When the Gang Is Heading in Your Direction

What constitutes a gang? I guess it’s a group of people with a leader and a common purpose. I see them in the streets quite frequently, but it’s not always possible, or wise, to photograph them when they’re heading towards the camera.

Are gangs a good subject for street photography? Absolutely. They’re a great subject if you can solve the problems of taking the shot. Here are the reasons why:

First, as I’ve mentioned, a gang usually has a leader — possibly a charismatic leader whose personality is stronger than anyone else’s within the the group. This means that your picture will have some coherence. It will have a basic structure with the leader being the focal point of the composition.

Second, people in a gang tend to walk closely together, like a platoon of soldiers but not necessarily in step. Gang members keep their individuality even though they surrender their autonomy to the leader.

Third, gangs are purposeful when they’re on the move. When all members are present and they can stop hanging out on the street corner, they start to move with intent. Photography always benefits from “intent,” usually contributed by the photographer. But where gangs are concerned, the photographer can capture a little bit of the subject’s intentionality and transfer it to the image.

The Blue Cone Gang and Others
I’ve called the featured image (above) “Blue Cone Gang,” for the entirely gratuitous reason that there’s a blue cone in the picture. The members all look quite serious, don’t they? This is definitely a group of people with a common purpose.

There are all kinds of gangs, ranging from clean-cut, middle-class kids, out for a good time, to criminal gangs such as heavily armed drug dealers hell-bent on trouble. Yet they all have something in common. People club together because they feel stronger and more confident when they’re part of a group.

girls in a gang

Women Gang Together, Too
When women gang together it’s usually for convenience (such as sharing an apartment) or for mutual support. In both cases, members of the group can engage more readily in adventurous activities, far beyond what they would risk on their own.

This phenomenon hasn’t gone unnoticed by the makers of TV drama serials. For example, “Gossip Girl” and “Pretty Little Liars” were classics of the genre, as was the Korean series “Hello, My Twenties!” I’m still hoping to find others equally as entertaining.

Street photography is more limited in scope than TV drama. Yet although it never answers many of the questions it poses, at least it can invite speculation.

I’ve called the above shot “A Good Day,” after the wording on the leading girl’s black tee-shirt. I wonder where they’re all going and what they’ve got planned for the rest of the day?

Shooting From the Hip, Part II

In this second part of “Shooting from the hip” I’m going to attempt to give some tips and guidance, having covered the arguments for and against this practice in Part I.

Dozens of articles on the Internet explain how to shoot from the hip and most are reasonably accurate. Alas, many are illustrated with examples where the technique wasn’t really necessary.

Here are some of the tips I use myself:

1. Shoot from the hip on sunny days, not dull days — and don’t attempt it at night.

There’s good reason for this advice because you need both a fast shutter speed and a small aperture, a combination that’s going to work only in bright conditions.

2. Use a wide angle lens: at least 40mm (a “wide standard”)  but preferably 28mm or 24mm. Wide angle lenses deliver greater depth of field, bringing more of your subject into focus.

3. Use at least 1/250th second, preferably 1/500th or even 1/1000th second or faster to minimise the effect of any camera movement.

When you’re shooting from the hip you’re likely to be walking. Try to pause for a moment to eliminate the effect!

For the shot below I wasn’t able to pause mid-step, but the fast shutter speed (1/2000th second) froze the movement reasonably well.

man in cowboy hat and shades

4. Stop down at least to f/8, possibly going to f/11-f/16 if you’re looking for better overall sharpness.

Depending on the circumstances, this is not always possible — and you may sometimes get a superior picture with a wider aperture.

5. Make the ISO higher than you would normally use in order to compensate for the fast shutter/small aperture.

Some camera sensors are more prone to noise than others. Don’t go beyond the point where noise becomes a disturbing element.

6. Use a focus technique that gives you the best result. Options are: manual/zone focus; or fully auto. I tend to use my normal Aperture Priority mode with a centre focus point and then try to aim straight!

Alternatively, pick up focus from an object that’s, say, four feet away from you and use it for your next shot. I find this is often more convenient than zone focusing which gives you a fixed distance until you change it manually.

I picked up a four-foot focus for the shot below. It’s still not “tack sharp,” but acceptable at, say, 8 x 10 inches.

man walking in front of shop window displaying a closed sign

Getting It Straight
I’ve noticed that some photographers recommend holding the camera by its lens in order to shoot straighter from the hip. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Did Billy the Kid hold his gun by the barrel? Of course not!

Modern cameras offer technological help by providing swivel screens that allow you to compose the image while holding the camera at waist level. On a bright day, it can be hard to see the image on the screen, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Using a Rolleiflex, Vivian Maier was obliged to shoot from below eye-level but her shaded viewfinder with its upside-down image was helpful in a similar, imperfect way.

The Wider Issues
There are people who say “Anything goes, do whatever it takes to get a great shot,” and those who keep reminding us to observe this or that rule of ethics, behaviour, or aesthetic.

To the latter we could reply: “If it feels right, do it; if you and your subjects are not discomforted by it, do it; if it looks right, do it.”

Your ethical code, your mode of behaviour, and your artistic judgement are all influenced by your native culture and can vary widely from one part of the world to another.

two tourists

Getting Philosophical
Added to the issues I’ve already mentioned (above, and in Part I) is one more: the philosophical issue of “What is street photography?” The question arises because of the hit-and-miss nature of shooting from the hip. If you get a lucky hit, is that really a good street photograph, or is it an accidental snap?

I am reminded of the old story of the chimpanzee, typing for eternity and eventually writing the entire works of William Shakespeare. Is that not essentially the same process, taken to extremes?

If you want a closer metaphor turn to Google Street View. You wouldn’t call it “street photography,” yet in photographing millions of city streets the Google cameras have captured dramatic scenes, spotted pretty women walking past interesting backgrounds, and captured no end of people arranged by chance into pleasing groups.

I should note that the late Michael Wolf (1954–2019) was given an honourable mention in the 2011 World Press Photo contest for images he culled from Google Street View. “I’m appropriating Google,” he said at the time.

Technological advances also make it possible to photograph, in high resolution, crowds of people from which you can extract cameo scenes that have some of the characteristics of street photography. However, what they lack is the real close-up experience of the street that you get from actually being there, in the thick of it, with your camera.

woman in front of cartoon dog, both wear similar sunglasses

So we’re back to square one, struggling with the many difficulties of mastering the art of street photography. To cope with these problems I’ve recommended the use of multiple strategies (in “Can You Reduce Street Photography to a Few Rules of Thumb?“) Shooting from the hip is one of them. Let’s all use it occasionally and see what happens.

Kickboxing in the Street

My featured image (above) is the kind of photo you can get in Bangkok merely by lingering in the street until late evening, when most people are having dinner. That why I’m going to claim it as a street photo, along with all the others you see here.

In fact, my objective in forgoing dinner was not to watch the Muay Thai (kickboxing) matches themselves, but to get candid shots of the preparations: the boxers, their helpers, and the gathering crowd. But one thing leads to another and I stayed until the end.

Regular Muay Thai events held outside the MBK mall in the centre of Bangkok are popular, not least because they’re free to watch. The boxers get prize money, but many have only just turned professional and for some it’s their first serious fight. As you can imagine, it’s a tense time for all — especially if you have a friend or relative taking part.

man in crowd, watching anxiously

I know how they feel. My son is a martial arts enthusiast (karate black belt, Brazilian ju-jitsu, etc.) and did a year’s training in Muay Thai at Master Toddy’s esteemed academy in Bangkok. It’s a tough sport in which there’s said to be an injury every two and a half hours, on average. I’m glad to say my son survived with only minor bruising.

The MBK fights have been on pause recently, the area having been taken over by commerce, but I hope they get reinstored soon. Fortunately, other malls host them, too.

The Photographic Challenge
As you can see from my shot of the worried onlooker, light from the setting sun provides intense illumination, but as the evening progresses the light fades and artificial lights take over. That’s fine with me. I get natural light for the preparations and a well-lit ring for the fighting. I never use flash — and even if I did it’s not a great idea to blind one of the fighters temporarily. It could cost him (or her) the match.

Muay Thai has become popular with women, who are now taking up the sport in increasing numbers. I followed the fortunes of one young lady who was taking part (sorry, I don’t know her name, but I’m happy to add it if anyone can tell me). She seemed very relaxed during the preparations, smiling and chatting while her hands were being wrapped with layers of protective tape. I had a feeling she was going to win.

female figher putting on gloves

When it came to be her turn, I’d already seen a few of the earlier matches and I’d discovered how difficult it is to photograph Muay Thai unless you have permission to stand on the canvas. From this privileged position, all is possible because you can raise your camera over the ropes and get a clear shot. However, if you’re standing on the floor looking up, the ropes always get in the way.

To solve the problem I scampered upstairs to the mall’s walkway entrance. From there, looking down on the action, I was able to grab a few acceptable shots using the same 85mm lens I’d attached earlier. Sports photographers never have this trouble! But at least I can claim my shots as street photographs, having taken them from the public street.

The view from high above is unusual and dramatic, but I think my best shots came between rounds, when the fighters were receiving attention from their seconds. I like this shot of the fighter breathing deeply, watched anxiously by the little boy at the front of the crowd. Is that her younger brother? As always with my pictures you’ll have to make up your own story to go with them.

fighter breathing deeply

I was right about her fighting spirit. She performed brilliantly throughout the match….

female fighters in action

…and was the eventual winner against a tough opponent.

Fighter awarded prize

It’s Just One Example
In most major cities you can find theatrical events performed with varying degrees of formality in the street. You probably won’t find Muay Thai street events outside of Thailand, but there are many other opportunities if you look for them.

For example, there’s “Running the Bulls” in the Spanish city of Pamplona (take care!) or in Japan there’s the “matsuri” when celebrants carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) through the crowd. In London we have the Lord Mayor’s Show and royal events like Trooping the Colour.

If you don’t want conventional travel pictures, look for shots in the crowd. From the Muay Thai event my favourite photo is this one I took before the action began (see below). The young fighter looks serious, but he’s getting support from his younger brother who’s holding the Bout Sheet, sipping a milk shake, and looking equally thoughtful.

What’s running through their minds? We’ll never know for sure.

Young fighter and his brother

Controversy In a Bar

A while back I went to London with the intention of taking some street shots, but rather than go to my usual haunts I decided to travel a little further on the Tube.

The rush hour had just finished and the subway carriage was empty when I got in it. I studied my reflection in the window opposite: clean shirt, safari jacket, cowboy hat for sun protection, camera stowed in a canvas bag.

A couple got on at the first station and sat opposite. I’m not sure what the woman said to her partner after glancing at me, but in response he took out his mobile phone and snapped a shot of an empty seat a little way off to my right.

How curious! I did a rough calculation of the angle. He was holding the phone horizontally and although he didn’t even glance at me I’m absolutely sure that I was the subject. I felt like taking out my own camera to snap him in return — or possibly his partner, who was better looking. But really, I didn’t mind. I’ve taken thousands of candid pictures of other people, so I can’t complain, can I?

The Complainers
Alas, in the UK — and in the USA and elsewhere — we’ve evolved a culture of complaining, even when it’s outrageously inappropriate.

For example, there was an incident in which a hotel saved the life of a guest during a party, but this didn’t stop another guest from complaining online about the waitress’s overly strong perfume.

Needless to say, people are always complaining when someone takes their photo without asking. When I arrived at my destination I took several shots, then ran into a problem when one man objected strongly. I explained that my shots have to be candid — and that I couldn’t ask, otherwise it would spoil the shot. However, he was adamant and insisted I should ask. I finally agreed with him and beat a hasty retreat.

The Full Huffington
I think I got off lightly. Not so lucky was the man described by a female journalist in an article in the Huffington Post. The man took a picture of her with his phone “in a crowded bar,” and, basically, she went ballistic.

Well, that’s not quite correct…she went nuclear.

She told the bartender, who alerted the bouncer, who removed the man, who resisted. The bouncers called the police, who arrived at the same time as the man’s wife, who looked at the journalist, who averted her gaze.

I fully take the point that the man in question may have been taking sneaky pictures — and he was certainly not a bona fide street photographer. Yet I can’t help thinking that the lady complains too much. I think her “predator” was just idly playing with the camera on his phone, with no intent to harm or harass anyone. Maybe he thought her attractive, in which case the act of photography could be interpreted as a compliment.

In a way, the mobile snap of a pretty woman is a bit like a silent wolf whistle — and we all know how well a loud wolf whistle goes down these days! Women confront building workers and try to “bust their balls” (sorry, I’ve been watching “The Sopranos” again). Men now try to be more discreet, but their discretion is not accepted. Snaps are out! Soon it will be unacceptable even to look and there’ll be police outside every bar.

Police outside bar

What’s the Difference?
After all, what’s the difference between snapping a photo and just looking? Personally, I don’t think there’s as much difference as people commonly suppose. I’m fortunate to have a good visual memory and can recall what someone looks like if I’ve seen them in reality.

Certain people (not me) have an “eidetic memory” which enables them to recall every detail of a person or scene in their “mind’s eye,” after a brief viewing. An “afterimage” on the retina seems to linger in the mind for a short while, before it fades away.

Most of us have the ability to recognise the faces of people we’ve met. General Eisenhower was said to have been able to put a name to the faces of hundreds of people under his command. You don’t need a camera or a photograph to store a person’s image in your mind.

There are all kinds of issues surrounding the incident with the journalist I’ve mentioned, not least of which is her complaint that he also photographed her friend’s (fully clothed) bottom.

Ah, well, it’s not a hanging offence, is it? I feel a measure of sympathy with the man in question because of the furore which followed his misdemeanor. Please note: “misdemeanor: a nonindictable offence, regarded in the US (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony.”

The Forum Speaks
Forum members on DPReview made some excellent comments — and some ludicrous ones — while debating the Huffington article. For some, the journalist’s draconian response was outrageous, for others it was fully justified.

What I found most depressing was the comment by an anonymous poster who said: “One of the reasons I don’t do street photography is that I would feel too weird just taking pictures of people I don’t know.”

“Marie” wrote: “I can’t even imagine taking someone’s picture without asking, unless it’s a celebrity or something.”

Another poster self-righteously noted: “I never take photos of a single person without asking permission first.” Then added: “Does not apply to groups of people, couples, etc.”

The idea that photographers should take pictures only of people they know is so absurd as to be not worth rebuffing. Without candid street photography we’d never have an accurate record of our way of life.

I agree that certain places are “off limits” — and bars are probably among them. In those places we should be able to drink and relax, and carry on our nefarious activities without having them recorded for possible public distribution. But the street, the park, the museum, and even the mall should be places where photography is accepted and where everyone is “fair game.”

That way, people would have to dress with greater care. Society would benefit greatly if everyone was “camera ready” all of the time. I’m all for it.

When the Back View Looks Good

If you can’t see a subject’s face, your picture becomes an illustration of the subject’s figure. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I guess it depends on the subject — and her figure.

Her figure? Sorry to mislead you. This post is not about taking sexy photos of people from behind. It’s about those rare occasions when the back view is more relevant to the story than the front.

The fact is: by reducing people to “figures” you can sometimes say a lot more about them. This is especially true if they happen to be carrying an interesting object on their back.

The Basket Man
My featured image (above) is an example. Here’s a man who’s selling some really splendid baskets. You can tell he’s well-liked in the community by the respectful glances he’s getting from the stallholders. We don’t really need to see his face because we can see the faces of those who are looking at him.

What’s more: we get to see the baskets to their best advantage. They fill a good proportion of the image space with their delightful textures. In a rapidly changing scene, it’s good to see some fine-quality workmanship which has taken many hours to execute.

The Chimney Sweeps
When I think of chimney sweeps I’m always reminded of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist. But there’s nothing old-fashioned or Dickensian about the two sweeps in my next photo. In fact, they could well be actors on their way to a wedding.

fake chimney sweeps

Most people have central heating and the days of the chimney sweep have long since gone from our towns and cities. You can still find them in the countryside, but, even there, “Chimney Sweep Hire” is more likely to be for a wedding than a chimney.

From my childhood I remember our local chimney sweep and he looked nothing like these guys with their trendy yellow and red backpacks, tight jeans and clean brushes. He was old, gnarled and ragged, and invariably covered in soot.

Why do people hire chimney sweeps (even fake ones) for weddings? They’re supposed to bring good luck to the bride and groom. Back in the 18th century, a small dog frightened a horse that was being ridden by King George II in a royal procession. A chimney sweep brought it under control, but disappeared before the king could thank him. The king said that from that day forward all sweeps should be regarded as lucky.

Even Prince Philip on his wedding to Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth is said to have left Kensington Palace at 11.00am to shake hands with a chimney sweep. Whether he would have wished to shake hands with an actor playing the role of a chimney sweep is open to question.

Red Backpack
Finally, here’s an everyday street scene (below) in which one young woman shows us the best way of carrying items in a bag. Her red backpack is so much neater than the carrier bags and shoulder bags carried by the others.

young woman with red backpack

Normally, good street photographers prefer to show people facing the camera, or at least have their heads turned slightly in the onlooker’s direction. Without the glimpse of a face there’s a tendency for an image to be impersonal and remote.

I think I get the best of both worlds in this image: smiling faces from the two girls on the left and an interesting, cross-legged back view of the central figure. We can only wonder what she looks like from the front.

Why I Wrote “Street Photography Is Cool”

Street photography is a much-maligned art form, but I think it’s cool.

It’s certainly cool when it’s done well. Who could dispute the coolness of Daido Moriyama, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier?

Yet even when it’s done badly there’s something… something… something… about it.

The New Book
I wrote “Street Photography Is Cool” (published March 1st on Amazon Kindle) with both good and bad street photography in mind..

I thought it would be great if I could inspire all those people who are currently taking “un-good” street photos (OK, bad ones!) by investigating and analysing the genre in depth. Maybe I could find out what they (and I, when I lapse) are doing wrong.

To tell you the truth I’m quite pleased with the result. Perhaps because I’ve been taking street photos for ten years the book seemed to write itself. All I had to do was draw on my experiences and set them in the wider context of what I’ve learned about art, life, and everything else.

Five Sections
I’ve divided the 89 short chapters into 5 sections, each of which extends the book’s title by adding the word “because” to “Street Photography Is Cool”:

1. Because It’s Contradictory, Like the Human Condition
I’ve “twinned” the 26 short chapters of this section into seemingly contradictory pairs, such as “It Has An Emotional Side” versus “But It’s Often Deadpan,” or “It’s All About Light” versus “It’s All About Shadows.”

2. “Because It Helps Us View the World As It Is”
In street photography you can’t rearrange reality to suit your photo. You have to see the world as it is, in all its imperfections. Working out how to deal with these imperfections can be surprisingly enlightening.

3. “Because It Can Tolerate Many Compositional Structures”
Symmetry, asymmetry, juxtapositions, contrasts, balance, imbalance, layers, the “flat look,” the urge to simplify, and more. Street photography’s tolerance of compositional experiments allows you to develop a personal style.

4. “Because It’s a Very Democratic Art Form”
Anyone with a smartphone can take street photos: it’s one way to get started. Some people pick it up quickly (after discovering they need a proper camera with a viewfinder!) others never do. It all depends on the observational powers of the individual.

5. “Because It’s a Tough and Potentially Perilous Activity”
Tough? Perilous? It needn’t be, but it can be. In this section I’m sharing sharing personal experiences and giving plenty of tips and pointers in chapters such as “10 Strategies for Success” and “Reaching The Zone.”

Photo Op

Take It Seriously
Everyone’s come across the famous meme: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” It was coined by Chase Jarvis with very good intentions: to counteract the over-emphasis on expensive equipment. However, used in the context of street photography it becomes absurd.

The popularity of the meme strongly suggests that it’s possible to be in recreational mode — shopping, walking to the cinema, or whatever — and still have the ability to take a street photo after fumbling for “the one that’s with you” and pointing it half-heartedly towards the unusual event which has suddenly erupted in front of you.

I think it’s better to leave your camera at home if you’re not going to carry it, finger on the shutter button, all the time you’re on the street. Scenes that make great street photos can come and go in the blink of an eye. There’s no time to reach for your camera if it’s in your shoulder bag, or hanging, switched off, around your neck.

There is, after all, a big difference between street photography and merely snapping pictures in the street without any guiding intentionality or intelligence.

So my main plea to aspiring street photographers is to take their art seriously, as seriously as “the greats” took it, among whom I’d include Elliott Erwitt, Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz, and Trent Parke (and a few others), alongside Moriyama, Cartier-Bresson and Maier.

Drawing on Sources
Ultimately, I wrote “Street Photography Is Cool” to discover for myself what makes it so compelling, even when it doesn’t quite present us with perfect compositions or high photographic quality.

I found myself having to draw upon ideas from many sources, including Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae,” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” and E.M. Forster’s delightful literary analysis “Aspects of the Novel.”

I think there are many insights in what I’ve put together. I hope you agree — and, if you buy the book, I’d be thrilled to hear your comments, positive or critical.

The Vital Stats
“Street Photography Is Cool” has the equivalent of what would be around 250 pages in printed format. There are 203 illustrations from my own work, all in full colour except for a few black and white examples. The file size is quite large, 114 MB, because I wanted to make the photographs expandable on today’s high-res phones.

A Great Deal
You can currently order “Street Photography Is Cool” exclusively from Amazon in Kindle eBook format, at the launch price of: US $14.95 (if purchased in the US from amazon.com) or UK £11.99 (purchased in the UK from amazon.co.uk).

UK readers please note: Amazon.com converts the UK price to dollars at the prevailing rate.

Order your copy of “Street Photography Is Cool” from Amazon.

Where Bad Things Have Happened

As I walk around taking street photos I’m always struck by how ordinary and unthreatening are the places where bad things have happened. In London it’s probably better this way because the history of the city is so long that bad things have happened just about everywhere.

Some years ago I dropped my son off at his infant school, built on an area where two rows of houses had been flattened in the Blitz, then I walked through Regent’s Park, past the bandstand blown up by the IRA. It occurred to me then, that even on a lovely summer’s day, you can stroll past scenes where people have been killed — yet life goes on, gradually expunging the horrors of the past.

For this article I decided to visit some places in London where serious incidents, such as murder, have taken place. Let me say at the outset, it’s very rare for me to set myself such a task, because my entire photographic “modus operandi” is to avoid imposing any conceptual ideas on my work. The city moves too quickly and the light is always changing — so why should anyone be able to take a good street photograph by imposing further restrictions, like: “Take a shot in this location”?

The Stage Door
I started at the Stage Door of the Adelphi Theatre in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden (see the featured photo, above). It was on this very spot, outside the theatre, that one of the most famous actors of the day, William Terriss, was murdered by Richard Archer Prince on 16 December 1897.

Terriss had become famous for his swashbuckling hero roles, such as Robin Hood, and had played many other parts in classical drama and comedies. He was currently appearing in a play called “Secret Service” when he was confronted by the younger man at the stage door.

Prince himself was an actor for whom Terriss had helped find work, but during a run of “The Harbour Lights” in which they’d both appeared, the young actor said something about Terriss which offended the older man and caused him to have Prince sacked.

Now more or less down and out, leading the life of an alcoholic and bum, Prince arrived in the vicinity of the theatre demanding money from the Actors’ Benevolent Fund which Terriss supported. When told payment was out of the question on that day, he crossed the street, waited for Terriss to emerge from the Adelphi and murdered him in cold blood by stabbing him three times in the chest with a large knife.

Arrested a hundred yards away from the scene of the crime, Prince was tried at the Old Bailey where doctors testified to his unstable condition. He was sentenced to prison in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. There he conducted the prison orchestra until his death in 1936, much to the distress of other actors, especially Sir Henry Irving who was particularly appalled at the light sentence.

The Nowhere Place
Just around the corner from the theatre is the Nell Gwynne tavern in Bull Inn Court, where 29-year-old Detective Constable Jim Morrison — off-duty in the late evening — was having a quiet drink with his wife. He spotted a suspected thief and gave chase, all the way through Tavistock Street, the Aldwych and finally to Montreal Place where the cornered thief stabbed him to death.

Montreal Place

This tragic case has never been solved because, despite a detailed description, the murderer was never identified. He is said to be “of North African/Algerian origin, clean shaven, average build with dark collar length hair, with distinctive tight curls at the front.” I take this quote from the location guide to London murders: murdermap.co.uk — where the density of flags forms a solid mass until you zoom into the map.

Montreal Place is a “nowhere” continuation of India Place, where a fine bust of former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dominates the space. Nehru is quoted as saying: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” Whether or not this is true, there’s no doubt that DC Morrison was dealt a cruel hand. Perhaps he was unwise, without a weapon, to chase an armed suspect — but his bravery cannot be questioned. His murderer is probably still walking the streets of London.

The Earlham Street Murder
At the time of writing, the next location is not listed as a murder spot by murdermap.co.uk — there are many such omissions, but the guide is still a work in progress (with, alas, the need for many recent additions).

Earlham Street

I’ve often taken pictures in Seven Dials, the area to the north of Covent Garden where seven roads meet. Until preparing for this article I’d not been aware it was the scene of an horrific crime on Sunday 7th May 2000, when a 52-year-old paedophile stabbed a 12-year-old boy to death.

The murder happened outside what is now a Caffé Nero, near the former Sartaj Balti House — from which brave members of staff risked their lives by rushing out to detain the murderer until the police arrived. In the attack, the dead boy’s 15-year-old half-brother was also injured, but has since recovered.

For a while the tree and the three surrounding bollards where the murder took place became the site of a memorial to which local people brought dozens of bouquets to mark the spot. Nineteen years later you’d never know what had happened here. My picture (above) shows people going about their business as usual. Should there be a permanent commemorative sign? I think there should.

Admiral Duncan pub

Mass Murder
Seventy-nine people were injured and three died, including a pregnant English woman, at the Admiral Duncan public house when David Copeland placed a nail bomb there in April 1999. He had been trying to target London’s black, South Asian and gay communities on a 13-day bombing campaign which culminated at the Admiral Duncan in Old Compton Street, Soho. He was identified from CCTV footage and arrested soon afterwards.

Copeland was convicted and sentenced to six life sentences on 30 June 2000, with a minimum term of 50 years. Politically motivated, he said his intention was to stir up racial war by provoking the minorities until they began to fight back. In 2014 he attacked a fellow inmate with an improvised weapon and was sentenced to a further three years, effectively adding 18 months to his imprisonment.

By this time I’d realised that taking street photos “to order” by visiting specific locations was not really yielding pictures of any real quality. Why should it? The concept was all about place whereas street photography needs to focus primarily on people. In this project, the key participants were off-stage, either dead, imprisoned or at large.

So I’ve learned very little about street photography from this exercise, but I have discovered that for a long time we’ve been very lenient — shockingly lenient — in the way we treat murderers in cases where there is a hundred percent certainty of guilt.

Playing With Water

People become strangely uninhibited when they play with water in the street. I think it must be owing to one of our atavistic instincts, a distant memory of the amphibian origin of mammals. More likely, it’s because it’s a bit naughty and certainly very wet.

April is the month for the Thai festival of Songkran, the “water-throwing festival” when everyone goes on the street to spray each other using water guns, buckets, and even elephants. (The elephants are rather good at it).

Last year (I wasn’t there) was said to be a muted affair, owning to the death of King Bhumibol a few months previously, but you’d never guess it from the pictures online. There are good shots among them, but, on the whole, chaos usually triumphs over order. It’s not an easy subject for the serious street photographer.

The main problem of taking pictures in a water fight is pretty obvious: your camera gets soaking wet. Having a splash-proof camera isn’t quite good enough for Songkran — it needs to be totally water-proof. Every April, lots of camera equipment get ruined in Thailand, especially in Bangkok.

However, it’s all good for business. The Thais manufactured the Sony A7Rii, among other street-worthy cameras. (Note: the A7Riii is made in China). An article on Imagining Resource shows how they did it.

The English Version
We don’t have anything approaching the delightful madness of Songkran here in England, but people do still play with water in the street, as my featured photo (above) demonstrates.

Yes, I took this shot right here in Colchester, not in Bangkok. What’s more, the location was in one of the town’s main streets: North Hill, which forms part of an ancient T-junction where it joins the High Street. The Romans walked up and down it — and famously brought their own elephants, although I don’t think they ever used them for squirting water at each other.

The occasion was an experiment with a gigantic water slide (below) which ran all the way down the hill. It was the first time it had been used in Colchester and I hope it won’t the last. All the participants had a great time, paying a small fee to use it, with some of the money going to charity.

Water slide

I don’t offer this distant view as a street photo, as such, but it shows you what it looked like from a distance. I took it with my 85mm lens, leaning against a lamp-post to eliminate any camera movement.

Surfing, But Not As You Know It
Back in Thailand you can actually surf in the street — or just off it. Even though there’s no surf to speak of in the Andaman Sea (except when there’s a tsunami) the Thais create their own surfing environment by machine. I’ve included photos of it in another blog post, but here it is again — and it’s even more fun than our water slide on North Hill.

surfing machine

Fun With Fountains
If you don’t come across a surf machine or a large water slide, you can always fall back on fountains, especially those that spurt up from the paving stones when people least expect it.

Boy playing with fountain

Apart from anything else, the damp pavement acts as a useful reflector of light, illuminating people’s faces from below. Add to this the usual uninhibited behaviour — such as boys blocking the water with their feet — and you’ll find incidents and jollity (below) for as long as people continue to walk past.

For young children, it’s a fairytale world in which water no longer drops downwards, as it does in the shower or outside in the rain, but goes in the reverse direction, defying gravity.

small girl playing in fountain

And what’s the opposite of gravity? It’s levity! Fountains are a source of endless enjoyment. My favourite place in Italy is the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, not for its magnificent architecture and frescoes but for its extraordinary garden of fountains, pools, channels, water jets and cascades.

I doubt if any architect today would dare emulate the fountains of the Villa d’Este. The running cost is a strong deterrent. Water erodes carved stone basins, clogs up pipes and fixtures with limescale, and evaporates quickly in the hot sun.

You can’t blame them for faking it. Eventually, the entire system needs an overhaul. Even in our city centres where the water features tend to be somewhat less ambitious than those of the Villa d’Este, regular maintenance brings the fun to a standstill. Without the movement of water the fountain — even a fake fountain — becomes a forlorn and pointlessly static piece of sculpture.

Water is movement; movement is life. Please turn the water back on again, soon!

Dolphin fountain, sans water

Off the Street and Into the Art School

If you walk along the street outside the Poh-Chang Academy of Art in central Bangkok you’ll see a fantastic jungle of half-completed sculptures left behind by former students. Look further and you’ll catch sight of the new intake, feverishly producing work for their diploma. Even a single glance makes you want to go inside and explore the whole building.

I’m fortunate to get privileged access because my partner attended Poh-Chang and together we walk through the studios and take candid photos of the artists in action. From the inside I can look back towards the street and see the artworks up close.

Artworks near the street

I love art schools although my own experience of one, immediately following university, was unusual, to say the least. I became caught up in student demonstrations — in fact, a full scale “sit-in” that lasted until the summer vacation, at which point the authorities took a dozen of us, including me, to the High Court for trespass. (The judge let us off).

Mightier Than the Sword
In Bangkok, by contrast, art students usually get on quietly with their work. It’s their counterparts at other institutions who demonstrate against whatever political party currently holds power. At Poh-Chang, there’s a sense that the brush, the chisel and the welding machine can all be mightier than the sword.

Students can choose traditional or modern art, the traditionalists working on Buddhist themes — sometimes adding to the vocabulary of designs, but keeping, for the most part, to the tried and tested ones. This sculptor (below) appears to have branched out into Christianity, with a Madonna and Child.

Madonna and Child

On one visit (I’ve been a few times) I came across a teacher working on a mask. I’m sure his skill will be transferred to future generations, whatever direction the modernists take.

teacher with mask

Angst, Guns and Nails
Poh-Chang’s faculty of modern sculpture tends to be more photogenic — and terrifying — with themes of death, destruction, and violence. Everywhere there’s a pervasive sense of angst and lots of guns, barbed wire and nails.

Sculpture with raised hands

In my featured image (at the top of the post) the traditional and modern have collided to produce a gigantic head, now spattered with paint, and lying, neglected, at the end of a corridor.

I like this image. I ran it through the Everypixel neural network (which automatically evaluates the aesthetic quality of photos for the benefit of editors who need to sift through piles of dross) and was rewarded with a high score (below). I guessed it would trigger the sweet spots of a neural net!

Everypixel score

At Poh-Chang I was struck by the work of one artist (below) who seemed to be aware that I was taking pictures. Without any overt communication passing between us, he took up various poses while appearing to be lost in thought.

Sculptor with globe

It was perfect. To this day I don’t know whether he was posing for the camera or not. Because of this uncertainty the encounter yielded just the kind of ambiguous images I like to make.

Horror sculpture, with creator

Art Is Everywhere
In Thailand, artistic expression can be seen everywhere: along the roadside, in stores and in people’s homes. Sometimes it may just be an old beer can, like this one hanging in a garden. I love it for its unassuming simplicity. It may not be as fancy as the elaborate tin sculptures you can buy in London’s Camden Market, but it demonstrates the maker’s ingenuity and genuine aesthetic sense. I admit it needs dusting.

Beer Can ornament

You don’t have to visit an art school to find art. In fact, you can sometimes find exactly the same scene — in better light — outside on the street.

Here’s an example (below). This lady was squatting on her doorstep, just yards from my partner’s family home in Ekkamai, painting a mask not dissimilar to the one being produced by the teacher at Poh-Chang.

woman painting mask

Back at Poh-Chang itself, the modern sculpture department is in full swing, erecting a roomful of free-standing figures, each one supported by an uncomfortable-looking wooden insert. A skeleton, missing a shin-bone, dangles from a hook in the middle of the room — presumably to remind students of the internal structure (or the mortality) of human beings.

I don’t work with flash — or even fill-flash — so I have to grab whatever images are possible in the variable light of the art school. The big studio is well lit, so the result this time is not too bad.

Sculpture room

Moving back outside, in the brightly lit area near the street, the colours are more intense and somehow more reassuring.

There are no people in my last photo, but, at least from a technical point of view, I feel as if I’ve nailed it.

Sculptures of legs with nails

But no. The neural net at Everypixel gives it just an 89.89 percent chance of being awesome, and I’m inclined to think it’s right. Again.

Incidentally, I’m sorry for the short hiatus in this supposedly weekly blog. I’ve just returned from Bangkok, having caught measles (yes, measles) which delayed my return. I hope this longer-than-usual article makes up for it!

Unsmiling Is Good

When aliens arrive from outer space, a million years hence, they’ll find traces of us in the trillions of selfies we leave behind. “What a cheerful species they were!” the aliens will exclaim. “They grin from ear to ear in every picture. Whatever were they laughing at?”

It’s true. People have fallen into the habit of smiling for the camera whether or not they really feel like doing so. It’s become a formality, a way of saying: “This is how I want you to see me. I’m saying ‘hello’ to you with a smile.”

But who are we greeting? Is it our friends and family? Is it the world at large? Or the aliens a million years hence?

All the Extras
To the smile has been added the “rabbit ears,” the ubiquitous victory sign originated by Winston Churchill in World War Two. It’s hard to escape from this one, even if you take candid photos on the street. If someone sees you taking their picture you’ll get the rabbit ears, unless they’re super-cool about it.

I read somewhere of a travel photographer who journeyed to a remote part of China to take portraits of people of exceptional age in a mountain village. After trekking for days, he arrived at the village and found the perfect subject: two ladies who were both well over a hundred years old. Their appearance of gravitas and wisdom must have prompted thoughts of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize because he got to work immediately.

What happened? Well, like everyone else today, the two old ladies grinned from ear to ear (showing their toothless gums) and raised their arms in a double “rabbit ears” salute. Forget the Taylor Wessing; this one ended up on Facebook.

Good and Bad Dentistry
Back in the early twentieth century hardly anyone smiled at the camera. My friend Ken Chambers ARPS (himself a fine candid portraitist) tells me this is because people were self-conscious about their teeth. In the absence of good dentistry, no one wanted to smile. I’m not so sure. Certainly in the Victorian era, the need for long exposures must have been a major factor. Only an accomplished liar can hold a convincing smile for more than a second or two.

It’s my belief that the street photographer can use the prevailing climate of grinning to produce pictures which, in stark contrast, show a wider range of emotion.

Two girls looking moody

How about impatience, annoyance, surprise, horror, boredom, fed-up-ness, wistfulness, gloom, dejection, desolation, bewilderment, mystification, wonder, astonishment, embarrassment, panic, beguilement…and I could go on, page after page, listing emotions and reactions that can never be represented by a simple grin.

The Sinister Grin
It’s possible to see the grin as something sinister, rather like the way in which we’ve started to view clowns. Maybe clowns were always the stuff of nightmares, hiding behind painted grins and flopping around in oversized shoes. But it’s really their artificial smiles that frighten us the most.

In pre-Roman Sardinia during the Nuragic civilization (18th century BC to the 2nd century AD) the elderly were ritually killed off by being given the so-called the “sardonic herb.” This was a strong poison, probably hemlock water dropwort, which caused the victim’s face to contort into “risus sardonicus” or rictus grin, with raised eyebrows and a mirthless smile that seemed to be malevolent to onlookers.

Ughh! It sends shudders down your spine. When a smile lacks spontaneity and warmth it’s only a hair’s breadth away from the horror of “risus sardonicus.” I much prefer to see unsmiling people, caught on camera in unguarded moments, where passing moods are recorded forever in a way that’s rarely captured by a conventional portraitist and never in a selfie.

Completely Unaware
The subjects in the images I’m showing here were completely unaware of being photographed. I guess I’m gradually become invisible! Nonetheless, I still find it hard to photograph people who are lost in thought without provoking an unwanted reaction: a scowl, a look of recognition, or worst of all: a grin. The only time I can do it is when people are walking briskly past me, their thoughts fixed on something else. At those moments it’s possible to capture expressions that are so fleeting they become memorable when fixed as still images.

I wonder what the aliens will make of them?