Can you do street photography on rivers and canals? I don’t see why not. The only difference between the waterway and the street is the obligation to use a boat for transport, rather than your feet.
Yes, I admit that’s a major difference, because the knock-on effect is the lack of pedestrians. Without passers-by, the street photographer no longer has a constant flow of potential subjects. All that remains is a constant flow of water.
However, rather than dismiss out of hand the potential of “waterway photography” I think we should first consider its advantages.
For a start, the light is nearly always excellent. It reflects off the water and illuminates the subject from below as well as from above. You won’t find this effect on the street unless it’s been a very rainy day.
The air is clearer on the river; the traffic more graceful; the people (if you can find people) more relaxed and more open to the idea of being photographed.
Any pictures you get on the river will evoke a slower and possibly more appealing style of life than the one you left behind on dry land. When you embark and set sail you’re entering a parallel world that will inspire you to see people in a fresh light.
It’s fun to join in, but not essential. You don’t have to get on a boat to participate in waterway photography. You can remain on the quayside and photograph other people jumping on and off ferries, motor launches, gondolas. I’m tempted to say “whatever floats your boat.”
The Parallel World
The subject of my featured image (above) is a small boy on a large vessel: the last section of a river “barge train” on Bangkok’s Chao Praya. I took it from a public ferry, but I was lucky to get the shot because ferries rarely pass close enough to these massive barges to enable a decent shot.
The photograph sets me thinking: “What’s life like for a small boy on a barge?” It must be extraordinary. English children dream of being train drivers, but even if Dad drives the 07:15 express from Paddington you don’t get to ride with him by yourself. This little chap does more than ride. He lives on the barge, surrounded by dangers — and I bet he enjoys every minute. You’ll not see anyone remotely similar to him on the street.
When they get older, river people have a weather-beaten look. It’s a tough life on the water, especially in Thailand where the rivers and canals are crowded with traffic. I took the shot (below) from a bridge. I liked the empty seat, which looks inviting — although the man has to hold a bamboo pole in readiness to steer clear of other vessels rather than relax comfortably on his chair.
My next composition (below) is closer to what we think of as “street photography.” The wind helps to make it a “decisive moment” by displacing a man’s hat, blowing hair out of place and waving the stripey shirt of the lady on the right. Every movement speaks of the river, even though you can only glimpse it through the railings of the boat.
Divided into two halves and crowned with a car tyre the image works because all the detail is rigidly organised with straight lines and symmetrical balance. It just avoids becoming over-organised by virtue of the central pillar beneath the tyre, which adds a diagonal to a composition which is otherwise undisturbed, except by the breeze.
The possibilities for waterway photography are endless and I have to say it’s one of my favourite activities. I have a great love for rivers, in particular for their varied reality as well as for their metaphorical significance. It’s impossible to experience a river and not be reminded of how its journey from upland to the ocean resembles the life of an individual human being. You don’t need to read the wonderful novel “The River Ki” by Sawako Ariyoshi to have this thought (but it helps).
Celebrations on the River
It’s not surprising, therefore, that people choose the river for special celebrations and ceremonies which mark our passage through life. In Bangkok, there are engagement parties, weddings and funerals — all held aboard boats on the river.
I’m not sure of the occasion being marked by those on board the vessel in my shot above. The boat had just left when I arrived. The sun was setting; people were dressed in traditional costume. There was an air of formality and seriousness about it which I’d not experienced on the river during the day. I took the shot quickly before the vessel moved out of range, all the while hoping it was a happy event and not a sombre one.
To my original question: “Can you do street photography on rivers and canals?” my answer can now be more definite.
Waterway photography offers subject matter which has all the extremes of youth and maturity, work and recreation, wealth and poverty, life and death — plus good light. So, yes, it’s a great environment for taking candid shots. Just don’t fall in the water.