The Charm of Unexpected Encounters

One of my ambitions is take a candid photo of two other street photographers accidentally bumping into each other. I don’t suppose it will ever happen. If they’re any good, invisible street photographers are hard to spot, let alone capture “en masse” in a photo of your own.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other unexpected encounters to record on the street. Some of them, like my featured image (above), are not really encounters at all — they just look like they are because of the optical illusion that flattens three dimensions into two.

Celebrate the Launch
You can take these “ersatz” encounters at busy places like rail stations and bus stops where people are trying to move in opposite directions, getting on and getting off. In my photo it looks as though the man and the woman are enjoying an intimate moment. Her lips seem to be parted in desire or supplication; he, the quiet, silent type, looks down impassively, unmoved by her emotional pleading.

In fact, the two people don’t know each other at all — and are not communicating anything meaningful. The woman with the silver bag is probably talking to the lady in peach. I recall taking the picture and the whole incident (if you could call it an incident) happened in a blur of activity. It was just two people getting accidentally close, as we all do in similar situations.

I hope the image doesn’t disappoint when you discover it’s about nothing at all. The message is: it seems to be about something, but isn’t. There’s no meeting, no “launch,” nothing to celebrate. It’s just humdrum daily life, made tolerable by the sunlight, by a phone call to a friend (the woman in the doorway), or simply by reading the small print on the side of the bus (the lady in mauve).

The non-incident beside the bus is one grade below an encounter, which itself is one grade below a meeting. Encounters are informal, but meetings always have an element of formality however casual they may appear. They require people to acknowledge each other in some way, which is why formal politeness — however insincere — is such an essential part of social interaction.

Corner Incident
Frankly, other people can be a nuisance. I hate the way some people, especially in London, refuse to alter their path when they’re clearly on a trajectory for collision with you. I think: why should I jump into the gutter to avoid them? Can’t there be a little give and take on the street?

I take many of my photos in Thailand, where people are wonderfully adept at avoiding collisions on a busy street. They seem to be able to anticipate each other’s moves, the slightest move on your part being interpreted as an intention to go left or right — to be countered politely with a move on their part in the opposite direction. If westerners find it easy to walk along a busy sidewalk in Bangkok it’s because no one wants to be held responsible for the social “faux pas” of a collision.

Knowing this behavioural trait, I eagerly awaited the outcome of an inevitable collision when I saw two people approaching each other on a blind corner in Phuket. They were both walking very briskly. I had a clear view of the lady with the parasol heading in my direction, while a man in a red and black jacket was striding towards the same corner. A yellow barrier made avoidance difficult — and for the man there was clearly a danger from the sharp spokes of the lady’s umbrella.

I wanted to shout: “Watch out!” but it didn’t seem appropriate. So I took a picture instead. For once, circumstances conspired to telegraph the “decisive moment” a few seconds before it occurred. I was amazed at how adroitly the two strangers were able to take evasive action. Westerners would have collided. Instead, the old lady lifted up her umbrella in an instant and the man ducked and swerved out of her way. No feathers were ruffled.

Street photography is not just about appearances. It’s about behaviour, too. Sometimes, strangers are obliged to interact, even though they may have no wish to do so. When this happens you can capture their encounters, meetings, confrontations, and evasions in photos which reveal how people get along with each other in close proximity.

The charm of unexpected encounters adds wordless poetry to street photography.

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