JoziFolk - images of everyday life in South Africa


How to become a significant street photographer

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Nowadays everyone is a street photographer! It seems anyone with a camera-equipped, mobile phone, figures, he or she, is a citizen journalist and a street photographer.

Digital cameras, with memory cards capable of storing thousands of photographs, at no cost, have resulted in millions of worthless images under the label, "street photography."

These photographs invariably tell no story. An image of some random person crossing a street with nothing else of interest is...well just a random person crossing a street with no interest. Why in would we even want to see that? There's no story and no emotional connection.

Consider the great street photographs. They stand out and are memorable because they tell, or make us wonder what the story is, or evoke some sort emotion within us. There is real or implied drama in them.

In Cartier Bresson's picture of a man in a hat, wearing what appears to be a business suit, who is caught in mid-air as he attempts to leap over a puddle, we are left with more questions than answers. Did he successfully make the jump or did he land in the water? Why was he is such a rush? And in our own minds, we can imagine a story.

Perhaps he is a small-business owner, late for an appointment with a bank manager he hopes will loan him the cash needed to save his enterprise. Or maybe he is in a rush to meet a secret lover. It doesn't matter and we'll never know. What does matter is the photograph sets our imagination in motion and takes us on any number of imaginary, magical journeys.

Insignificant moment

A photograph that lacks emotion and has no connection with the viewer is simply a record of an insignificant moment, boring and passed over in a second. Successful street photographers are those who achieve a response from a viewer. A smile, a flash of anger, a moment of wonder, a pause to think further.

Garry Winogrand's picture of a military veteran on his knees on the pavement, seemingly in distress, while those standing by him appear to ignore his predicament, evokes many emotions. 

We become angry because of the uncaring attitude of his comrades. We wonder how he ended up in that position. We wonder what happened after Winogrand clicked the shutter. Was he helped or was he ignored? 

The fact is, we cannot be unaffected by the image.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank's picture of the passengers peering from the windows of a bus (or is it a train) should be mundane but isn't. Why does the black passenger seem so ill-at-ease? The photograph appears to have been shot in the 50s or 60s, so why were blacks and whites travelling together? There are more questions than answers, that is why the image is memorable.

Digital photography has dumbed down photographers, who now shoot hundreds of images in a day - mostly of the back of people's heads because the photographers don't have the courage to face their subjects head-on - and hope, somewhere, in amongst the pile of mediocrity, there'll be a diamond. It's the old "give a 100 monkeys a 100 typewriters and a thousand years and they'll eventually write the "Complete Works of Shakespeare" syndrome. 

Until photographers learn to edit, brutally and mercilessly, they will never achieve their full potential as street photographers. It's a philosophy Winogrand understood well. He shot hundreds of rolls of Tri-X film every year but often waited a whole year before developing them. He wanted to have forgotten the reason, circumstances and emotions he felt when he clicked his Leica's shutter. That way he could judge the image solely on its merits and not because he was in love with it.

Film camera

Working the streets with a film camera imposes restrictions on you. When a frame has a direct cost, paid every time the shutter is pressed, there is no option but to be selective in what you photograph. Unless you are a millionaire, you are forced to think about why exactly you intend shooting particular picture. It's conscious-dining rather than fast-food gorging. You have to be in the moment and consciously ask: 'what is the story and what is the emotion?' And when you do that, much of the time, you'll decide not to press the shutter because there is no strong image.

Some will say: 'I can do exactly the same thing with my digital camera' and that's true, in the same way a crack-head believes he can give up whenever he wants. I'm not saying it's impossible, just I have yet to see it!

When you only have 36 exposures (or 12 in the case of a medium format camera) and each of those has an actual monetary cost, you'd better believe it, you become a better photographer. 


Image: Garry Winogrand 

Image: Juhan Kuus 




Image: Robert Frank