Should We Embrace Staged Street Photography?

I know it happens. You know it happens. We all know it happens. Is it time for us to start embracing staged street photography?

Staged street photography is often given the label of being a stain on the craft. Most people in the scene are busting their ass just to get an authentic, candid frame. Some, however, are bringing a preconceived concept to life and passing it off as something it isn’t. One of the issues with staged street photography is that it’s very difficult to prove. It’s always going to be your word against theirs (unless of course, you have proof, but that’s not easy to obtain). But whilst we may agree that we can’t eradicate the fraudulent approach to street photography, is there a possibility we are able to embrace it?

What Is Staged Street Photography?

The definition of staged street photography may differ depending on who you speak to. The hardened street photographer may suggest any kind of manipulation (including editing) of reality is staged and not authentic. Whereas the more relaxed street photographer may see it as a scene that is played out with ‘actors’, the positioning is set up and then the image is sold as a completely off-the-cuff street photograph. Personally speaking, I learn more towards the latter definition of the term.

It’s not surprising that this winds people up. Dishonesty within a field built around reality is completely unacceptable. As artists who are curious about the human form and its behaviors, we want to know that what we are consuming is true. If it says beef on the menu we don’t expect to be secretly served horse meat!

Iconic Staged Street Photography

Fan Ho, one of the greatest photographers of a generation has often come under scrutiny for his street photography. Known for his minimalist designs and creative use of light, Ho has become one of the most imitated street photographers on the planet. Here is one of his most iconic images…

As you can see from the comment section the authenticity is being questioned. This photo has often been debated. Rumor has it is that the subject is actually a relative of Ho’s. As for the wall, it was fully lit when the frame was taken.

The problem is, at least in this particular post, there is no mention of the possibility of it being staged. If it is, in fact, a fake street photograph, then it is setting a standard that isn’t true to life. This causes friction and instability within the field.

What Do the Pros Think?

Not everyone has an issue with setting up photographs in this way. A street photographer who is often asked whether or not his images are staged is Jonathan Higbee. His amazing series ‘Coincidences’ is so good that some people want to know if it’s genuine or not. Jonathan states all his images are true but he understands why people ask the question. I’m inclined to believe him because I’ve seen the kind of hard work and persistence he puts in to getting those kinds of shots.

Last year, whilst on the Tony & Chelsea Northup show, Jonathan was asked if he thought staged shots were a bad thing. Here’s what he had to say…

I have nothing against it at all. Being okay with it is controversial. I think you have a little more leeway in street than documentary photography, but I think staging is fine.

However, when I spoke to the founder of iN-PUBLiC, Nick Turpin, he had a different perspective on the topic…

When I’m asked about staged Street Photography I laugh because there really is no such thing. When you interact with the scene you are observing, it becomes something else altogether. If I staged my Street Photography, my projects would be shot in a day not a year…but they would be meaningless to me. In photography in general staging is a common practice but I can only achieve the meaning and significance I’m looking for in my own photography if the picture is shot candidly. The power of a good street photograph comes from that moment you see it and you think ‘that’s amazing!’ A staged moment can never have that power of authenticity.

Why I Think We Should Aim to Embrace it

As I said, my main issue is dishonesty. However, I don’t have an issue with open and transparent staged street photography. I think there is a talent to drafting up a concept, scouting out a location, finding people to make it feel genuine and then taking the shot. To me, this is still art, and it isn’t something that should be looked down upon.

Now you may agree, but also suggest that this kind of work belongs in a different genre of photography, and not ours. I get that, but here is the reality…

Whether we’re open to inviting the approach into the forum or not, people will continue to set up shots and tell us they’re genuine. Maybe, if we were more accepting of the fact, then people would feel more comfortable with admitting the image was staged. We could even give it its own category at the major festivals and competitions – ‘Best Staged Shot’. I think that would go down much better, rather than constant speculation of certain photographers’ works.

Making Our World a Better Place

Naturally, I know this would not completely remove the dishonesty of some; I’m not a utopian. For those who do continue to be fraudulent in their approach, you’re doing a discredit to those who built a scene that prides itself on telling the story of the real world. Shame on you for that.

But if you and everyone else are prepared to move in a more positive direction when it comes to setting up your shots, maybe our little old world of street photography could be an even happier place to live in.

Images included in the article are screenshots taken from YouTube and Instagram. Lead image by Robert Doisneau – screenshot taken from Oddee

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram