The Emotions of Street Photography

There’s something about candid street photography that stays with you after the thrill of the moment is gone. Of course there is this almost addictive rush that feeds from the excitement of capturing a perfectly timed frame or coming up with a beautiful and balanced composition in a matter of microseconds, but to me, the best feeling is this je ne sais quoi that arises in very specific situations and that has nothing to do with your technical prowess as a photographer. 

It is, instead, a particular set of emotions that take hold of you and humble you, uncovering the true spirit that hides behind your camera, your ego, your skillset, your reputation, your fear of failure; a sort of spell that obliterates the excuses that keep what you really feel far away from who you really are as a photographer, as a consumer of photography and, ultimately, as a human being. 

The problem: fast food photography

Street photographers are constantly exposed to the full spectrum of human nature, so putting barriers between us and our subjects tends to be an almost instinctive reaction: naturally, we don’t like becoming a nuisance by making our presence too obvious, at the same time we don’t want to ruin the moment and therefore miss our one perfect shot, we also try to keep ourselves physically safe by being inconspicuous and, by virtue of all these precautions, we distance ourselves from the possibility of experiencing some genuine emotion out of the scenes that we photograph. 

At the same time, street photographers are opportunistic by nature, we have to be, but this means that we end up grabbing the low hanging fruit way too often, merely out of convenience. Bad practice becomes common practice and as a result, there are countless pictures out there, specially on social media, that are incredibly well taken and even visually impressive, but with no emotion whatsoever. I can’t remember who I heard this from, but it’s a thought that resonated with me when I heard it about a year ago, and that somehow reinforced my position about photography in the 21st century: “most of instagram is just a bunch of very good pictures about nothing”. Just as there are physically attractive people who are emotionally empty, there are also very pretty photos void of any emotional value, and in both cases, for some reason, those are incredibly popular. Frankly, I have also been guilty of eating those sexy looking burgers with zero nutritional value. We all have indulged in that guilty pleasure, but when do we decide that the pleasure is not worth the guilt anymore? 

I might be pushing the analogy a bit too far, but in all seriousness, these concepts are rather tricky to put into words. In my case, I know that I’m prone to digressing and I know that I run the risk of being hyperbolic if I try too hard to describe the sensations that doing street photography evokes in me; but I guess this is part of the deal when you confront the objective with the subjective, when you try to deliberately explain your feelings in the context of something so technically based as photography. It begs the question, is emotionality the key factor that takes photography from being merely a compilation of physics, chemistry and geometry, and turns it into an art form? That’s a conversation for another day, but it surely has something to do with today’s theme. For the time being, I’ll try my best to show you what I mean.

The excuse: subjectivity

There are many emotions that clearly manifest in photography and that are readily available for us to perceive. For example, all those famous Vietnam war photographs, they generate very similar (if not the same) emotional reaction in most of us, most likely because the majority of human beings share this psychological shelf where pain, disgust and anger happen to be located; you could argue that perhaps due to evolutionary reasons, negative reactions are much more generic and within reach in order to increase our chances of survival. On the other hand, some of our intuitions reside in less accessible places; these are the type of reactions that we get when certain very specific and personal sensitive spots are stimulated, and as a matter of course, they happen to be mostly related to taste, preference, and overall positive outlooks.

Yes, I just came up with a very long way of saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, however, sometimes I find such proverbs extremely boring, but more importantly, I find them misleading. Such generalisations may be accurate for practical purposes, nevertheless, when it comes to understanding your own biases and predispositions to like certain things, you are doing yourself a disservice by oversimplifying them and going for the “it’s all subjective” commonplace. Yes, you like what you like and your personal taste is personal (duh!), but it might be much more beneficial to, whenever you realise that you like a photograph (or anything at all), stop for a second and ask yourself why you like it. Is there something objectively admirable about it? Does it make you feel a certain way? And if it does, can you accurately describe such feelings? 

I find different answers every time I ask myself these questions, but I usually come to the same conclusion: subjectivity does not justify arbitrariness. My aesthetic taste and appreciation is not always subjective and when it is, I don’t find it to be capricious or random. For the work to have any value, it has to speak to you. When its value depends on what you speak to it, then its meaning can be arbitrarily attributed, then it can mean anything and, eventually, it ends up meaning nothing at all.

How does this relate to the fast food photography problem? It is relevant in the sense that there is also too much fast food thinking going on. Too much subjectivity can deprive you from your actual personal understanding of any creative work. I’ve heard many people describe certain photos as nice and good ones, but after inquiring a bit further, their emotional grasping of the pictures falls short and “I don’t know why but I like it” seems to be the most common answer. There could be many reasons for this. It is possible that some people lack the verbal acuity to put into words what they feel (I’ve found myself in that situation many times); it might also be the case that the observer is too preoccupied with other things and cannot be reached by the sentimental signal sent by the photo; or more simply, the picture they’re looking at just doesn’t contain enough emotional weight. Maybe all of them apply in certain cases, but in the end, when it all boils down to the “it’s subjective” argument, it sounds to me more like an excuse we tell ourselves to avoid doing the introspective work that would lead us to having a more nuanced examination of the things we like, and through that process, come to a better understanding who we actually are.

A different approach: feel the photo first, then take it

If you are the average street photographer, you would normally react impulsively when you see an umbrella, a fancy hat, a cloud of steam, or any other photographable street banality; you’d take that picture and then use the popular hashtag of the day, hit the “post” button and boom!, you are now one of the millions of people who have taken the exact same photo that day. Yes, I have been guilty of this too. But every sinner does a good deed from time to time, so I might vindicate myself by sharing a different approach with you, sincerely hoping that it will make a difference if this ever happened to you. This little piece of advise, if you will, is actually very simple to understand and to implement: make sure that you feel the photo before you take it. Easier said than done, as it usually goes with anything that requires practice, but it becomes second nature once you try it hundreds of times. I don’t claim this to be the solution, but it might be a good step in the right direction.

Case in point, imagine you see a mother carrying her child on the street and something about it hits a nerve, you catch a little tingling in your body and then after a few seconds of this “aww” feeling, you find yourself smiling at her like a weirdo and you realise that you forgot to take the damned photo! Alright then, if this happens to you, chances are that, if you snap out of that spell of tenderness just in time to bring the viewfinder to your eye and press the shutter before the moment fades, you will increase the probability of making a much more valuable contribution to the world of photography: you will most likely get a street photograph with true emotion in it.

The conclusion: I love photos about love

Talking about emotion, let’s get back to it. Up to this point, I have made a few observations about what I consider to be an issue with the current state of street photography insofar as it relies too much on visually pleasing but uninspiring images. I have attempted to deconstruct the possible reasons for this, and also tried to come up with an alternative way to proceed when facing this problem. Now, I would like to wrap things up and hopefully end on a positive note.

One of those deeply rooted emotions that I mentioned earlier, one of those feelings that are not so easily accessible and that seldom come to me while I look at street photographs, is the feeling of love. I’m not saying that it never happens, but it is so rare that I’m somewhat compelled to bring my little contribution to the conversation of photos that inspire love. More specifically, the kind of love that is without a doubt the only unconditional form of love there is: motherly love. 

I want to share a few street photos with you, photos that I took over the last year or so, and that in one way or another, generate little glimpses of this feeling in me. In some of them, I could feel the mother’s love at that moment, when I lifted the camera and took the picture. Some make me feel it every time I look at the photo itself. You will probably not feel the same love while looking at them, you may not feel anything at all; for all I know, you may not even like the photos, and that’s alright. That’s part of sharing this with you, to find out if I’m the only one who feels this way. Some of these photos may not reflect the warm and cosy side of motherly love, but the protective side of it, and there’s one in particular that shows the sacrifice and stern aspects of being a mother, a job that is commonly assumed to start when the child is born, but that actually begins with the pregnancy itself. Anyway, I can read all these things when I look at these photos and I’m curious to know what you see from your own perspective.

I love these photos, each one for a different reason, but I’m sure that they work much better together than on their own, as I believe that the message they convey is more noticeable and makes more sense when looking at them as a collection rather than individually. I never went on a photowalk with the express intention of finding these type of scenes, but every time I capture one like this, I have the feeling that I need more. Hopefully one day I’ll come up with a more comprehensive collection. However, this time only seven are enough to illustrate my point and to leave you with a little encouragement to go out there and make some good looking pictures, but more importantly, with some true emotion behind them. If you don’t know where to start, try taking a picture of your mom, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to tell her hat you love her and to thank her for keeping you alive. 

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