone moves slightly away and gets virtually the same shot. Clearly, it’s innocuous in both circumstances and what we’re seeing is defensive, ritualised, and symbolic behaviour with no connection to real issues. But the other important point the Guardian fails to address is this: if their photographer had been challenged by the police or even arrested they would have explained who they were, presented their ID, and told the police to phone the Guardian to confirm it. If you don’t have those options your position is more precarious not because you do anything different, but because you don’t have that kind of credibility.

There are problematic concerns associated with candid or street photography. There’s a sociological and psychological culture of surveillance, a widespread awareness that any image can end up on the internet and – another point – relatively few people understand photographic culture. I had an exhibition recently, and sold two framed prints one of which is below.

When I showed the first photograph to one of my sisters, also in the exhibition, she said “what if they see them”? I was surprised and bemused by this. But in a layman’s non-photographic context, it’s a legitimate question. The point is, photography takes scenes from life and transforms them into something different in multifarious ways, in my case into the dimension of art. But if someone has never seen the work of Cartier-Bresson, only takes snaps of family and friends, they simply won’t understand what this means. My sister’s remark was valid for her because it’s a matter of context, intent, and meaning, which are arbitrary and negotiable. Photography has a certain culture associated with it, that other people don’t understand.

About two years ago, Ken Livingston considered making public photography in London illegal; he eventually withdrew those plans partly because of the protest from the photography community, for example editorial in the Amateur Photographer magazine. About the same time, amateur photographers in NYC staged a mass protest in the subway questioning recent confrontations with security staff. It worked, and the latter admitted they had no legal right to oppose subway photography and would no longer pursue it. What possible advantage would a terrorist have, getting a few snaps of the trains? None at all, it was irrational and ridiculous, and one of the most interesting examples of internet photography is the work of Travis Ruse where he takes photographs on the subway every day. There was a big rumour recently the government were planning legislation that would block and impede street photography (I was alerted to this myself), and in fact no such thing was true but the response to this was, as the Guardian noted again, interesting to see

There are then, some complex issues to consider about photography in public spaces. The solution is to acknowledge what these are and respond intelligently – for example don’t argue with an armed copper or you will get arrested. I mention this, because I’ve seen some quite heated debates on the internet around these issues. If you are incensed about irrational policy, consider this: no, you won’t be investigated for terrorism, but you will possibly be charged with the arbitrary misdemeanour of being a nuisance or “causing a public disturbance”. If, however, you work for the Guardian or similar, you have less to worry about.

Such is the background context, but for much of the time candid photography is simply a matter of understanding the factor of the social role you present to people and how you negotiate that. As Erving Goffman said, the process of establishing a social identity is associated with the concept of a “front” which is described as

that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance

The front acts as the vehicle of standardisation, allowing others to understand an individual on the basis of projected character traits with commonly understood meanings. Goffman calls this “dramatic realisation” predicated upon the activities of “impression management” in which, as a photographer, your task is to make yourself believable and accepted – like working for the Guardian.

Goffman’s theorising is interesting but complex, essentially a way of analysing and understanding social interaction. The practical consideration is more simple: you have to demonstrate that you are friendly and harmless. Thus the workman who confronted me with a hammer was satisfied when I said I was testing out a new (video) camera. That made sense to him, he could relate to it and accept it, but if I’d said I was taking an MA degree in Creative Technology and was inspired by the street photography aesthetic of Cartier-Bresson, the situation would have been different: he would not have understood, leading to more hostile questioning. The argument was not actually about the footage I’d obtained, it was about who I was and what I was doing which is what the more serious, problematic issues largely concern i.e. in relation to the vast majority of perfectly innocent photographers. It’s a question of different viewpoints being contested in a society which is increasingly refracted and adversarial, where public spaces are sometimes quite problematic, and where social tensions get triggered.

Here’s a few candid shots I like.

Enjoying herself at London’s South Bank, my favourite place to visit in the capital:

A carnival musician:

Stall lady, with colleague standing behind her:

And I liked the colours, juxtapositions, and general kitsch seen in the image below, taken at the seaside resort of Barmouth. The man’s face is turned away and the little dog is compositionally and dynamically emphasised by pulling on his lead.

Hmm, maybe I should write an article on dog street photography and the hazards of invading doggy social space…

Street Photography


  1. anna · Aug 5, 02:44 PM · §

  2. James Lomax · Aug 5, 05:40 PM · §

  3. Andy · Oct 12, 11:05 PM · §