Capturing Raw Emotion in Street Photography

There’s emotion and there’s raw emotion.

It’s not hard to capture emotion of the non-raw type in a street photograph, as long as you’re close enough to the action to see it.

A human subject can express emotions like unease, mortification or contempt, primarily through gesture but also by facial expression.

People are not normally demonstrative on the street. They simply go about their lives and behave with remarkable decorum, quite the opposite of what they do in private. But if you’re especially observant you can find revealing gestures and expressions that can tell you a lot about their state of mind.

The most common emotions captured by street photography are feelings of impatience, boredom, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment and amusement.

You can get great street photos if you include people who are showing any of these emotions. I love these suggestive, low-key images which tell us so much about life in the modern city.

But What About Raw Emotion?
By “raw emotion” I mean feelings that are more overt, more openly expressed and perhaps overstepping the normal rules of civil society which call for everyone to get along with each other in public.

For example there is anger, jealousy, spite, rage, exasperation, despair, and grief: the full gamut of extreme emotions that sometimes spills over from the privacy of the home into the public domain of the street. These feelings are not always suitable subjects for the photographer. No one should intrude on private grief. Yet neither can we ignore expressions of displeasure, annoyance, pique, affront, and fury when they occur openly in front of us.

I have no idea what the two men in my featured image (above) were discussing, but their argument was impassioned. They weren’t at odds with each other, but probably expressing exasperation with someone else. I felt I could take a picture quite safely.

Does raw emotion make a good photograph? Not necessarily. You still need all the other components: strong composition, good light, balanced colour within the frame, and high technical quality. Much can be forgiven if you preserve a wonderfully dramatic moment at the expense of these other elements, but for a classic picture you need it all.

The Problem of Intrusion
When you’re a witness to any display of raw emotion on the street there is always the danger of becoming personally involved. It’s not the job of the street photographer to intervene in other people’s arguments, although you could certainly justify intervention when physical abuse occurs in front of you.

A problem can arise if you are seen to be photographing the incident, only to unite the people who are arguing (that’s good!) who then turn their rage against you, the snooping third party (that’s really bad!)

Fortunately, those who rage against each other in the streets are usually very much absorbed in their mutual hostilities and unlikely to pay you any attention. Nonetheless, you need to take care. I had my camera with me in Brooklyn when I (and a friend) came across a gang fight involving broken glass bottles and copious amounts of blood. Discretion (the better part of valour) triumphed over any desire to take photos and we didn’t go any nearer.

Capturing a Mix of Emotions
It’s often possible, especially in crowd scenes, to find one person expressing anger or annoyance while other people are smiling and obviously enjoying themselves. If you’re lucky you may get something similar with a smaller group, where, because of proximity, it has greater impact.

Incident with pigeons

My image above, taken from a boat, shows a woman making a stabbing, accusatory gesture towards a man who looks seriously concerned. Quite unconcerned is the man in the background. He’s laughing his head off! I can see from an earlier shot that the couple (or rather, the group of three) are standing several yards away from the laughing man who is probably quite unaware of their disagreement.

I didn’t know what to call the image, but I wanted the title to be in keeping with the full content, not just the apparent quarrel. In the end I settled on “Incident With 61 Pigeons.” The title helps to diffuse the situation.

Raw emotion can evaporate as quickly as it arises. Catch it while it’s there!

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