Urban Photography

Heraklion, Crete - 1990

Heraklion, Crete – 1990

The Instinctive Click
With observation, hope and a little luck, a scene begins to compose itself. In anticipation I raise the camera to my eye, the framing just right. In the split second when the eye, heart and hand collide with the external world the shutter is released instinctively: click. Hopefully unnoticed, I walk away.

The Greeks called it kairos – an ‘opportune moment’. Henri Cartier-Bresson called it the ‘decisive moment’, that one precise instant when elements arrange themselves in an order that is both meaningful and aesthetic to the photographer. A never-to-be-repeated moment frozen for eternity…

At these precise moments I like to think I hear Cartier-Bresson whisper: “Maintenant, mon ami !”

Many are circumspect about photography in what I call the ‘built environment’ because they fear the adverse reactions they might receive when photographing complete strangers at random in a public place. With the proliferation of social media websites selling our most intimate information for capital gain, children ‘stranger danger’ warnings and unprincipled paparazzis taking sneaky photos of celebrities when they have every right to expect privacy, the public has become increasingly wary of a lens aimed in their direction by a person they don’t know.

Someone pointing a camera at you without your permission is up to no good, right? Most probably not.

If an urban photographer is to be successful this all to common phobia of stealing an image for gain or misuse has to be considered. With this in mind the following are my thoughts on the issues, and pretty much the way I work.

Visible Invisible
First and foremost I try not to draw undue attention to myself but neither do I skulk about in a furtive manner as if I have no right to be where I am. The second your subjects take more notice of what you, the photographer, is doing, invariably you have influenced and corrupted what you are attempting to capture. Dress modestly and travel light.

You Are Not Important
This is core to my approach photographically. My main focus and intent is to capture the compelling yet fleeting moments with the least possible adulteration from me. If my photograph can be taken in a way that allows the subject to continue unmolested with their life, I take it. In essence, I do not interfere, but I do get the image.

A good way of practising this skill is by using your camera where it is expected – and encouraged – to be used: in the popular tourist sightseeing areas of big cities.

In photographic terms confidence and discretion may at first seem contradictory, but in reality they are complimentary. As a photographer with a purpose, act like it. Timidity on your part is a hindrance and your subjects will sense this and act accordingly. A respectful, self-assured manner and bearing will communicate into your image.

With self-assurance comes confidence. Your self-assurance and confidence will transform the way that people perceive you. How you handle your equipment and by demonstrating clearly you know what you are doing and that you have a reason for doing it, most people will allow you to continue your work without question.

Receptivity & Empathy
Be receptive. Incidents can and do unfold in an instant, quite often without time to do anything other than put the camera to your eye and make the exposure. Hesitate, and a unique moment is lost forever and nothing you do afterwards will bring it back. Make the image, deal with fallout later.

However, when a subject is already aware of my presence and intentions and despite this I feel that there is a compelling image to record, I change my approach. With an inquisitive glance I catch the subject’s eye, show them my camera and smile. In this way I perhaps can capture a photograph that suspicion would have ruined before the camera was ever ready.

Occasionally a person makes it plain they are not happy with you and your camera, making it clear you have invaded their space. At some point such an encounter is inevitable, although I find, rare. If this happens, frankly there is no point in continuing to photograph as now I have influenced the situation beyond recovery. Usually my willingness to move on defuses the situation.

However, if I continue to be accosted, I stand my ground. I have done nothing wrong and I will not be intimidated. I might try to explain what I am doing, continuing to vacate the scene. But the images in my camera are mine, end of story.

The Law
I can only write about my experience in the UK, other countries have different laws.

Time again in last few years there have been documented indicents of over-bearing officials over-stepping their authority for no good reason by demanding that a photographer stops taking photographs. Quite illegally photographers have been arrested and their equipment, film or cards confiscated. Be respectful, but know and exercise your rights. Study and make note of the law as it applies to you in your country. Do not assume a police officer knows more than you.

You should be aware that many public places sometimes are not, being owned by corporations and businesses that ‘allow’ the public access but take excception to any photography on their property. Increasingly, especially in London, public-private spaces are off-limits for photography without permission, the enforcement being carried out by private security employed by the owners.

Notwithstanding all of this you may find yourself forced to pass up a perfectly ligitimate shot due to other factors such as safety and respect. Legality aside, only you can evaluate these conditions and make that call. Establishing your own sensible code of ethical conduct can remove the fear of social accusation and doubt that might keep many a photographer at home.

Surely, the spirit, emotion and interaction with our built environment that textures the human condition so visibly makes every fleeting moment of this discipline worthwhile?

2 responses to “Urban Photography

  1. Very useful advice. Especially valuable is your point about self assurance. Street photography is also about gaining the confidence to place yourself in front of people. Most of the time if you indicate that you want to photograph, people will not be unpleasant, but you also need to be sensitive in areas where you might be alone.

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