In Street Photography, Let the Viewer’s Imagination Go to Work

Cameras are magical instruments because of their potential. When you look at a brand new camera, just out of its box, you can imagine all the wonderful photos it may eventually take. You mind completes the equation. That’s why we’re all suckers for a new camera.

Now here’s the thing: why not use this extraordinary function of the human mind when you’re actually taking pictures? In street photography it isn’t necessary to spell out every visual word. You can let the viewer’s imagination go to work.

Look at the image above, for example. These guys are not going to work, they’re coming home. At least, that’s my interpretation, the viewer may wish to interpret it differently.

The photograph can stand on its own without commentary, but the viewer is obliged to pause and think about it. Why is everyone huddled together? Ah, yes, they’re on the back of a pick-up truck. What time of day is it? Early evening, surely, given the warm rays of the sun.

Having come to the conclusion that these are workers on their way home, you can reasonably say that it’s been a tough day for them. They’re probably tired, but they’re young and strong. They’ve survived and they’re looking forward to an evening meal and a rest.

I took the image at Kata Beach on the island of Phuket in the early evening. Naturally I was drawn to the colours — blues and blacks — and the fact that the people were huddled together in a cohesive group. The only problem was the speed of the truck, which was going fast enough to miss if I hadn’t been prepared with appropriate settings. In fact, the truck’s movement was fortuitous because, despite noticing me, the subjects didn’t have time to make a strong reaction before I got the shot.

In my normal style of shooting I like to introduce mysterious elements while still keeping to a representational mode. These elements are sufficient to set the viewer’s imagination working, but there are also other ways of doing it. For example, you may wish to make the image ambiguous by blurring it.

In her book, “Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained” (Thames and Hudson, 2013), Jackie Higgins gives reasons why fine art photographers often blur the image or do other things to it that sometimes go beyond the realm of both everyday reality and even photography itself. You needn’t go that far. To generate ambiguity and mystery you don’t have to jettison the conventions which make street photography both accessible and compelling.

Something In the Shadow
In certain situations, such as shooting at night, you can scarcely avoid ambiguity and mystery. Yet it’s not enough simply to show areas of deep shadow to trigger the viewer’s imagination. There has to be something in the shadow — a half-seen figure, a hint of a gesture, an object partially occluded — for the technique to work properly.

I’m a great believer in allowing viewers to continue the action, explore the image or complete the composition in their imagination. When you look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous shot of a man about to step into a puddle you mentally continue the action — then you draw back from it because he’s frozen in time. In this way the photo comes alive with cerebral motion.

A similar process takes place when you read a novel and imagine the personalities of the characters portrayed. I’ve explained this fully in my book “Modern Japanese Novelists” where I discuss how Japanese writers are more inclined than western writers to use an impressionistic technique. An example I give is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters,” a long novel devoid of detailed descriptions and explanations. In fact, it’s full of contradictions, with characters acting “out of character” — just as human beings sometimes do in real life.

In street photography we can follow the way of the Japanese writer and give free rein to the viewer’s imagination. Here, for example, is a street portrait taken from behind the “sitter.”

In my blog post “Why Don’t Some People ‘Get’ Street Photography?” I list photographing the backs of people as being one the most despised aspects of street photography. This is understandable because there are far too many “easy” images of subjects scurrying away from photographers who have not risked confronting them for a head-on shot.

Understandable or not, I don’t agree with the prejudice of those who hate back shots. Not only does the human back tell us a lot about the person who owns it, it stops just short of telling us all we wish to know.

The woman in my picture may or may not be pretty. She certainly looks sexy while diligently selling her wares in the market. The way she sits on the chair, the shape of her body, the relaxed pose which is so difficult to get from a model in the studio — I like all those aspects of the image. I also like the fact that we don’t see her face. After all, it might be a disappointment! Instead, we can just imagine that she’s a vision of loveliness (which she probably is).

There are dozens of ways of triggering the imagination of the viewer. I’ve mentioned only a few of them. You can do it with shadow, empty space, occlusion, blurring and other forms of indistinctness. You can do it with ambiguity, mystery, or incompleteness of movement. You can even do it with discordant elements, touches of surrealism, anything to make the viewer pause and wonder what’s happening.

Don’t worry! You may have left something unexplained, but the human mind always finds a way of completing the image.


Leave a Comment