Street photography is something that I’ve found myself always diving into when I travel, even if I don’t really consider myself a street photographer.
Photography and travel are so intertwined that it’s almost impossible for some of us to tell if we travel to take photos, or we take photos to travel. In my case, however, it’s often the former, especially when it comes to street photography. While I don’t really consider myself adept at street photography, it’s almost impossible not to do when you’re somewhere new or haven’t been in a long time. When you’re exploring a city that’s different from where you live (with a camera in tow), of course you end up with a collection of street photographs, even without the mindset that you’re doing it deliberately.
But when I travel, that’s exactly what happens. I want to do it deliberately, and I feel the need to do it as best as I can. Sure, it’s most likely because of the rush of being somewhere new. Everything is suddenly fresh, interesting, different, and worth a snap or two. And it would be a shame if I don’t end up with at least a handful of street photos that could be good enough as records of how I saw the city with my own creative vision. Appreciation for, and looking differently at, the familiarity and mundanity of one’s own city are crucial to street photography, but I am yet to learn how to apply this to my own little attempts when travel just isn’t possible. It has to begin somewhere, like having the interest to get out there and practice to start with. That is what travel usually does for me.
But if I want to be really specific about it, here are the seven things I realized traveling did for my street photography, which I hope to keep me going even if I’m stuck in my city.
1. It got me started shooting again after a long “drought” period.
My serious pursuit of photography actually began with street photography, as I liked the idea that there’s always something happening out there that I can capture. It thrilled me to be out in the streets like a tourist in my own city. But the interest waned when I found myself prowling the same spots over and over. Everything became too familiar to me as a result. People even started “critiquing” my work, saying that I always took photos of spots and stories that everyone else is taking photos of. So eventually, I started getting bored and did it less. Travel has always been an instant cure for that. The thought of prowling cities different from what I’m used to always gets me back to shooting street more mindfully. As a result, I end up happy with some street snaps that make me want to keep going once I’m back home.
2. It helped me be more adventurous in discovering new places.
Traveling also helped me learn that each city never runs out of places to discover and stories to capture. Cities are always changing, evolving, and growing, so there’s often something new to discover in a few years’ time. Even in the cities that I’ve been to several times, there’s always something new to my eyes after a couple of years. So I began to tell myself, ‘never let your sense of adventure end once you’re done with your trip’. It has inspired me to look for new places in my own city and its surrounds. I now want to start exploring the nooks and crannies around my own neighborhood that I never once thought interesting enough to photograph.
3. It trained me to look differently at what I see around me.
Among the first things I learned is that street photography is often a matter of story or perspective. This is why a city can be home to many street photographers yet their works are mostly different from each other. While each city has its own distinct character, without having a perspective of your own, it’s still possible to fall into the trap of photographing the same cliche places and spaces that we typically see on travel sites or social media. My recent travels to Singapore and Penang — places that I have visited many times already — pushed me to observe not as a tourist anymore, but as a storyteller. This has allowed me to take photos that I feel are mostly unique to me, even when I’m not traveling.
4. It made me go out of my comfort zone and approach people for street portraits (or at least get closer to my subjects).
I’ve always been interested in doing street portraits but never really felt comfortable approaching complete strangers. But when I’m traveling, I somehow feel more curious and compelled to take more photos of people, even if that means being just a little bold to approach people or take closer shots. It may not always be the case, but I’ve found that even smiling and simply asking permission when I’m unsure made people more willing and at ease to be photographed.
5. It gave me the perfect excuse to shoot with a prized film that I’ve been saving for “special occasions” or photo opportunities.
Because I mostly shoot with film, I have a handful of rolls that are reserved for special occasions and photo opportunities — travel is definitely one of them. So when I’m on a trip, I am more brave and excited to use these films and end up with a handful of street photos that I really like and find memorable. The most recent of these are from a test roll of Astrum 400 that I shot during a recent trip to Singapore.
6. It helps me meet and connect with other photographers from the places I visit.
This I think applies not only to street photography but photography in general. If I have photographer friends or contacts in a place that I plan to visit, I make it a point to meet up with them. I ask them for tips on where to shoot, where to buy films, or simply just catch up and do a quick photowalk. Not only has it enriched my photography as a whole, but also gets me access to spots and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I didn’t meet them.
7. It got me excited and hopeful about street photography itself.
Put all these realizations together and it all boils down to this: travel simply makes street photography easier and more natural for me. Each time I come home from a trip and look back at my photos that I really like, I feel more excited and hopeful about my progress (if any) in street photography. It makes me more eager to see if anything I learned or tried while on the trip would help me capture stories unfolding in more familiar territory. These alone are enough for me to keep making street photography a good part of my trips. And I’m already excited for the next one!