Find One Subject, Wait for Another

All experienced street photographers know about the technique of finding a good, well-lit background, then waiting for a passer-by to walk in front of it. The result can be a great, original shot — or a terrible cliché, depending on the background and the passing subject.

You can take this technique further by finding a subject — one that may well, on its own, satisfy the average travel photographer — and try to complete the picture by waiting for another subject to move into frame.

I say “complete the picture” because, so often, a subject on its own does not constitute an effective street photo. Take my featured image (above), for example. I came across this woman selling rabbits in Bangkok. She’s a one-girl pet shop, sitting on the pavement with a stock of baby rabbits in small cages. I looked at her and wondered whether or not to take a photo.

You Need More than Rabbits
To be frank, I was reluctant to bother with it. I’d taken shots previously — I guess everyone has — of street sellers, street performers, street artists — and not one of them satisfies me as a genuine street photo. I remembered a Chinese man selling orangeade who smiled sweetly at the camera, another guy making insect sculptures out of straw, a woman making garlands. When I was a travel photographer looking for “local colour” they all seemed to be great subjects, but no longer. Now I need more than rabbits to make my day.

I had to admit, the old lady made a colourful image, so I thought I’d wait for a pretty girl to walk past. Freezing the action would also add some life to an otherwise static image. In the event I was fortunate to have the photo completed by a girl whose youth and femininity make her seem as vulnerable as the patient rabbits in their cages, if a whole lot freer.

For this technique to work effectively you need to find a subject that’s reasonably static and likely to be joined by another, possibly unrelated subject, in the immediate future. In the example of the rabbits I knew there was a busy clothes market just a few yards behind me, so there was a good chance of a pretty girl walking past. I needed to linger only a minute or so before getting the shot.

Early Beginnings
I started using the “find one subject, wait for another” technique a few years ago, building on “find a background, wait for a passer-by” which I learned from photographer and fellow student Paddy Summerfield at art school but had never put into practice until taking up digital photography. Here’s the image for which I first used it.

There’s busy road outside Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza, a shopping mall dedicated to selling computers where you could buy a hacked copy of Photoshop for less than ten dollars (no, Adobe, I didn’t!). On emerging from this place I blinked in the sun and noticed the curiously carved hedge, one of the better examples of topiary adorning the main thoroughfares. A motorcycle drew up alongside it. I almost had everything I needed for a picture, except for the blank space on the left.

On this occasion I waited for two or three minutes. Traffic lights can be slow to change in Bangkok, which I find very frustrating if I’m in a car, but this time it worked to my advantage. Eventually, two young woman walked past and I managed to freeze the action at the right moment.

I’ve always had some affection for this image, not just because it was my first experiment with a new technique, but because of the curiously human appearance of the hedge. Thailand’s state symbol is the “Garuda” (or “Krut” in Thai) a mythical half-man/half-bird from Hindu mythology, supposedly the winged mount of Vishnu. In Thailand you can see depictions of the Garuda everywhere, but few as startlingly humanoid as this one. I think the gardeners were trying to encourage the growth of a beak, but without much luck.

Worst Case Scenario
What happens when no one comes along to complete the picture? That’s a good question, if a little pessimistic. Nearly always, someone does indeed move into the frame, into the precise place where you hoped they’d go. The trouble is: nine times out of ten it’s the wrong person.

In street photography you need to be able to deploy an entire armoury of weapons at the same time. If one technique doesn’t work, perhaps another one will.

Take heart from the legend of the Garuda who, while on a quest to free his mother from servitude, received the gift of immortality from Vishnu. The Garuda’s magical descendants are able to change their form, build cities, and even have romances with human women if they so desire.

Magic is only ever half a step away and you can sometimes feel its presence on the street.

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