Sebastian Siadecki: In the Mind of the Street Photographer

All images by Sebastian Siadecki. Used with permission.

“Every street photographer has the occasional bad encounter,” says Photographer Sebastian Siadecki. “Though I will say, it’s far more common to have an overtly positive reaction – like someone smiling, chatting me up or even thanking me – than a bad one.” He is a street photographer who works in the ER for a living but then picks up a camera for an almost therapeutic experience. He’s a person who thinks some photos can rely a bit too much on the processing vs the content and so he tries to be a purist so to speak. Sebastian shoots a lot of film though recently he’s also picked up digital.

In this interview, we pick his brain on street photography and his creative process.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography? What was it that pulled you toward street photography?

Sebastian: I first got into photography because of my dad. He never really shot artistically but he was an enthusiast and showed me the basics of how to use a camera. In college I discovered Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, who both really got me excited about photography, and around then I started shooting a bit but never in a very serious way. I didn’t have much money for film or processing and at some point my camera broke so I stopped for a while. The interest never went away but I wasn’t doing anything with it.

Then a few years back I saw the big Garry Winogrand show at the Met and it seemed to plant a seed. I started getting more heavily into street photography and reading and looking at lots of stuff online. Garry led me to Joel Meyerowitz, whose work really resonated with me and made me want to go out there. But I think it was still about another year of just absorbing it and learning about it before I felt ready to try it. I eventually got a functional camera again and one day about two years ago I went out and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Phoblographer: I know aside from shooting that you work in the ER. How much satisfaction does photography give you in relation to your job, and how do they tie into your identity if at all?

Sebastian: I’m really grateful to be able to do what I do, and although I’m passionate about photography, my work is really fulfilling too – I certainly don’t see it as just a day job. But the two complement each other in several ways. My work is intense and engaging, and there’s certainly a problem-solving element to it, but otherwise not really any creative aspect. So photography provides that dimension to my life. The other thing is that I’m an introvert, whereas my job requires me to be very extroverted. So I think street photography, which is solitary and contemplative most of the time, allows me to recharge and be alone with my thoughts. It’s an interesting feeling to be out in the middle of a crowded corner and yet feel like you’re floating on your own in the midst of the chaos. On the other hand, I credit my job with giving me the confidence to even be able to go out and shoot and get close to people. I used to be much more shy, but dealing with a lot of the crazy situations that happen in the ER made the street seem pretty tame by comparison.

Phoblographer: I know you as a film shooter, but lately you’ve been shooting digital. What is most important about a photograph and does one format lend to that more than the other?

Sebastian: I started out with film because most of my photography heroes are from the 50s-70s, and that’s what they used – so if it worked for them it must be good enough for me! I love the look of film, the mechanics of a film camera, and I also just feel like I’m making something tangible when I shoot with film… which I suppose I am. In terms of the process, I think that not being able to see the pictures while shooting and having to wait before editing are also both conducive to making good work. And I’ve enjoyed being a part of what seems to be a growing film photography community.

I began shooting digital on the street in the last few months for several reasons, the main one being that I got so behind on my post-processing and editing that it started to put a damper on being able to shoot more. I’m pretty particular about my scans and post-processing and as I started to shoot more I just couldn’t keep up. I realized that if I really wanted to shoot enough to get good that digital might be the way to go, at least some of the time.

I also started to become a bit self-conscious about the film thing. I didn’t want my pictures to only be interesting because they were shot on film. It’s like a badge of honor, almost. But I think a good picture is a good picture regardless of what it’s shot on, and I’ve certainly been fooled by digital pictures that I thought were shot on film and vice versa. That said, I don’t plan on giving up film entirely, especially for non-street work.

Phoblographer: That’s an interesting point, do you think photos can rely too heavily on the look of a process rather than the content?

Sebastian: Definitely. And I think particularly right now there’s a trend of sort of gritty, aggressive, lo-fi street photography that goes hand in hand with shooting high ISO film and using a lot of flash. Some of which is great work but it’s not necessarily what I’m interested in doing myself. Again it probably goes back to influences – that super sharp, saturated, dense look of an Eggleston or Meyerowitz color photograph is what gets me excited. I think for me the other aspects of film – the mechanics of it and the effects on my process – are more important than the colors or the grain. And I hope that eventually my film and digital work can stand side by side and not be obviously different.

Phoblographer: When you look at a scene, what typically makes you motivated to want to photograph it? Is it typically the lighting, or looks on someone’s face?

Sebastian: The things that I’ve noticed I tend to respond to are the light, the ways that people seem to arrange themselves in a scene, and gestures. I’ve been working to be more responsive to specific triggers – certain things that if I see them, I try to always take the shot. For example, people carrying small dogs are always interesting to me. Responding to those things occasionally leads to a good picture, but more importantly keeps you primed and ready when something really good comes along. My general approach on the street is to walk until I find a corner or a stretch of sidewalk where the light is good or where I feel a certain energy. I often think of it like a tide – there’s a certain feeling on a corner that seems to ebb and flow. I’ll usually linger there for a little while – anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes – until I feel that energy dissipating. I don’t usually look for backgrounds or set up shots in advance, but I’ll move around the corner and that’s where I start responding to the other elements – interesting people, actions, gestures, juxtapositions.

Whatever motivated me to take a picture though, what really gets me excited afterwards are the surprises. There’s a ton of information packed in that little viewfinder frame and no time to process it all in the moment. You can only be consciously aware of so much. You just have to go for it. It’s amazing sometimes the things that will show up in a picture that I had no awareness of at the time. They’re often accidents but I’d like to think there’s a subconscious element going on as well.

Phoblographer: What is the best accident you’ve encountered in one of your photographs?

Sebastian: One that comes to mind is a picture I have of a woman crossing an intersection in Coney Island. I only have a vague memory of taking it but I saw her floppy hat and the fact that she was holding a cigarette and just tried to frame it up as best I could as I was crossing opposite her. When I got the film back there was a kid with a bright orange beach ball floating on his toes and another kid with a matching ball over the woman’s other shoulder, with a tiny plume of smoke streaming out of her mouth… I certainly wasn’t consciously aware of all that when I took the picture but I feel like there was some awareness of a harmony or an order in the frame when I clicked the shutter.

Phoblographer: Do you think it’s important to have an online presence in photography? Would you shoot if no one ever saw your photographs?

Sebastian: I would definitely shoot if no one saw them, because I did for a long time! I think the good thing about having an online presence is being able to communicate with and learn from other photographers. Particularly through Instagram, I’ve been introduced to and inspired by a lot of great work, and gotten a ton of feedback on my own photos. There are certainly downsides. It’s easy to get caught up in how many likes or followers you have, and to value your photos based on the response they get. I also think that the reaction to work on Instagram can be skewed. Sometimes really simple photos with a bit of a “wow” factor, like a clever visual pun, or an aggressive in-your-face kind of photo, get a disproportionate response, whereas a subtle and more photographically interesting picture just won’t come across the same way when it’s 2 inches wide.

But I think the single best thing about social media is the opportunity to turn online connections into real-life ones. Through Instagram and Facebook I joined a street photography collective that meets in person regularly, I’ve shared work with some photographers I look up to, and I’ve found out about events that gave me the opportunity to meet my heroes. So it would be worth it to me for those reasons alone.

Phoblographer: Do you have any street photography taboos or hard and fast rules?

Sebastian: I generally avoid taking pictures of homeless or disabled people, or people in other vulnerable situations. I think they can be exploitative, and those kinds of pictures usually don’t have very much to say. That’s not a hard and fast rule –if that’s one element in a picture with a few different things going on I might be fine with it. My hard and fast rule is not to hurt anyone with the camera. I care about my subjects and I’m not out there to make fun of them. That’s not to say I can’t make a funny or whimsical picture, but it’s never at anyone’s expense. We’re all in this thing together.

“My work is intense and engaging, and there’s certainly a problem-solving element to it, but otherwise not really any creative aspect. So photography provides that dimension to my life. The other thing is that I’m an introvert, whereas my job requires me to be very extroverted. So I think street photography, which is solitary and contemplative most of the time, allows me to recharge and be alone with my thoughts.”

Phoblographer: Have you ever had any bad encounters when shooting? What were they like? How did you deal with them?

Sebastian: Every street photographer has the occasional bad encounter. Though I will say, it’s far more common to have an overtly positive reaction – like someone smiling, chatting me up or even thanking me – than a bad one. Nobody seems to talk about that though! My general approach is to be polite but assertive. I know I’m not out there to harm anyone, so I try to convey that. If someone approaches me aggressively or yells at me, I don’t escalate, but I let them know that I have the right to do what I’m doing. The toughest part is getting back in the groove after a bad encounter. It can take a while. I don’t really have a great solution for that yet.

Phoblographer: Where can we find more of your work? Any upcoming plans or things you’d like to talk about?

Sebastian: I post new work regularly on Instagram and on my website. I’m also part of a group called the NYC Street Photography Collective, and we’re doing our first group show at the Living Gallery in Brooklyn later this month (January 27-29), which I’m thrilled about. It’s a talented group of photographers and I’m honored to be included with them. We also put out a quarterly zine, which I’m sure will continue this year.

As far as upcoming plans, my main goal is to be out there on the street even more this year and keep pushing myself. I have a few zine ideas of my own that have been floating around, so hopefully those will come together soon. And – I think partly because I’m having film withdrawal – I’m itching to try my hand at large format photography. So you may see me with a 4×5 over my shoulder soon.