Last Updated on 09/22/2018 by Mark Beckenbach
With its rising popularity and influx of millions of images, there is no escaping all that is wrong with street photography.
We recently ran a story covering the demise of the popular street photography collective, In-PUBLiC. The community became divided over one simple photo and things became quite heated. But whilst dummies are being spat out on the floor, there are far bigger issues destroying this craft.
Brace yourself. Here comes a rant.
It Takes Years to Start Getting Street Photography Right
Several years ago, just as I was starting out in photography, I had no clue what street photography was. Whilst I recognised that I was most content when roaming freely and making photographs of everyday life, I couldn’t put a name on it.
I recall asking one of my earliest tutors, “What kind of photographer am I?” With a slight smile on his face, he replied, “You’re a street photographer. Just not a very good one!” He was right: I was terrible.
There was a part of me that already knew my standard, hence why for many years I didn’t share any of my photographs publicly. I didn’t want the world to know how bad I was. Even today, after seven years of shooting street, I only have two or three images that I would take to a desert island with me. I wish the same could be said for all these new street photographers.
Street Photography has become “me me me!”
Patience seems to no longer be a popular practice in today’s world. Unsurprisingly this mentality has leaked into the street photography world too. It’s as though a person buys their first camera, takes their first photograph, sets up an Instagram account and shares it with the world all on the same day. Instead of first taking time to understand how their camera works and studying the practice of street photography, they would much rather learn all the relevant hashtags to use on social media.
Read a book? Nah, they haven’t got time for that. That will eat into their time spent following thousands of accounts so they can then unfollow them two days later!
There is a toxic mentality constantly growing in street photography. There is a thought process that suggests that rather than being a good street photographer, the preference is to be a popular street photographer instead.
Social Media is Killing Street Photography
Social media is here to stay. It is the driving force of today’s society in all walks of life. The way in which we approach it however, has become increasingly damaging to the quality of street photography.
At the time of writing this, there are currently 48 million images using the hashtag #streetphotography on Instagram. For those wanting to be ‘Insta famous’, they have to play by the rules of the game. This means posting multiple times a day every day of the year.
For anybody who is serious about street photography, you will know that kind of hit rate is almost impossible when it comes to creating compelling visual stories on the street. The consequence of this is that in order to meet your daily quota, you sacrifice quality and give in to quantity.
I look at some of the more popular Instagram accounts and nearly explode with frustration. Some of them are merely people with a good camera and good marketing, with minimal street photography skills. And all those newbies are going to learn their skills from these ‘influencers’. As a result, we have this copy and paste mentality with the main goal being to get as many likes as possible.
How about reading up on Robert Frank or Vivian Maier? Most of these newbies wouldn’t even know who they are, but would still claim to be serious street photographers – “Dude, have you seen how many likes my photo got!?”
CGI Street Photography!?
For those who do not know what CGI is, simply put it is the process of creating images through a computer. So, if you don’t care one ounce about doing some real work, like walking the streets for nine hours, don’t worry. Now you can just sit at your computer and create street photography in the comfort of your own home.
“Surely people would not do that and pass it off a street photography!” Wrong.
A big part of ‘getting your name out there’ is getting your work shown on feature accounts. Some of these accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers. Like them or not, they are big deal in the current climate of street photography. These accounts claim to be supporters of street photography. So, imagine my surprise when I see the accounts sharing CGI images to their loyal followers, and passing them off as authentic street photography.
Bear in mind that those who roamed the streets before us have sacrificed both their time and safety (Bruce Gilden has taken a punch or two) in order to promote and maintain the craft we love. The fact that certain sections of today’s generation are staining this art form with these fraudulent photographs is nothing short of a disgrace!
What is the Cure?
Sadly the issue is too large and unmanageable for it to ever go away completely. The first step would be to educate where possible as much as possible. Rather than shame the newbies, steer them in the right direction. The second step would be to get your own social media house in order. This means leaving all those ‘pat on the back’ street photography groups. Only follow accounts that you think have genuine quality. Personally, I now only follow accounts which I feel I can actually learn something from.
Finally, and most importantly, remind yourself it is not all doom and gloom. For all the rubbish, there is plenty of amazing and inspiring street photography still being created.
Excuse me for being cynical. Sometimes it’s just good to get things off your chest.