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Summoning Your Personal Vision in Street Photography

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
How to Photograph With Awareness and Sensitivity on the Street
8 Practical Ways to Take Compelling Photographs on the Street

There’s no escaping the hardest questions when it comes to making street photography. It’s so entwined with your personal experience and viewpoint of the world that, in order to have a real handle on your pursuit, you have to look as deeply into yourself as you do through the lens at your subject.

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to approach street photography from a position of strength and comfort by examining and understanding your motivations, finding meaningful feedback and context, and focusing while you photograph.

Understand Your Motivations

You can start by asking yourself the simple question: What is it about reality that inspires me? It’s a deceptively complex query, because the answer is tied to how well you know yourself, and that’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s okay not to know precisely why certain people or settings inspire you more than others—in fact some measure of mystery is ideal—but you want to have a keen sense of why you are photographing on the street and not in a studio or some other setting.    

One of my teachers, documentary photographer Ellen Binder Dubner, used to ask us “What is it about your project that is about you?” as a way of getting at our intentions for photographing. Your answer to this question doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed out loud to others, but it’s key for you to know, because it gets at the heart of your connection to your images. Your answer is what makes your photography unique, and the more distinct an image is to you, the more likely your photographs will keep you inspired and have the ability to impact others.

Analyze What You Create

So what, in your street photography, is about you? How are you reflected in the photography you make? One way to begin chiseling away at understanding your personal vision is simply to keep photographing. The pictures you make are like a mirror: they are expressions of you, your mindset, and your interests at the time you pressed the shutter.

Analyze the visual depictions you create. Look at the choices you make: the subjects and settings you capture, the angles you photograph at, the distances you leave between you and your subject, the light, the color, the cameras you use, the shapes and lines in your compositions, etc. Do you see any patterns? Place the pictures in groups based on these patterns, overarching themes, aesthetics, or any other number of unifying threads. Then put together one from each group and see how they look collectively. Now repeat the exercise using different groups based on other similarities. By moving the images around some, what observations can you make about the pictures and the person who made them? The idea is to get a conversation going between you and your images, some point of departure that you can use to spring from as you attempt to clarify your relationship to your street photography.

Sometimes it takes a while to understand your own pictures. One of the best ways to get to know your images is to live with them:

  1. print them out (the print doesn't have to be fancy)
  2. tack or tape them to the wall
  3. give the pictures time to sink in

As powerful as photo organizing programs like Adobe Lightroom are, the rigid nature of the software can actually act as a bit of a barrier to seeing visual relationships in your pictures. Printing makes playing with your pictures to find those visual threads much easier.

Havemeyer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2014, photograph by Amy Touchette

Know Why and Who to Ask for Help

It’s important that you know how to see your images yourself, but being able to see ourselves and our photographs clearly can be tricky. Part of the reason is because we can get confused between who we want to be and who we actually are, which is just like getting confused between what we believe our pictures show and what they truly show. Clarity is one of the great lessons that maturity doles out, but any photographer at any age can mistake the two when it comes to making art, because making art, by definition, is always personal, and it almost always shows us something about ourselves that we hadn’t quite understood yet.

For outsiders, on the other hand, it can be as plain as day. Other people can be much more objective about you and your photographs, and this is where establishing positive relationships with friends, colleagues, and peers whom you trust and respect really comes in handy. Show your images to others, photographers and non-photographers alike, even pictures you’re not sure are good. How do they react to the photos? What comments do they make about you and your images? Ask them questions if you want, but also let them speak without prompting from you, so you don’t unknowingly lead them into your interpretation of things.

In a way, deciphering personal vision is like trying to hit a moving target. We are all constantly evolving to some degree, budding new habits and interests and skills and shedding others. What was true about us yesterday might not be as true about us today—especially among younger people who, ideally, are experimenting on many fronts before settling into adulthood—and some of the indications are very, very subtle. They are not huge, sweeping patterns that are obvious; they are burgeoning clues that are just breaking the surface, barely detectable. This is one of the many times having an excellent teacher is a real gift. An educator that can perceive students’ nascent interests, hints about them or their aesthetics that have hardly come to light, is a mighty talent. That’s not to say you always need a teacher to make these important discoveries, but it sure can help.

Experiment and Take Notes

Zooming in on your particular reasons for photographing is an ongoing task. Hopefully all of your artistic endeavors, photographic or otherwise, push you into new places, whether they build on your current trajectory or forge a new path altogether. Since everything is constantly changing, then, do what you can not to get attached to what might come up. If you’ve realized something about yourself or your photography, or someone else has made a suggestion you think you should explore, try it on for size and see how it feels so that you get the most out of your experiments. And if it doesn’t fit—even if you really wanted it to—discard it and move on. All the better for knowing; no time wasted. Likewise, if what you or someone else realized feels uncomfortable at first, give it a moment; see what happens if you persevere, then make the call.     

Focus When You Photograph

All of this analysis is wonderful and necessary, but it has no place when you are actually out photographing. Do all of your absorbing, thinking, strategizing, and envisioning before and after photographing—not during—so that while you’re out on the street you can focus solely on being open to everything. Understanding your reasons for photographing is just one part of the equation when it comes to being clear on your personal vision; the other part is developing a pure, unadulterated relationship to the unknown. You want to be as free from thought as possible when you are photographing. Thinking can keep us from acting and perceiving; it can also take away trust in our own senses, and sense perception is essential when you submerge yourself in the beautiful chaos of the street.

So get analytical and thoughtful about photography whenever you’re not out photographing: look at photography books and magazines, talk to and share images with others, see films, visit galleries and museums (including shows of non-photographic mediums), read about photography theory, daydream, even walk the streets without bringing your camera. The options that help you formulate your relationship to street photography are numerous, but the only thing you should be concentrating on at the time of photographing is letting go of all that. Think of it as a well-deserved break from a complicated puzzle.

Remove Distractions Ahead of Time

Removing other more practical distractions before you begin photographing is also crucial. For example, placing your phone on vibrate or airplane mode or turning it off entirely can be really helpful. Not only can a ringing phone blow your ability to be in the moment, it can also call attention to yourself at a time that might not be ideal, i.e.: when you are surreptitiously photographing someone or checking out a very quiet setting. Turning off your phone also means you won’t check it as a way of procrastinating or getting sidetracked by something that could take place at another time.

Finally, decide in advance where you will be photographing and for how long. The winds of inspiration might sweep you in another direction while you’re out there, but it’s still good to set a definitive amount of time aside and to plan the area you want to meander before you go out. The point is to take care of all matters that might distract you beforehand, practical and otherwise, so you can focus on having a really good time once you’re out there. Nothing can enhance your personal vision more quickly or honestly than that.

Conclusion

Throughout this series of articles and tutorials we will be talking a lot about the various life lessons street photography teaches. But few have as powerful and pervasive an effect as understanding your motivations for photographing reality. It is the seed from which all other meaning in your photography grows. It is what makes your images distinct and the practice of street photography fulfilling. So look deeply into yourself and your images, consult with others, experiment freely, study the medium of photography, and remove distractions when you photograph so that you can make the most out of your experience on the street.

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