At its best, street photography is one hundred percent candid. When the subject is completely unaware of the camera, you place viewers in the privileged position of being able to scrutinise life on the street entirely objectively — without receiving accusatory stares from someone unknown to them.
Often, however, the subject of the image is more than one person: it’s a couple, or a group of people who’ve caught the eye of the street photographer. Unless all the people in the group are totally absorbed in their activity it’s more than likely that one of them will spot the camera and look quizzically at it. Sometimes this can ruin the image; on other occasions it can “make” it.
I have a stack of images of both sorts: rejects and acceptables. My featured image (above) I count as one of the acceptables. I still feel a bit guilty about taking it because I probably ruined the guy’s shot. Or maybe he got an heroic portrait of the woman gazing and smiling into the distance. Let’s hope so. I like the image because the woman is central to it — and clearly enjoying being the centre of attention. By contrast, the man on the right seems to be totally unaffected by her charms, and, in a non-committal way, is checking out the menu immediately behind her.
The image works because it’s clearly been taken without permission being sought and granted. It has an air of spontaneity — and the woman’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day. It also works because it contains a complete scenario. Instead of being an impromptu shot of a friend or relative outside a tourist venue it’s an incident, a unique moment in which various elements come together to form the whole picture. Even the Honda scooter leans obligingly towards the young woman — and as if in response she leans back slightly, setting up a subtle dynamic within the frame.
Does the image have any faults? Yes. But I’ve only ever seen a dozen or so street photographs that could be described as “faultless” in all respects. In fact, those that seem to be perfect — in composition and photographic quality — can sometimes appear too staid, lacking the vitality we’ve come to expect in street photography.
Here’s another shot (immediately above) when the subject notices the camera. Thank heavens she did! Everyone else is shown in back view, so without the subject looking towards me the picture would have no focal point. As it is, the image springs to life, making it more interesting than a mere “study in blue and green.”
Not So Good
I can make no excuses for the following image. OK, it’s a decisive moment, and the girl who’s feeding the fish is unaware that I’m taking a picture of her. However, this time I’ve been spotted by another person in the image, not the central figure but the young man on the left. He looks straight at the camera and doesn’t seem entirely pleased about it.
Whether or not you think this image works depends entirely on the story you make up to understand what’s going on.
For example, you could interpret the young man’s gaze as showing a measure of guilt. In some parts of Thailand, feeding the fish is illegal — and people are prosecuted for it — whereas in other parts it’s an accepted part of tradition. Some people even feed wild catfish which they later catch for food.
I don’t think there’s any legal problem here, neither do I think the young man is worried about it. I also doubt if he’s a catfish farmer. Perhaps he’s thinking I’m taking a cheap shot of his attractive girlfriend, in which case he’s partially right, but I wouldn’t have done so if she’d simply been standing there. No, I think he’s on a date, and somewhat embarrassed to be seen taking part in the “girly” activity of fish-feeding in order to please his friend.
Do you see what a difference the story makes to the way we see the image? If the stare is accusatory rather than guilty or embarrassed, it becomes the main message of the image — completely unrelated to the activities taking place. But if, as the viewer, you can set your mind at ease and tell yourself that his stare is part of the picture’s internal narrative, all is well. You can then see the picture as a balanced composition.
So Many Interpretations
It’s good when a photograph enables various interpretations, each one dependent on the reaction of the viewer. We make up stories to explain the situation depicted in much the same way as, in our minds, we complete the actions of subjects when they are caught mid-movement. By adding our own idea of movement — or by adding an imagined narrative — we bring the image to life and make it memorable.
The final image (below) I took more recently. The light had faded on the streets of London’s West End, so I walked across the river to the South Bank which is more open to the evening light.
There, I spotted these two people sitting in a composition that could not have been better had I tried to organise it. However, I had to double back to take the shot because other passers-by were getting in the way. On my second run the young man noticed me although his friend remained oblivious. Afterwards, I said “hi” and explained why I took the shot, but I didn’t take another.
The large scarlet portfolio indicates that the two subjects are creative people, taking samples of their work with them. The young guy’s knowing look suggests he’s probably aware of serious street photography and he has the presence of mind to remain cool about it. I’m reluctant to remove the only blemish: the distant figures which get entangled in the woman’s hair. Apart from that, it’s a shot I like.
As I suspected, half a candid photo — when only one person is looking at you — can be better than a posed shot in which both are gazing into the lens.