Holding Hands

In London, the sight of couples walking hand-in-hand is commonplace and unremarkable. Yet in Bangkok — the other city where I take most of my pictures — it’s rare to see open displays of affection. The only exceptions are tourists and a few young people who have no expectation of bumping into older (and possibly disapproving) relatives.

The difference between the two cities makes me think: what’s really going on with this public show of togetherness?

Is it simply a private exchange of affection between two people, like a kiss, only somewhat further down the scale of intensity? Or it really a public statement? One which says: “We’re declaring ourselves officially as a couple.”

Looking Closer
Taking candid pictures is an activity that raises — and sometimes answers — the kind of questions I’ve just raised.

To the casual eye, there’s only one category of hand-holding, namely, two people walking hand-in-hand. But the street photographer notices that there are many different ways of holding hands, surreptitiously (as on a first date), ostentatiously (committed couples), and elaborately (playful couples who may or may not be committed).

The most elaborate example of hand-holding I’ve seen is pictured in the featured image (above). You have to look carefully to see how their hands are entwined, his in hers and the same again with the opposite hands using the phone.

Incidentally, the above shot is entirely candid although it looks posed. I tried to see if there was another photographer in the vicinity, but there wasn’t. Maybe the couple were about to take a selfie.

Low Key
I have no idea whether the couple above, standing outside Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) in Bangkok, are married or on a date. Their way of holding hands is very low key, not surreptitious but certainly understated.

I think they may be acting this way out of respect for local custom. Alternatively it could be an expression of individual personality. After all, the tee-shirt says: “Easy Does It.”

High Key
The couple walking down London’s Oxford Street (below) hold hands in a very different way. They make them into a feature! The man points to something in one of the shops and his partner willingly goes along with the gesture.

In each of these three images the central feature is the recurrent one of interlocked hands. Surely, this is surprising, given the grandeur of the different settings? In the Bangkok scene, in particular, we notice the clasped hands immediately, even though the temple takes up most of the background.

It makes no difference whether hand-holding is a private or public gesture, or a little bit of both. It seems that our gaze is drawn to the image of human touch, in whatever context it occurs.

An Evening Walk Down Oxford Street

I’m going to tell you a secret. I have a habit of stockpiling these blog posts, writing several of them in advance, then sometimes scheduling them to appear, automatically, on successive weekends.

But habits are meant to be broken, especially if you’re a street photographer, and today I’m bringing you the latest crop of images. They’re not, I hasten to say, the entire set from a day’s shooting in London, but an extra… an afterthought, a mini half-hour project on which I embarked, a bit reluctantly, at the end of the day.

Catching Up
During late afternoon in a café near The Photographers’ Gallery I enjoyed a cup of coffee with an old friend whom I’d not seen in many years. She didn’t mind missing the Roger/Rafa semi-final to chat with a dishevelled photographer who’d been tramping the streets for hours. Afterwards, feeling rested, I was supposed to head for home, but something stopped me. It was the light!

The light was so good I was tempted into walking again, so I set off down Oxford Street towards Tottenham Court Road and then on to Holborn.

The ten pictures you see here are the ones I took on my 30-minute stroll, in order of their taking.

The featured image, at the top, was a good start, although I had to “unprocess” it by removing some sharpening I added in Photoshop. When sunlight is direct and flat (coming from behind the camera) you don’t always need to sharpen the image if you’ve used a high shutter speed.

The Other Nine
I tend to look for compositions where colourful dresses and backgrounds can play their part, so the next shot is mainly a combination of blacks, greys, and some prominent red.

people walking past red sale sign

I saw quite a few people in almost-primary colours: such as the two ladies in the shot below. I like the way the woman in the background is removing her sunglasses. Or is she putting them on?

two women, one in red, one in green

Here (next) is a shot that conveys some of the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street in the rush-hour. At this point, I was quite a long way from Savile Row, as indeed was the guy in the snazzy suit. I’m not sure where one acquires such a suit, but it looks kinda neat on a Friday evening! Clearly, he’s already in a party mood.

man in bizarre suit with cartoon exclamations all over it

Although there are lots (lots!) of tourists in London right now, I think most of the people in my shots are Londoners returning home after work or shopping. Let me take this opportunity to say “thank you” to everyone for letting me take a picture (whether or not they/you noticed me doing it).

two women of striking appearance

Now here (below) is a shot I really like. Not only does this lady have fantastic hair she seems to have attracted the attention of the person behind her — who is pointing at it! Unusually, everyone else in this shot has great hair, too, if not quite as spectacular as that possessed by the main character.

woman with braided hair

I love to get shots with high notes of deep red, as below — where a London bus matches the red in the tee-shirt, with little bits of red in the shop sign and the Tesco bag. Of course, at the time I saw only a courteous-looking man wearing an in-your-face tee, but the rest of the shot turned out well.

Man with "Deadpool" tee-shirt. Speech bubble says "Outta the way Nerd"

Whenever I walk down Oxford Street there’s always some kind of incident: an outburst, a scuffle, or a little petty larceny. I’m not sure what was happening in the shot below, but the gesture of the man on the left seems to be saying “Cool it!” whereas his friend is making his feelings known. I’m glad to say it all calmed down very quickly.

Young men gesticulating

Unfortunately, these “incident shots” are rarely well-composed, so I just snap them and hope for the best. Better by far, from a photographic point of view, is the following shot, taken when I was getting close to Holborn Tube Station.

Of the Asadal restaurant, The Guardian’s food critic Jay Rayner wrote: “If Kim Jong-un is determined to press the button and take the rest of us with him, I want to go with the flavours of his food on my lips.” I don’t know if the people in my photo are talking about world politics (or food), but they’re certainly in serious discussion. Again, for me it’s reds and blacks and whites, and the lovely evening sun I’ll soon have to leave behind.

Walking past a news stand, men talking

Finally, outside the station, I took one last shot, this time of a tall man holding forth while the others paused for reflection and refreshment.

It was time to leave. In another post I’ll show you the shots I took earlier in the day. Maybe I’ll schedule those in advance.

Man holding unlit, rolled up cigarette, talking to a male friend; two, much shorter women beside him

No, It’s Not That Way, It’s This Way

There’s always a possibility of getting a good shot when someone points in one direction but the person with them insists on looking elsewhere. It’s a scenario that seems very typical, revealing the reluctance of human beings to consider suggestions unless they already agree with them.

The featured image (above) shows just such an incident. The girl is pointing back towards the station, but the guy, phone in hand, is intent on ploughing ahead. I suspect their destination is somewhere midway between two stops on the Skytrain, so it’s probably just as quick to walk.

The trouble with taking this sort of picture is there’s precious little time to get the shot. They stop, she points, you point the camera: and click, it’s all over. There’s no time to compose the shot or get a decent angle. You have to take what comes.

In this instance, I’ve been quite lucky. It’s not a perfect composition by any means, but at least we can see the tip of the woman’s pointing finger. If it had been obscured by her nose (for example) the shot would have been ruined. As you can see, there’s only a fraction of a millimetre separating face from finger, but there’s clear blue poster between them.

No, It’s Not This Way, It’s That Way
Much the same is true of the picture below. Thank heavens the man in the white shirt didn’t move an inch further forward. He would have obscured the woman’s pointing finger.

As it is, his presence is actually welcome because he stops the eye wandering off the picture to the left. Then there’s the claw-like gesture he’s making with his left hand, which seems to add something mysterious to the image, as though we can’t quite grasp what it’s all about.

woman points to the right but she and her partner look left

There’s certainly one difference between this photo and the first, because here, both the woman and her partner are looking in the wrong direction. How extraordinary! She follows his gaze, rather than reinforcing her own gesture by looking in the direction of her pointing finger.

I think maybe both images show a certain tendency in men to ignore directional advice from their female friends. In fact, the more I examine the images, the more similar they seem to be — especially in the excitable gestures of the women and the cool refusal of the men to take any notice.

Can Street Photography Reveal Social Behaviour?
Perhaps you think street photography can teach us a few things about human behaviour after looking at these shots, but I reckon that would be going too far. They are just a couple of stills from the moving picture of reality and I don’t think they can tell us what people are thinking. You would need to know the unknowable: the sort of information provided by a writer of fiction rather than a photographer of real life.

What these images do is merely to suggest possible meanings; it’s up to the onlooker to interpret them. My work is done once I’ve taken the shots and placed them together on the same page.

I Love It When People Stoop

When people bend down in the street there’s usually a good reason for it. They’re picking up something important, or attending to an urgent task. No one “stoops in the street” (that sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?) without good reason. In public it’s far more comfortable and dignified to remain vertical.

As a street photographer I love it when people stoop. It means I can catch one of those elusive but “decisive moments,” giving the image a justification for its existence. Every picture needs to justify itself by its inherent qualities.

When Stooping Reveals
Sometimes the photograph can benefit, not by showing the purpose of the figure’s bending action, but by revealing something significant in the space where the figure was standing. This is true of my featured image (above).

In this shot the subject is stooping very low and is looking out of the frame at the bottom. Despite his red shirt we therefore have to discount him as the main subject of the picture. Instead, he has been replaced by the dead birds with their yellow feet in the air. These feet seem to be pleading in supplication for second thoughts: “Don’t eat me yet…”

When Stooping Reveals Nothing
At other times we may come across an incident where the act of stooping reveals nothing whatsoever. For example, in the second picture (immediately above) we can’t see what the man is picking up. It’s clearly something fairly important because the lady with the scarf is watching intently. She “makes” the photo by displaying concentration on something which appears utterly trivial to the viewer of the image.

Street photography is often “about nothing,” in the classic Seinfeld sense. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld famously pitched their series to NBC executives as being “about nothing,” (whereas, in fact, it was about everything: about the hassles of real life as experienced by city dwellers).

When Stooping Is Upstaged
In a good street photo there’s usually more than a single point of visual interest. But when a woman in shorts decides to bend, revealing a couple of shapely legs, then it’s difficult to provide anything more interesting (certainly to a heterosexual male).

In the shot (below) I’ve solved this delightful “problem” by including a carved figure of a demure woman in a full length costume. I chanced upon the scene in question while walking along a Bangkok street in the early evening. In a sense, it was a readymade image of “the sacred and the profane” with some of my regular motifs: clocks, legs, and faded colours.

Speed Is Essential
I’ll end this short post with a tip. If you see someone stooping in the street, be quick if you feel like taking the shot! I had just a split second to get each of these three pictures, meaning that there was no time to make adjustments to the settings. Fortunately, I’d already set them for just this kind of eventuality.

I have to add one proviso: yes, be quick, but also be deliberate. You mustn’t snatch the shot, because there’s not going to be a second opportunity to obtain it.

I’m sorry if the proviso makes the tip more complicated but it would be wrong for me to leave it out. I wouldn’t stoop so low!

The Charm of Time-Worn Advertising

Photography wrenches a moment from time and preserves it for later, perhaps forever. The concept of time is inherent to all photography. In street photography, especially, with its many “decisive moments,” time is ever-present, yet always, in a sense, absent.

I’m sorry if this sounds contradictory, but I think most people will recognise what I’m saying. You can’t take a photograph without making a deliberate or implied reference to time. Although you can take a moment out of time, you can’t remove entirely the concept of time from the image.

Because there’s an implied sense of time in a photograph it’s often rewarding to play deliberately with the idea: not just by freezing motion but also by including objects which demonstrate the passing of time. Thomas Hardy did this repeatedly in his novels, often to great effect.

Hardy’s Time-Worn Objects
For example, in “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” Hardy describes a book which is greatly feared by Tess’s mother (who nonetheless consults it frequently): “‘The Compleat Fortune-Teller’ was an old thick volume, which lay on a table at her elbow, so worn by pocketing that the margins had reached the edge of the type.”

Again, in the same novel, he describes the “broad tarnished moon” as having a “face resembling the outworn gold-leaf halo of some worm-eaten Tuscan saint.”

And at a key point in the narrative: “he drew from his pocket a small book, between the leaves of which was folded a letter, worn and soiled, as from much re-reading.”

All these objects, worn down by constant usage, evoke the passing of time in Hardy’s work. Can we achieve the same effect in street photography? I’m sure we can.

Why Advertising?
Old, soiled adverts speak to us directly about the passing of time. I think it’s because we are so accustomed to seeing new, fresh adverts for the latest products that it comes as a shock to see something being advertised with an old, worn poster or photograph.

At the top of this article is a shot I took in Kuala Lumpur of old tattoo work, the individual photographs deeply bleached by the sun. If you’re looking for the latest designs in tattoo art, this is probably not the place to go.

Talking of “places to go,” how about a visit to the Floating Market, Safari World, Tiger Temple or the Crocodile Farm? (See shot, above). They’re not far from central Bangkok and Lagacy Service can take you there in no time at all. I’m not sure if Lagacy Service is actually the guy on the motorbike, but it seems likely. I guess he unrolls the poster when he’s available.

Discarded Posters
To show the passing of time you don’t even need to find posters that are old: new ones give the same effect when they’re in the process of being discarded.

In one Bangkok street I came across an entire wall of posters which were being peeled and replaced. Some of the discarded ones looked pretty good. I felt like nicking them, but decided to take a photo instead. Obligingly, a man with an armful of new tattoos walked past. He won’t find those as easy to replace as a poster!

Looking at the three images in this article I think they make a well-matched trio.

In addition to the poster-art there’s a human figure in each one who adds something to the image. Yes, I know it’s all too easy to add a “gratuitous” or obligatory figure, but in these pictures the human characters do, at least, play an important role.

The first two shots (with old photographs in them) are accompanied by figures who are waiting and for whom time hangs heavily. However, both time and the included figure move more rapidly in the third image. The tattooed man doesn’t wait. He hurries quickly past but leaves his own frozen image behind in my photo.

Time? In street photography you can’t escape it.

City of Masks — Pollution and the Street Photographer

As a street photographer I’ve become very conscious of “particulate matter” (PM) in the atmosphere of our major cities. You can call it “pollution” but PM refers specifically to the microscopic particles that float in the air — and which we breathe into our lungs unless we wear a mask.

A few months ago Bangkok became a “City of Masks” when a cloud of pollution lingered over the city for several weeks, making the atmosphere even worse than usual. If you think pollution is bad in London or Los Angeles, then Bangkok in these conditions is terrible, but even then, far surpassed by Indian cities such as Mumbai or Delhi.

I ventured out on to the streets day after day, gulping down bad air while photographing people in masks. I got a few OK shots, including this one on Christmas Day:

The poster says “MadeinTYO” (TYO=Tokyo), which may remind us that the ubiquitous wearing of respiratory masks in the street is a practice that started in Japan. Yet back in Europe, people began to notice that Japanese tourists would often wear masks on the street even on a clear day. Whatever was going on?

In fact, the Japanese nearly always wear a mask if they have a cold. Out of concern for others they keep the cold to themselves: a laudable practice — and quite the opposite of what we often experience in the west. Here it’s not uncommon to be blasted with a sneeze aimed straight at one’s head. I’ve come close to punching someone who does that!

Alas, there’s another reason to wear a mask and it’s called PM2.5. This is particulate matter with an individual particle size of 2.5 micrometres (microns) or less (which is about 3% the width of a human hair). You can’t see these particles with the naked eye, but you can certainly sense their presence.

PM2.5 particles are much smaller than such pollutants as dust, mould or pollen. They come from vehicle exhausts, wood burning, forest fires, airplanes and power plants. They penetrate deep into the lungs, reaching the circulatory system itself and causing heart and lung disease.

Here’s the Rap
NOTE: Yes, I know, “MadeinTYO” is actually the name of an American rap artist, in fact the brother of “Rolls Royce Ritzy” who changed his name recently to “24hrs.” I don’t know if either of them sing about air pollution, but it’s only a matter of time before a rap artist adopts the name “PM2.5.” ZebraX already sings about it.

Post Measles
To continue the narrative: my Bangkok street photography came to a grinding halt at the beginning of the year when I caught measles. Maybe someone sneezed on me! Anyway, the resulting pulmonary wheeziness which hung around for a few weeks after I recovered made me very aware of the polluted atmosphere.

I started wearing a mask.

Interestingly (and despite a few people cackling with laughter at the unusual sight of a westerner with a mask) I found street photography easier to do, especially when the subject was also wearing one. There seemed to be a confederacy of mask-wearers of which I was previously unaware.

Looking for Variations
I started looking for variations on the theme of masks, first by seeing how many mask-wearers I could get into the frame. My featured image (at the top of the article) shows no fewer than five people in masks, two of whom are probably Japanese.

Next, I tried to find correspondences between a mask and a nearby object:

In the above shot the bicycle wheel looks like it’s wearing a mask, but that’s a bit ironic as it’s supposedly a non-polluting form of transport. It’s certainly eye-catching in its (high polluting) plastic wrapper.

There’s a kind of visual correspondence in the next shot, too. I’m not sure if the lady was wearing a mask or a “burqa lite,” but she happened to be passing a coil of black cables… then there’s the red and white cones… plus the red and black coach… It all comes together, and no, the shot wouldn’t be better in black and white.

I think I’d rather breathe in PM2.5 than shoot with a dedicated B&W camera.