Street Photography and the Theory of Work

Happy are they whose work has a physical component as well as an intellectual one. I’m referring to the surgeon, the sculptor, the builder, the engineer — and yes, the street photographer! Without physical activity, human beings become sad, lopsided creatures, divorced from the reality of the world around them.

I have a huge admiration of people whose work is primarily physical and who take the trouble to do it properly. Without them, street photography would be impossible. There would be no cameras, no buildings, no streets.

As we move into an age of robotics and artificial intelligence, we may be tempted to sit back and let machines take over. This will be a fatal mistake because machines will organise reality to suit themselves, not us.

The concept of work underpins our concept of ownership. That is to say: it’s our physical work which cultivates the land, creates the built environment, and confers upon working people the right — by common agreement — to claim a measure of ownership of the physical world.

That said, unskilled labour has never been highly rewarded. The concept of “slave” completely undermines the concept of property.

When I take pictures of people engaged upon physical labour I often get the impression they’re resigned to their fate. They’re just going through the motions, aware they’ll never be able to afford to buy one of the high-rise apartments they’re building, or to which they’re delivering goods.

Today, a lifetime’s physical labour will just about feed and clothe you. Unless you’re among the sporting elite you’ll never win a fair share of the tangible world by running, digging, chopping or lifting various parts of it.

If there’s one thing that makes slaves of us all it’s money. Fungible currency (you can swap it to buy anything) serves the purpose of separating physical labour from ownership. Once it becomes available, everything assumes a market value governed by supply and demand. Convenient? Yes, but it shortchanges the physical labourer and rewards the trader and the banker.

Bankers emerging from headquarters

The downside to trading and banking is the physical effect on individuals who spend all their time in front of computer screens. A complete lack of physical labour leads to obesity, ill health, and, eventually, an early death.

The professional, screen-bound classes believe they have a solution to this problem, namely: pointless labour, or “exercise.”

Pointless Labour
Personally, I hate the idea of going to a gym and “working out.” It’s an insult to the noble concept of work and ownership. If you want to stay healthy, the most sensible course of action is to do something useful: dig the garden, paint the house, or create something tangible. Pumping iron is insane. Form follows function, so why would anyone trust a musclebound web designer?

Man with grey hair, stripped to the waist and working hard

What Does All This Have to do with Street Photography?
My argument has nothing — or perhaps everything — to do with taking pictures in the street. The physical activity of street photography is all about walking and looking: about seeing and recording what’s really going on.

Human beings are prepared to work hard, but we also like to seek advantage and acquire more than our fair share of possessions by scheming and calculating, even if it means taking risks. The risk-takers who make the most accurate calculations — so accurate they have predictive power — are the ones who gain greatest advantage.

Can we really see and photograph all this on the street? We can certainly see the stark difference between those who labour physically and those who manipulate figures and give instructions. On the other hand, it’s impossible to tell — from vision alone — whether someone sitting in a cafĂ© is writing a novel or causing a stockmarket crash.

There are strict limits to what street photography can show us and even stricter limits as to what it can explain. It can’t tell us how the world works, but only show us the outcome: how the world turned out and how people are reacting to it.

The Impossibility of Knowing
Oddly enough, the limitations of street photography only add to its magic, not subtract from it. Images taken on the street tell us something about the impossibility of knowing. They make us think without necessarily directing our thoughts in any specific direction. In this sense, the shortage of explanation — street photography’s inability to provide a complete narrative — can be an advantage.

Woman washing up in kitchen

The street photo is a “fait accompli.” It leaves us with no other option than to accept it for what it is: a snapshot, a statement, a solitary frame from the movie of the photographer’s mind.

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