Why Words Shout Out Loud In Street Photos

If words appear in a photo it’s impossible to ignore them. They shout at us loud and clear. Even when they’re in a foreign language we feel their power. We know they will speak immediately and directly to anyone who understands their language.

In a street photo, words can eclipse the rest of the content. Writ large or small they are the first objects to catch the eye. What’s more: they’re everywhere: on posters, on street furniture, on tee-shirts and newsstands. You can’t easily avoid words when you’re out on the street, so maybe it’s best to make good use of them.

Sometimes I try to combine words on a sign or poster with other parts of the image, making them seem to comment on the action. Words are static within a photo so it’s important to contrast them by showing activity as well, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing but a still life. The result may not be a bad picture, but in street photography we’re mostly trying to capture the actual life of the street.

In my featured image (from Singapore, above) there can be no doubt about the subject, which is labelled in letters writ large. Once you’ve been lured inside the restaurant you’ll be able to read the “small print,” including a warning sign (at the top of the picture) and the apologies for “inconvenience.”

Colours and Contrasts
I often talk in this blog about the deliberate use of colours and contrasting content to create a meaningful composition. Sometimes the meaning can be discovered later, once you’ve processed the image and examined it more closely.

When I took the following picture I was struck by a combination of blues and blacks, with only a hint of any other colour in the frame. The lady’s face reminded me of an elderly aunt from my childhood, while the dog offered a wonderful contrast in both age and colour. Likewise, the coffee in the advert looks warm and inviting, whereas the lady and the dog are well wrapped up against the cold.

Only when I looked at the image more objectively did I realise that the old lady was clearly not a customer of CaffĂ© Nero and was unlikely to have been waiting for a skinny latte or cappuccino. I have to say I’m not happy with the dead space at the lower right, but I like the contrast between subject and setting.

Photographers tend to be more attuned to visual appearances than to the written or spoken word, making them less likely to pay attention to the effect of words on the viewer.

Anglo Saxon four-letter words are the most violent in the English language, but you often see them on tee-shirts or scrawled on walls as graffiti. For years, a disused cinema in my neighbourhood had the “C-word” etched back-to-front in dust on an inside, upper window. It gave a “too strong” flavouring to any street photo which included it in the background, rather as if a bitter spice were being added to the dish of the day.

Word On The Street
One photographer who notices words is Richard Nagler. He published a book called “Word On The Street” (Heyday, 2010) in which each photograph contains just a single word surrounded by other content. He describes how he was working on a different project in Oakland, California, when he saw an elderly woman looking of a window above a large (and unlit) neon sign saying TIME. On that occasion he failed to get the shot because the woman drew the curtains, but he went back (time and again!) until he saw her at the window once more and captured something similar.

You can find the image, among others in the series, on Richard Nagler’s website.

Gratuitous Language
In stores and malls you often see words that seem purely gratuitous and meaningless, although they later take on meaning when the rest of the advertising campaign comes along.

Here’s a family in Bangkok who are time-wasting, maybe hoping that “something exciting” is on its way. It probably isn’t.

For excitement you have to go out on the street. There, girls parade with highly provocative, and, it has to be said, very amusing words on their tee-shirts. I particularly liked the one below.

Today, words and photography are inextricably bound together. You can no longer prise them apart.

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