Goals and Projects in Street Photography

In street photography, goals are good but projects are problematic.

There’s a big difference between, on the one hand, setting yourself a simple goal, and, on the other, directing all your efforts into a specific, rules-based project.

Having a goal, such as getting one great shot each day for an entire week gives you plenty of freedom to grow and develop as a street photographer. Projects, on the other hand, are restricting. They tie you down to taking pictures to fit a pre-ordained concept.

The photography world is awash with projects. It’s no exaggeration to say I could list hundreds of them. You could, for example, follow film crews on location at night and “steal” their light for your own street scenes. Kevin Cooley has already done it. Or you could photograph various cities around the world from the comfort of a taxi. Daniel Duart has already done it.

Perhaps it would be a great idea to photograph people running in the rain. Thank you, Danny Santos. Or maybe you’d get great shots if you photographed people looking at electronic screens in dimly lit rooms (Dennis Chamberlin) or took pictures of “Dogs Who’ve Licked Me” (James Friedman).

All of these accomplished photographers succeeded admirably with their various projects, but they were not beginners. Moreover, many of them carried on with other work at the same time, gradually building their themed collections over time.

Why Projects Are Popular
It’s easy to see why projects are appealing. They allow you to focus your attention on certain aspects of the world and they give you direction and motivation. Above all, they increase your intentionality, which makes them very popular in art schools because they help students assemble a coherent body of work before the end of the semester. I’m not knocking them! I just wouldn’t recommend them to anyone who is trying to acquire a full set of skills in street photography.

Projects are a form of “concept art” in which the dominant, organising principle comes from the mind of the photographer rather than emerging naturally through interaction with the external world.

Genuine street photography requires you to have a conversation with reality, to watch people intently and respond to their moods and actions within the city environment. If you’re following some self-imposed directive, such as photographing “women with red hair using mobile phones,” you may end up with a coherent set of pictures, but just think of the opportunities you will have lost!

The Simple Goal
No, I prefer to set a simple goal. When I go out to take pictures I have just one idea in mind. My goal for the day is to get one good shot. OK, I nearly wrote “great shot,” but they’re as rare as hens’ teeth. Let’s say it’s a shot I wouldn’t mind showing as an example of my work.

Having a simple goal is wonderfully liberating. When I get two good shots in one day I think I’ve doubled my work output. I took the featured image (above) on the same day as the one below, and there were a few more besides.

Avoid Restrictions
Because the street photographer already works under a huge number restrictions, it makes little sense to impose more. For example, the first restriction is: “Don’t take posed pictures.” This means you have no control over the poses your subjects assume, so you have to wait for them to occupy the frame as you wish them to be.

Another restriction is: “Don’t arrange the background.” You can be as choosy as you like about the background you include, but you can’t deliberately replace one background for another. Even if you add clouds from your “cloud bank” (some photographers have these!) with ingenious work in Photoshop, you’ll be reducing the veracity of the image. It may look better, but it won’t be as satisfying as an undoctored scene which records a particular moment in a specific place where everything is exactly “as it was.”

Given these restrictions (and I haven’t even mentioned natural light, because some street photographers use portable flash) street photography becomes even harder when you burden it with additional rules. Applying further restrictions may allow you to create images that share similar characteristics, with the result that your works reinforce each other when viewed in succession or side by side. But restrictions can also make them become formulaic and lacking in vitality. I think that’s a trap to be avoided.

When You’ve Found Your Style
Only once you’ve achieved a personal style and found a way of interacting with the world that consistently yields good images, can you branch out into projects without fearing their impact on your work.

I would still add a word of caution: don’t make the project too big. For example, a set of six street scenes with desaturated colours except for bright red letterboxes can be delightful; a set of fifty would be depressing.

My simple goal needs no word of caution. With reckless abandon I’ll pop into London tomorrow in the expectation of getting one good shot….

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