Is street photography killing itself?

Mar 19, 2017

Thomas Stanworth

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Is street photography killing itself?

Mar 19, 2017

Thomas Stanworth

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Is the most egalitarian form of photography, ‘street photography’, being destroyed by its own popularity? Is such a thing even possible? I won’t profess to have a clear answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts. Those thoughts may turn into a rant, but I will try to contain myself!

What can you say about this photograph? Is there anything *to* say?

Egalitarian = Good, Right?

This question hits right at the heart of photography and, most specifically, digital photography. If something is easy, more people will do it. The more people doing it, the more ‘cultivated talent’ there will be (which is a good thing). However, there can be a cost: the dross can become overwhelming. Street photography is easy for everyone to engage in. If you have a camera and are able to access public areas, you can shoot street photography. While this sounds great, I can’t help but feel something of a massacre is taking place. Cameras have become optical machine guns, mowing down everyone and everything with carefree abandon. The problem, as I see it, is exacerbated by a particular catalyst: for want of a better word, it is ‘cool’. When something is fashionable in this way, the self-image can become the real target, rather than the photograph itself.

So what has ‘coolness’ done for street photography?

It has clouded judgment, that’s what it has done. Some photographers evidently struggle to see past their excitement at indulging in this fountain of cool. Twenty years ago, to pull this off, you had to tote a film camera around and go through all the palava of changing rolls, developing them, faffing with lightboxes, checking contact sheets and making prints. If a person was prepared to go through all of this inglorious hassle, there was a very good chance they were reaching a bit deeper, within and without. Now, in the digital age, you can buy the right ‘stealth satchel’, blaze away and saturate Instagram and Flikr within hours. At no point in this process will you have to consider the merits of the photographs being taken, because it doesn’t matter. You’re a rock and roll street sniper. At least a landscape photographer has to deal with bad weather, muddy feet and uncooperative light to get his or her shots and that obstacle of effort acts as a filter. When it’s raining, the street ninja just slides into Starbucks and takes 482 photographs of coffee cups, tables, peoples feet, the window, people walking past the window, people tying their shoe laces… and they’re all painfully boring. Sadly, this garbage is overflowing into the street so to speak. The visible face of popular photography is more and more being defined by street photography, when we’re not being overwhelmed by photos of people’s dinner on social media.

Why is this bad?

The good street photography is being buried, that’s why. It is more difficult than it should be to find consistently good street photography taken by someone without an already well-known name. The work is out there, I have no doubt of that, but the process of finding it is exhausting and depressing. There also seems to be a bit too much ego in the mix. Far too many of these (often very young) photographers seem unwilling to learn. They’re already amazing, which they know, because that’s what they tell each other continuously on social media. They also have lots of ‘likes’, so that’s that. On the occasions when I have seen really good photographs on Instagram/Facebook groups, the inspiring work barely gets a mention. Nobody cares. That’s not what social media is about and street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In the same way, much of this ‘great street photography’ is, well, the new great.

Bananas on a stand. Man eating banana. Hmmm… Sherlock here suspects he bought the banana, then ate it. And?

Editing. What is that?

Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits. You put your junk into the loft, or carefully pack cupboards. You mow the lawn, give a lick of paint to that beautiful front door and make sure your new kitchen is sparkling. The whole point is to draw attention to the good bits and let them define your house as a proposition. You curate the impression you want to leave people with. What you don’t do is give them a guided tour of the junk pile corner of your garden, the rotten window frame you’ve meant to replace and then hand them a map of the broken floor tiles. When you’re Magnum Photos, you can put out a book full of contact sheets when most of the photographers who took those hugely iconic images are dead! Everyone else is better off editing at least until it hurts.

Posting a letter. Am I missing something?
Waiting for a bus. Is the appeal in her age? If so, where is this going?

Endless Juxtapositions & Their Formulaic Brethren

Visual juxtapositions are akin to a trick that can be performed according to recipe. They are cookie cutter photographs that deliver all of their impact (if they have any at all) in no more time than it takes to mentally identify the game. A boot on a poster steps on a passing pedestrian’s head. The man standing at a bus stop is being shouted at by a woman on a billboard. See, you didn’t even need a photo to experience all that such photographs contain: a simple, boring, endlessly repeated ‘jingle’. You could only ever write one short line about such photographs, because they contain nothing beyond the superficial. Some photographers have built entire series (in fact entire websites) crammed full of variations of the same thing. They’re no more interesting than ‘zonies’ obsessed with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, who 20 years ago produced endless photographs of tree stumps and sticks that showed how wonderfully they’d applied -3 compensation development. My personal hit list goes something like this:

Juxtapositions. If they say nothing and have no appeal beyond their initial visual recognition, they’re boring. Really boring. Even the ‘good ones’.

Juxtapositions are almost ALL the same. This is a quick screen grab after google searching ‘street photography juxtaposition’

Random photos of nothing, for no reason, with no content, thought, insight or anything. They’re not so casual as to be cool. They’re just boring.

The hand/scarf over her face does not make this photo any less banal

Faux edginess. People being made to look mean, when they aren’t. Intensity that has been added in photoshop, or with a pithy title that over-eggs the pudding. Their landscape photography equivalents are the ones shot in Yosemite (or similar) during evidently pleasant weather, that have been heavily over-cooked in post, and then titled ‘_____, Clearing Winter Storm’.

Arrows and Street Signs. OK, so there is always going to be potential here. Never say never and all that, but I wish I could erase memory of every photo like the one below I have seen and wish I could un-see.

The most overused street photography formula of them all: arrow with person going the wrong way. I don’t see anything here to elevate this image beyond formula.

So what do you think about these photographs?

Is this photo truly compelling because of the black and white theme?
Does this work? If so, why? I see an initial ‘edginess’ replaced by nothing (along with the realisation that there isn’t actually an edge)
Everyone hates a mop handle in the eye. Is this an aspirational photo? If so, why? The ‘punchline’ is paper thin.

What Goes in Comes Out

Really engaging photographs are never the product of laziness, or formula, but this does not mean it should be hard work either. ‘endeavour’ is perhaps the best term. If we put in effort (and some thought) we can generally produce photographs worth more than a quick glance. That does not mean waiting for all of two minutes until a man of the right height walks past a poster depicting a large open mouth. Such photos are simply the free version of buying a ticket to Yosemite and placing your tripod in the exact spot ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ was taken 75 years earlier. It’s easy. It requires no real effort, thought or (most importantly) personal investment. I am not suggesting a hipster coffee approach here. Riding to the Andes on a unicycle to collect the coffee does not make it taste any different. Working your ass off in photography without that effort actually affecting your photographs is no different. However, just engaging in the subject of photography helps. Learning a little more about yourself helps. Learning about the people and environment around you and your thoughts and reactions to it helps. The sad truth is that most of our effort in photography amounts to nothing. We’ve all worked hard and come back with a slew of entirely disappointing images, but this does not mean we stop trying.

Street photography is fantastic and compelling, but it is also incredibly difficult to do well. In part, this is because we have seen so much of it before. Brilliant, obsessive workaholics have been doing it for 70 years, but they aren’t us. They haven’t had our experiences. They haven’t seen everything through the same eyes. Their insights are not ours. Every single person wielding a camera has the potential to say something interesting, or see something engaging. Again, it comes down to relationships and, even on the street, our relationship with what is in front of the camera is key.

We see many images like this. Is there supposed to be humour in the sleeping man? Is there something else going on that I am just not seeing?

Once a photographer has learnt a few ‘tricks’, they are presented with a choice: keep chasing gimmicks or formulas, or look deeper. It’s OK to be lost. It’s OK not to know what you’re doing. It’s OK to fail. It’s absolutely fine to feel insecure about your work. In fact, all of these things are very cool because they state very loudly that a person is trying, striving, exploring and searching in a very personal sense…. call it what you will. It is this highly individual engagement that makes photography interesting. Street photographs needn’t take that away. It isn’t an altar that photographers must worship beneath and it isn’t a sport either. Some years ago I read a passage in a men’s magazine advising young men not to approach their sexual endeavours in the same way as they might improvements to their sporting performance. And here we are back to the supreme importance of relationships, expression and connection. Without these things, both just become repetitive, predictable acts that lose their lustre.

***if you are upset by this article, please don’t be. I know it may seem harsh, but I have not sought to offend anyone, or their love of street photography. If anything, it was a little rant that might catalyse thoughts for readers and for me. I often start writing with no idea of where I will end up. I enjoy the surprise.***

About the Author

Thomas Stanworth is award-winning photographer, founder of The Photo Fundamentalist, ex-soldier and father of two. He has spent over a decade working and photographing in trouble spots from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan. His work has been exhibited in the US, UK, Europe, and Asia.

For more of his work, visit his website, and follow The Photo Fundamentalist on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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36 responses to “Is street photography killing itself?”

  1. Jim Manganella Avatar
    Jim Manganella

    Every genre of photography has poor contributors. That is not to say there is anything wrong with any of them… just some poor photographers.

    1. Police: StartChargingDrivers Avatar
      Police: StartChargingDrivers

      I agree 110%.
      The good images bubble to the top eventually.
      There are probably billions of bad landscape images that are really bad, yet the landscape Masters are still relevant and not lost in the noise. Landscape photography is still alive.
      And street photography will live on.

      I do wish “selfies” would die a horrible death.

  2. Stefan Kohler Avatar
    Stefan Kohler

    Damn that’s a good article!!

  3. Michael Savage Avatar
    Michael Savage

    Loved your point of view on the this. I enjoy taking photographs because its apart of my personality type. I enjoy some of the work of the new and next generations of “street photographers”, but it’s dissatisfying and difficult to share and get feedback for improvements due to the flood of feeds, mimicked styles, and just unthoughtful sharing of uninterested images. I’m guilty of sharing some just because I felt the need to try to stay relevant. That brought me to the point of not really want to share or even taken pictures as often because I’ve taken all I can in my area that interest me. Your point of view makes me rethink my thought/feeling process on taking photographs and provides me a opportunity to research the past street photographers and engage with their work more, then find a deeper meaning as to way I take pictures and how I go about doing it.

  4. Dave Bottoms Avatar
    Dave Bottoms

    Interesting read. Thanks. I agree with the author for the most part, especially when it comes to editing one’s own work. That is arguably harder than making good photographs. For me, it’s all about engaging in something that brings me joy and peace of mind. Street photography might seem easy and to some extent it is, but making quality pleasing photographs is a lot tougher than it looks. The market might be saturated but it’s mostly saturated with crap. As long as one strives to create something a cut above, then who cares about the crap, right?

  5. Scott Lightner Avatar
    Scott Lightner

    Kill? Dead? How? Why?
    As opposed to what?

  6. Richie Vela Avatar
    Richie Vela

    No…Social media is…

  7. Kevin Bjorke Avatar
    Kevin Bjorke

    Why apologize for hurt feelings? This article should offend, for all the right reasons.

  8. simon green Avatar
    simon green

    looool top rant but hey… masses of people trying to be creative is a cool thing.

    1. Max Avatar

      I agree… but I think the point our author is making is this: these folks aren’t trying to be creative. They’re merely trying to be SEEN AS being creative/cool/edgy/etc.

      I have to agree. As a landscape photographer I struggle to see those succeed who simply take the same images as everyone else, quickly over-process them and then sit back to bask in the likes. I just need to remind myself that the reward is in my own image creation, whether anyone else sees it or not.

  9. Patrick Sagnes Avatar
    Patrick Sagnes

    First how can a professional photographer as you seems to be use pictures without copyright/permissions? Is it due to a lack of courage when you criticize for free the work of somebody else? Last point if you don’t like streetphotography and it’s boring editing nobody force you no !? Please next time keep your own thoughts for you or think much deeper before “start writing with no idea”…

    1. Doug Sundseth Avatar
      Doug Sundseth

      Use for critique is a strong fair use claim. Fair use requires no permission from the creator.

      1. Umberto Zepeda Avatar
        Umberto Zepeda

        Yes, yes. Most of us know that. There’s a difference between what’s legally defensible, and what should be common courtesy.

  10. Rob Avatar

    Yet another article on street photography and its….. Ugh you can say just about the same for portraits, fashion and even landscapes. I don’t get why Street photography is always the focus of such rants and usually IG or some other social media sites is a part of it. One thing I’ve learned about that, if you follow garbage then you see garbage.

    1. Andrej Petrovič Avatar
      Andrej Petrovič

      especialy photography of naked/half naked girls. im sick of it. Perfect colours, perfect bokeh..i hate it

  11. Ruben Blædel Avatar
    Ruben Blædel

    For me the image “posting a letter” is pretty good. It reflects on the demise of the written letter emphasized with the long dark shadows – in 10 years there will be no more letterboxes – end of an era

  12. raj pras Avatar
    raj pras

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful article. You have made me re-consider my assumptions.

    There are an abundance of youtube articles promising that you can master street photography if you just follow these five/ six/ seven tips. It is what’s driveing this epidemic of formula photography

  13. Karen Commings Avatar
    Karen Commings

    totally agree. How many photos of someone crossing the street, using a cell phone or a homeless person do we need. These say nothing, add nothing yet are defended by other street photographers creating images just as banal. See:

  14. murhaaya Avatar

    I don’t think, that the complexity of the medium is the sieve that filters out the bad seeds. I think rather the stubborn rather than good are those getting through the filter of the medium. You can find plenty of astonishingly boring black and white analog photographs made with anything from 35 mm to 8×10. You have whole groups of people chatting away their lives shooting twigs and leaves on 8×10 trix, and boastinng about the tonality while it’s the content that is lacking.

    Lomography is rather costly endeavor with results often being the same boring photographs but now they are pink or green or blue or red.

    There are stupidly dumb sculpture made of granite and that did not stop the sculptor from wasting away good amount of his time.

    Not negating your point about the tsunamis of uninspired pictures the obstacles that digital process removed are not the sole reason for this flood.

  15. Kok Chai Kooi Avatar
    Kok Chai Kooi

    Interesting article. You really have a good thought. Anyway this article giving answer for me
    1) engage more with your subject, be a ethic photographer, appreciate ur subject too
    2) Capture photos with storyline, not just composition etc.

    It is slightly different from yours, I had some thought about URBAN Streets Photography which run by teen photographer nowdays.Should our street photography follow the trend?

  16. Roman Tripler Avatar
    Roman Tripler

    Thank you, thank you, thank you […]!

  17. Alberto Cardenas Almeida Avatar
    Alberto Cardenas Almeida

    Stories are always found in the streets

  18. Daniele Zarri Avatar
    Daniele Zarri

    Thank you to post my juxta

  19. Noah N. Bershatsky Avatar
    Noah N. Bershatsky

    I agree! I even wrote an article about street photography being garbage.

  20. Jake the Dog Avatar
    Jake the Dog

    I highly agree with this article.

    In FB SP groups, popularity and network matters over the quality of photos. I feel sad whenever I saw good photos from newcomers that doesn’t get the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, even a thoughtless ‘snap’ from well marketed individuals get all the likes and comments.

  21. Enamul Avatar

    The topic is nothing but a good self promotion. I
    read this and yes few things correctly, that does not mean SP
    is destroying as you raised questions. But SP is vary man to man as there
    is different thought of different school. The man who write this he
    should show some of his own photo as well, so ppl can get idea what is
    the best. Day is changing so thinking also changing. Juxtaposition or
    other things is not easy to capture. There is always cliche in every
    field .why i will see his photo where nothing special. I will say good
    self promotion he did:P. as per his words TWO dogs ( The author’s Photograph) looking at me and
    what else to say its a good photograph

    i read the article i laugh a lot cause he failed to understand, the way we everyone see
    photography is not same. I always believe,those are against something,
    he/she has fear inside him/herself about
    that particular things. I am sure he did not asked any photographer for
    using his/her photographs at his blog which is not right then how can
    he write right things.

    1. enamul Avatar

      Sorry for my poor English

  22. relinquis . Avatar
    relinquis .

    i don’t know what’s done more damage to street photography, hipsterism or eric kim?

    1. Sean Marc Lee Avatar
      Sean Marc Lee

      Eric Kim, international self-hating, self-help guru.

  23. Michael Young Avatar
    Michael Young

    Excellent, Mt Stanforth. I agree and sympathize with all of this. The point – if there has to be a point to the poke in the eye stick – is that today everyone is a photographer. And with volume comes dross. To me it’s why I take photographs and what I discover as that matters. All part of the personal journey. Refreshing to see this discussion. :)

  24. Turgut Buday Avatar
    Turgut Buday

    I love the way you question photos… but would like to have some more opinion, anyway has given me another perspective of photography ;)

  25. Fardex Kenton Avatar
    Fardex Kenton

    I see nothing wrong with street photography, the problem is just that we have some amateur photographers in the business and unless they start becoming pro there is gonna be a but in the business.

  26. Ross Duncan Avatar
    Ross Duncan

    One positive. At least there’s no HDR anywhere to be seen.

  27. Tony Photographer Avatar
    Tony Photographer

    I agree everything you said in this article as I find Street Photography the most difficult type of photography. I hope you’ll consider this article as “Part 1”. In it you elucidated what is wrong the genre — perhaps you’ll consider doing a “Part 2” where you’ll talk about the few that are doing it justice and what makes their images work?

  28. Knox Bronson Avatar
    Knox Bronson

    Great article & I’m glad it’s by someone from inside the street photographer community. I’ve been saying this for seven-plus years over at P1XELS … the street photographers from the beginning posted every picture they took on Flickr, Twitter, etc., then told each other how great they are. If one pointed out that pictures of people walking down the street AWAY from the camera is a lousy shot, they shot the messenger! Many are still butt-hurt. Much of my work is “Street,” (I walk around a lot) but I app the crap out of my pictures. I dedicated a whole issue of my dormant magazine iPhotographer (now P1XELS) to street photography way back when. – if you are interested. Be sure to read the unauthorized history of iPhoneographic street photography, “Street Life.”

  29. Konstantin Fedotchev Avatar
    Konstantin Fedotchev

    Posting someone else photos without credit is not only disrespectful, no matter what and might even brake copyrights.