Why is street photography so contentious?
Feb 28, 2019
Why is street photography so contentious?
As a street photographer, I accept that I have a bias towards the kind of work and criticisms I prefer to seek out as an audience to the work of others – although there are examples of landscape or portraiture that I do enjoy it is street photography and photojournalism that take up the majority of my interest.
I know that photographers and the photography community, in general, is a passionate one and that there is no shortage of critiques available for any work or opinion that creators choose to share. However despite knowing that there is criticism in every area of the art I still feel that some of the criticisms leveled against street photography as a genre as well as specific examples of street photographs are harsher than any I’ve seen in, for example, landscape, or portraiture.
Of course, there is no objective status for any kind of photography, so why does it seem that street photography is treated with more hostility and controversy than any other genre? I simply don’t see the same level of judgment in other genres – I couldn’t even imagine people questioning how “legitimate” landscape or portrait photography is, for example, and yet somehow there are people who will feel that it is a valid opinion that street photography simply should not exist. I disagree with this strongly, as well as the mindset where that kind of opinion can originate.
I’ve thought about this issue a lot, as I feel it is important to understand where criticism comes from and whether it can be used to improve my work in the field.
One of the obvious reasons that street photography receives so much criticism is that the term contains such a diverse subset of image types that any singular example is open to criticism as any one of these. A “Street Photograph” can contain elements of portrait, journalism, wildlife, landscape, fine art, and even macro or any other category. It can, therefore, be judged on the merit and balance of any of those factors. This can be an issue when, for example, a street photographer has captured an image which is mostly a portrait but features elements of a landscape – and is judged on the merit of the landscape aspects rather than the portrait.
I would argue that there are some fairly classical standards to measure the quality of a portrait – does the composition work, are the colors aesthetic, can you feel an emotion from the eyes, or tone, and so on. However what constitutes a “good” street photograph can be more difficult to define, and can involve only composition, or emotion, with other criteria ignored entirely in that specific image.
Even in the example of a street portrait vs a regular portrait, things like the role of spontaneity vs planned vision, the role of collaboration between the subject and photographer, and control/lack of control over the environment, and control over oneself and the camera I find are overlooked.
A street photograph is judged by the standards of whoever is viewing it, and if that person happens to have stronger opinions on how a landscape should look, or how a portrait should be presented, then that makes this hypothetical image entirely invalid. The rest of this article will be dealing with less ambiguous criticisms, but I thought it was important to deal with the role of the audience, and the way that “baggage” is brought by them to every criticism they present. No one image will ever please every photographer, let alone every armchair critic; accepting that is one of the most important things for an artist to deal with in order to come into their own, and find their voice unrestricted by others.
One of the most common criticisms I see for street photography is that it’s “been done.” I think that this criticism can be valid, as many urban settings do look familiar – and there are even some “overdone” locations, which are popular for street photographers to visit.
In London alone, there is the Tate Modern, British Museum, and Barbican Centre which must host dozens of street photographers each trying to produce something unique from the location. I think that outstanding photographers will be able to produce outstanding work regardless of how played out a location is, and that there is always a new angle or a temporary element that can be manipulated for an image.
There are also “activities” in street photography which technically fit the genre but have nothing much to say; these include people standing around, crossing the road, or simply interacting with light. Good examples of these exist, with tension between elements and drama and mood from the light, but bad examples are far more plentiful.
The number of active street photographers is only increasing. Photography is one of the most democratic art forms there is, and the price of entry is already in the pocket of most people in the form of their mobile phone. In such a saturated field it absolutely makes sense that work start to seem to look the same. Of course, over time those outstanding examples will hopefully remain while the rest will fade, but operating during this time of massive oversaturation and being a member of the audience as and when this work is being churned out can absolutely feel monotonous.
I think that rather than being dissuaded from producing street photography I think that this should be used as an excuse to motivate yourself to become outstanding. My personal criterion for great work includes images with a tangible aesthetic, a storytelling component, emotion, and contain an unrepeatable moment. I have never settled for mediocrity in my own work and will always look for new ways to produce something engaging both for myself and for my audience. None of the examples I mentioned have anything inherently inartistic or bad about them, but they do dilute the selection and make it harder to identify the truly great work.
My suggestion for this is to become more active in the gallery scene, both as a photographer and an audience to photography. Exhibit your work in person and visit galleries as often as possible to support your peers. The work will be better presented than on screen and will be more likely to engage you as the gallery operator has curated it. I also encourage you to become more active in your local and global street photography community. Share your work through a blog rather than a social media site where you can discuss thoughts as well as share images. Feedback from these ventures is much more likely to be useful rather than scathing and you will feel better about the genre overall.
I also think that starting a long-term project is a great way to escape the monotony of repetitive work. By focusing work around a central theme or story, the methods and visual techniques being applied will mold and fit that content. The work will make sense when viewed as a collection as well as through standalone pieces, but the sense of monotony will vanish, as many aspects of ambiguity will be removed.
Many street photographers find that they are re-treading old ground, going through the motions of the “Greats” and that their work, while aesthetically beautiful, lacks their personal touch and as a result can feel like simple variations on a theme. I find that mimicking composition ideas can be a great way to learn new techniques that, once mastered, can be applied spontaneously to new situations. However this kind of work I would be loath to share or sell as it is nothing more than painting by numbers.
This is an expansion of an idea I touched on in the above point, but I think it’s worth elaborating on. Street photography is such an accessible genre, and photography such a prevalent art form that there is simply an incredible quantity of work being shared. So much work being generated does by definition mean that there will be more good work produced, but also means that there is a lot more bad and mediocre work to get through before finding those excellent images.
Add to this the fact that many artists aren’t happy with achieving fame or recognition after their death and want to profit from their talent now which is easier than ever with some basic marketing skill.
Currently, the “best” street photographers you’ve heard of are the ones with the most successful marketing strategy. This is nothing new, and I find it really interesting that photographers as early as Ansel Adams have well-documented marketing strategies, which help explain why they are still so well enjoyed and long-lasting.
We are also subjected to a lot of work from beginners, which will likely suffer from many of the issues I’m discussing in this article. We should be able to measure our criticisms against these and provide useful and constructive responses to people who have clearly not been doing work in the genre for long, rather than tearing them down with the same ferocity you would critique the work of a veteran documentarian.
Another common comment I read is that a particular image is “uninspiring” either because the content is uninteresting or that the audience is not particularly engaged by it. Again, this is quite a generic criticism for any kind of photography or art, and what is inspiring to one artist at one stage of their journey can be absolutely dull to another at another stage.
However, in street photography, an image can often be described as “uninspiring” simply because there is nothing interesting occurring in the frame. Many of the best unrepeatable street photography moments have elements of speed and spontaneity in the subject and required the fast reactions of the photographer to capture it. Many examples of New Wave street photography are much slower, towards the Fisherman approach rather than the hunter. If someone is not engaged by a piece of work then it can indicate that there is not enough tension in the composition, not enough moving parts to keep a viewer occupied.
I find myself annoyed by a common trend in the presentation of these kinds of uninspiring images, which is that often the story (sometimes entirely distinct from what is happening in the image) is written in the caption rather than show in the image itself. Some photographers seem to think that labeling their subject or event as something “definitive” or ambiguous that it will elevate it to that status, rather than going the more difficult route of actually capturing that kind of thing in the first place.
Using the Term Incorrectly
Although street photography is one of the broadest genres in photography, as discussed above; it is still a fairly well defined and understood one. The rise of the street as a “location” for things like street fashion and even street portraits would not have been as popular if not for some of the earliest street photographers.
Without wanting to gate-keep any specific idea of what street photography is or isn’t, I still find myself seeing images marked as or referred to as street photography when they simply are not. A studio fashion portrait of a posed and directed model wearing a streetwear brand is not street photography. An urban cityscape long exposure from a rooftop with the photographer’s legs dangling over the edge is not street photography. Without clear definitions and boundaries in our understanding of what we are trying to produce and share we will lose and dilute our audience and confuse people trying to start out in the genre.
This point is a little similar to the idea of repetitive work but directly focused on the echo chamber of social media. Sharing work on Instagram is very different from publishing a book or zine, or featuring in a gallery, and also entirely different from producing work for a client brief or assignment.
People often overlook the role that the social aspect of these sites have on the way creatives work, and it is difficult to ignore all of the little number tickers that tell you how popular you and your work are. Following trends are a great way to make that little counter move up as you contribute to a growing body of unoriginal and usually temporary work.
Instagram tends to be an echo chamber of trends so if that’s the only place you consume street photography then your work will end up reflecting what you are being most often inspired by, or what you think is popular at the time. Taking a break from this environment and just focusing on honing your own vision is the best way to tackle this.
Learning the trends can be an excellent way to learn new techniques or to incorporate a new style into existing approaches to street photography. Similar to my point about re-treading old ground this would not be work I would post until I was certain I had made it my own.
Breaking the “Rules”
In street photography, I find that photographers feel more comfortable breaking traditional “rules” opting to trade things like sharpness, depth of field, grain, motion blur, and even “good” composition, against emotion and “the moment” – going for the gist of a scene above technical and artistic perfection. These things are deliberately given up through the photographers chosen style, and yet when shared anywhere other than a street photography platform they are critiqued on all of these things.
Perhaps only the greatest are immune from this but there must be some way to communicate that many of the things people find issues with were deliberate choices and that you are viewing an image the way the artists wants for it to be viewed, not a rough draft that was posted by accident.
I don’t think any photographer should receive negative feedback for sharing images that don’t follow a certain compositional style and should instead try and identify how an image makes them feel before they examine exactly what it may be made of on a more technical or artistic level.
However, I also think that the photographer should have an understanding of why they made the decisions they did and that they should be equipped with that understanding when it comes to defending themselves. If they can’t explain why they made something the way they did then by learning that they will be able to take control of their aesthetic.
There are a few issues people have with street photography that are more related to the sociological factors rather than anything artistic. Street photography by definition involves actions involving other people, usually without their explicit “consent” which provides for consistent discussion as to the exact ethics of street photography. Many people argue that street photography is an invasion of perceived “privacy” of the subjects, especially when that subject is identifiable, or in a vulnerable state.
Although early street photography had equal issues unless those images became published in a gallery or magazine it was unlikely that they would be seen by many people, but the Internet means that any image has the potential to be seen by millions of people. This represents far greater “risk” to that subject’s privacy, and therefore issues like privacy are given more room in the conversation.
I think an interesting recent trend in street photography is an effort to preserve privacy by presenting subjects as anonymous through obscuring or silhouetting the compositions. This “New Wave” street photography is a little more “cinematic” and often lacks the personal touch of eye contact and relate-ability.
This preservation of anonymity whether conscious or unconscious on behalf of the photographer is something I find really interesting, and I’m sure after more thought I’ll have more to say on the subject. For now, though I think that it shows that there are forms of expression within street photography that are self-aware enough to take such issues seriously, and make aesthetic decisions accordingly.
Consent is an extension of privacy, and some street photographers do deal with the issue by approaching their subject after the fact and checking things over with them. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission as the saying goes, and for photographers who choose for that to matter to them, this is an excellent compromise.
However, I think that many issues of consent have been rendered irrelevant due to the current state of public surveillance by both government and individuals – especially in London where I live and shoot most frequently. Anyone worried about privacy while out in public is deluding themselves in my opinion, and taking that out on street photographers is just a symptom of this constant erosion of feeling like you can go unnoticed in a crowd.
The artists’ intention does play a role when there is a specific idea being communicated in an image which might not reflect reality. I think that the best form of street photography is one that tells stories of hope and beauty rather than highlight ugliness or to make a mockery of someone.
One of the connotations of street photography that invades privacy is that it “exploits” the subject. This is especially prevalent in discussions regarding homeless people, who are unable to have the same level of privacy as the more fortunate. I can see how this would concern people, especially when it comes to profiting from such images but my own view on the matter is that as long as you treat others as you would want to be treated essentially no image is really off limits.
For homelessness specifically, I think that refusing to document such a pressing and damaging societal issue is the equivalent of “erasing” it from public discourse. The reason for choosing not to document such scenes in “everyday” street photography, which has no specific theme aside from the human condition, must go beyond not wanting to exploit the subject. We cannot pretend that these issues in society do not exist, and making images is the best way of keeping these topics not only at the front of street photography discussions but general discussions as well.
All photographers have a different moral code and will draw the line in different places. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that there are incredible examples of street photography that in some way exploit a situation, and equally there are terrible images that do the same. The best examples can elicit a response, and if that response is sympathy or empathy then such an image can do a lot of good. For bad ones, the response is usually entirely about how it exploits the subject if there really are few redeeming qualities about it.
Occasionally an image will be identified as having only one central intention – to shock the audience with its content. These are always interesting to talk about; as the discussion usually takes place around the value of the shock itself rather than the content of the image and the issues it may be dealing with – which sometimes have genuine substance.
There has always been an audience for controversial work, and I think people are drawn to creating and consuming that kind of work in street photography in the same way that actual photojournalism is drawn to the more violent or scary stories (just look at the last few years worth of World Press Photo winners to see this).
I think that street photography is full of all kinds of pieces of life and that controversial work receives attention due to the fact that it’s controversial. However, I also think that if there is something shocking in front of the photographer then they should not restrict themselves in that moment – and should make the image. Whether or not to share that image is then a decision they can spend longer on, and can even research to make an informed choice. I’ve recognized this hesitation in my own workflow and am in the process of changing that.
Photographer Attitude and Ego
Many people have an issue with specific behaviors and attitudes from street photographers that can have a negative effect on the way photographers are seen in general. There is more likely to be a confrontation between a random person and a street photographer than for example a landscape photographer, but the way that interaction goes will affect the way that person perceives most photographers they meet after that.
I don’t really have a solution for this because their behavior is not really a reflection of the genre of street photography, and it is more likely that outgoing people are drawn to confrontational styles of street photography in the first place. It is possible to follow the advice of my previous point, to treat others as you would treat yourself, and be a mindful and valuable member of your community as a street photographer.
To me, street photography is a way to identify aspects of the world that are neat or which speak to me, and sometimes those will take the form of a situation I will have to react to differently to my normal behavior in order to document.
I do have a strong opinion towards photographers who choose to conduct their street photography by employing bold and intrusive techniques at almost all times, whether the situation calls for it or not, and that is as follows: make sure you are not producing mediocre work. The end results must absolutely justify the means if it means causing situations that may affect someone else’s day negatively.
When it really comes down to using street photography to document your life and the lives of those around you self-censorship, both in the way you go about producing the work (by simply living your life) and sharing it, should not really be a factor.
Lastly, and this may sound cliché, it should be obvious that when some people find work that’s particularly outstanding in any field they will find reasons to put it down out of sheer jealousy. In street photography, it may be jealousy over the photographers capacity to consistently find and approach interesting characters, or live in a particularly aesthetic city, or even over the gear they are using.
Jealousy can be redirected into inspiration, through practice you can produce the same if not better as the work you were jealous of using the tools available to you.
I’m aware that everything I’ve discussed here is immensely subjective, and that your experience of street photography and street photography criticism may be entirely different from my own. Art is one of the most subjective topics there is, and art criticism will always be a difficult topic to tackle as an artist. I can only offer my own perspective on these ideas and hope that it helps aspiring photographers in any genre to deal with the way their work is judged and understood by their audience, and by themselves.
I also know that it is one of my longer pieces, and I’ve still only been able to talk about a handful of topics. Thanks for sticking with the article throughout, and I look forward to hopefully continuing this discussion and any others that may happen as a result.
About the Author
Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which you can read about here.
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