When subjects are fleeing into darkness, or when they have their backs turned towards us and are studying something unseen with intense concentration — that’s when you can get a good street photo.
Street photography does not always have to be open and explicit. The idea that you need subjects to be facing you, with the camera just a couple of feet from their noses, is pure nonsense. I prefer to take shots that allow ambiguities to enter, because then the human figures cannot be seen with sufficient clarity to explain their actions.
Take my featured image (above), for example. It’s a grocery stall in Hong Kong with a row of Chinese sausages hanging from hooks and gleaming in the morning sunlight. The sausages are the most prominent objects in the picture. Those dark ones appear to be selling well! To a western eye they look a lot more appetising than the scrawny birds (surely not wading birds?) hanging beside them. The stallholder has turned his back on the customers as if trying to avoid looking at the dead birds — but their shadows pursue him by clinging to his dark blue tee-shirt.
The other feature of the image is the row of newspapers (or pamphlets?) on the makeshift counter. Are these merely for wrapping the sausages, or do they serve some other purpose? Are people actually meant to read what’s printed on them? They seem to be too neatly arranged to be merely wrapping paper. The darkness of the stall’s interior adds to the feeling of mystery, even on a bright, sunny day.
Behind the Truck
From a pictorial point of view, a plain, dark background makes the subject stand out and gives any photo an organised appearance. Of course, if the subject is “standing out” — illuminated by the sun against the darkness — the sense of mystery or ambiguity can disappear. The onlooker may not tempted to speculate on the content of the darkness when there’s plenty to see in the light.
My next image (below) is slightly different. There seems to be an interesting coffee bar beyond the three shoppers who are about to walk behind a parked truck. Yet there are no tables, no chairs — nothing to see whatsoever, except for the banners which proclaim “Original Phuket Roasted Coffee.” Can this be where coffee is unloaded to a warehouse? The logo of the firm has a ship on it, suggesting the importation of goods.
I took the shot because of the banners, the darkness, and the dun-coloured truck which was covered in dust. A minute or two went by before some pedestrians moved into position — and happily they add colour to what could have been a drab and pointless image.
The sceptical viewer may still think it’s pointless. I don’t. I think the shoppers are walking in between two mysteries — the dark building and the heavily padlocked truck — and into another mystery: the rest of their lives.
The Mysterious Stall
Street photographs are doubly appealing when they offer intriguing content as well as satisfying composition. At first glance, my photo (below) seems to be of two ordinary customers standing in front of an ordinary stall where you can buy a tee-shirt. There are thousands of similar stalls in the Far East. Yet, somehow, this one is different.
For a start, it has lots of large pots in front of it, which would be completely superfluous to requirements for a typical trader who’s intent on making money. Then there’s the hat. Or hats. One of them is a pointed hat of the kind you can purchase from beach vendors, the other is a helmet woven from dried leaves. There are brushes and palette knives in the stall — which is more like an outdoor workshop than a stall — and there are framed pictures hanging up, for display or sale.
Even after studying my own picture carefully I’m still mystified by the purpose of the stall. The only real clue is the girl who is wearing a tee-shirt similar to those hanging up. Is she an existing customer? Does the man customise the tees with designs while you wait? Is this a part-time job to make money to support him as a painter of pictures?
The image of the painter’s stall is every bit as mysterious as the others I’ve shown, despite the full sunlight and a wealth of detail which can be seen quite clearly. The point of the image is actually in the detail: the comb sticking out from the girl’s back pocket, the object (a soda can?) in the man’s right hand, and the colourful hat.
Above all, it’s the girl’s hesitant gesture and the man’s smooth talking which complete the image. Maybe he’s saying: “Sorry, no refund.” Your guess is as good as mine.