I’m reasonably sure that words appear in a disproportionate number of my photos. Maybe the ratio is one to ten: one picture containing words to ten without. For whatever reason, I always notice them. They loom large in my vision and I try to figure out a way of using them to my advantage.
Most of the time the words I see on the streets of London are parts of various advertising campaigns; product names, slogans, and the like. But there are also posters and street signs, graffiti and tee-shirts, newspaper billboards and “polite notices” telling us to “stop it.”
One day I came across a little sticker saying “Never Ask Permission,” which I thought would be great if I could combine it with a cheekily-taken candid shot. Did anyone walk anywhere near it? No. It was so tiny I needed a passer-by to be right beside it, not even a yard away. I thought perhaps some enterprising (but misguided) street photographer had created these stickers to frustrate his competitors. If so, the ploy worked admirably.
Words in advertisements usually seem too familiar for inclusion in street photography. However, I think you need to take the long view and bear in mind that what seems familiar today may look quite different in twenty years time. The named product — and even its manufacturer — may disappear, giving the photograph a valuable, documentary quality and turning it into an historical record. I know this is not much comfort to anyone currently shooting, but it’s true.
Fortunately, wit comes to the rescue when you take candid shots. If you can find a genuinely witty message, phrase or slogan, displayed in a public area where people gather, you’re halfway towards getting a pleasing image.
I loved the message on the sign above the head of the woman in my featured photo (above). Apart from anything else, it looks like an antique, but I suspect it may not be as old as it appears. Maybe that’s why no one has bought it: its message of distrust is so well expressed: “Beware of the dog. The cat is not trustworthy either.”
The picture works partly because the relevant sign is in bright sunlight and near the centre of the image. It doesn’t have to compete for attention with the other signs, some of which are more than a little sentimental. The coats of the women on the right form an abstract pattern of layers in tasteful colours. They lead the eye towards the centre — where two shades of bright red are poised to shout their message at us.
Prepping the Scene
I’d never make any significant alterations to the reality I find in the street — such as placing a sign or a poster at a given location. In fact, there’s only been one occasion when I’ve done anything that could remotely offend the ethics of photojournalism, which are a lot more strict than those applicable to the street photographer. Here’s the result (below).
There are many places in London where you can purchase a sweater with the words “Normal People Scare Me” emblazoned on the front, but one day I found the item at eye level in busy Oxford Street.
Perfect! Except for the fact that no one could read it because it hung awkwardly, displaying: “Nrma Ple Scre M” — which makes no sense. OK, I confess! I smoothed it out (much to the consternation of the shopkeeper) and waited for some normal (scary) — or abnormal (non-scary) — people to show up.
I’m not suggesting that the people in the photo are either one or the other — normal or abnormal — but the image is ambiguous and very much open to interpretation. The setting could scarcely be more urban, seeing as it’s the busiest street in one of the world’s largest cities, yet here is someone kitted out for a hike on the Yorkshire moors or a trek across the Alps. I can only guess he’s been shopping for camping gear. He’s probably like everyone else. Normal.
The Label Proudly Worn
Here (below) is one of my cinematic, “face-in-the-crowd” shots, taken at a winter market in the local High Street. All I saw was a pretty face, with red and green awnings in the background, an interesting way of gripping a mobile phone — and the single word: “Dope.”
Of course, it’s possible that the full word is “Dopey” — and the item of clothing something bought from the Disney Store — but I like to think it really does say “Dope.” The shorter word is cuter because of its obvious ambiguity. Dope has multiple meanings, ranging from “information” (“I’ve got the dope on all the fashion stores in town”) to “gullible fool,” and “marijuana.” It can be an instruction, as in “administer a drug to this racehorse,” or a adjective meaning “very good,” as in the slang expression: “this woollen hat is dope!”
I like it. The hat looks especially good when you walk, chat on the phone, and close your eyes at the same time.
In all three of the examples I’ve given, words add something vital to the image. I can’t say exactly what the added ingredient is, because it’s different in each case.
That’s the beauty of words. They speak urgently to us and trigger ambiguous thoughts in ways otherwise unknown to the silent world of appearances.