If you exclude photos of people “smiling for the camera” in non-candid shots there are relatively few images of happy faces in street photography.
Wondering if this thought is really true I checked several street photo hashtags on Instagram and the results confirmed it. Everyone is very serious on #urbanstreetphotography and a lot of the subjects are downright miserable on #streetscenesmag. I scrolled down to view hundreds of photos on #ourstreets before coming to the first happy face – and that one belonged to a dog.
I’m not sure how to account for this phenomenon, because there are quite a lot of happy faces in my own pictures. As I walk around London or Bangkok I see plenty of people having fun, sharing a joke, or ribbing each other about something. Even people walking alone, chatting on their phones, will occasionally stop and chuckle (although I admit I more often hear them shouting expletives down the phone, cursing whoever is on the other end of it).
If there are plenty of happy people on the street but very few in street photographs I can only come to one conclusion: photographers have an agenda which is biased towards misery. Even when they’re not depicting the disadvantaged, the homeless, or those in need of something a bit more substantial than getting their picture taken, photographers are showing emotionless people who seem to be downtrodden by the weight of city life.
Come On, Cheer Up!
My own pictures have an unusually high proportion of happy faces in them. I’m drawn to any display of emotion because it helps to make a good shot. Fortunately, in London and Bangkok there are more positive, happy emotions on public streets than negative, hostile emotions – even during political demonstrations. (Alas, that has not been the case in yellow-shirted Paris this year).
For example, take the featured image at the top of the page. In this shot there are at least five demonstrably happy people and one other who seems to be quietly smiling to himself. Yes, a couple of them have seen the camera, but their smiles are not forced in any way. They were clearly in a good mood at the time, perhaps because they were heading towards the ferry for a pleasant trip on the river.
In the photo immediately above, the three girls in the foreground certainly haven’t noticed the camera, but they’re smiling and laughing at something they’re seen in the distance. In this instance, the crowd of people are walking towards a street festival, so, once again, everyone’s anticipating a good time.
You could say that I’m drawn to those occasions when people are likely to be in a cheerful mood — and you wouldn’t be wrong.
So Why Is Street Photography So Often Sombre?
I think the absence of joyful emotions in street photography could be because of conscious or unconscious awareness of photojournalistic images – and a desire by street photographers to emulate their high seriousness. I’ve often referred to street photography as “photojournalism lite,” and I suspect this holds true for a large proportion of it.
I hasten to add that there are many great images in the sombre style, together with many “deadpan” images that are neither happy nor sad. But that’s the whole point! Street photography needs to be all-embracing if it’s to reflect an accurate picture of life in today’s cities.
So the point I’m trying to make is this: life in modern cities is much more enjoyable than street photography (in general) would suggest. Even in the crowded streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, where it’s tough to sell and hard work to shop, people can still pause in the streets and double up with laughter, like the lady in my photograph below. Really, the streets are not all doom and gloom.