Cam Crosland’s Fishing With Dynamite Shows An Empathetic Approach To Flash Street Photography

All images by Cam Crosland. Used with permission.

Cam Crosland is a street photographer based in London. Their work has been described as both poetic and powerful — a description we are in complete agreement with. Through their series Fishing With Dynamite, Cam adopts a gentler, more empathetic approach to flash street photography.

While their identity does not define the caliber of their work, Cam’s path to identifying as non-binary has certainly played its role in the way their work is produced. Equally, street photography has played a role in helping Cam on their path of self-exploration.

We spoke to Cam to talk about their amazing work and life as a non-binary street photographer.

Phoblographer: You graduated in History & Political Science. From there you moved on to be a software tester. How did someone, who on paper, was without a creative background, get hooked on street photography?

CC: I chose my degree because I’m fascinated by people and what makes them tick, and because I’m an introvert and was shy I found it a lot easier to study dead famous people on a grand scale! Now I photograph live people — there’s definitely a pattern!

My creative background was always there…literally in the background! I remember when I was really tiny, discovering the buzz I got from staring at certain patterns and shapes and colors; as an adult I still feel that buzz when I look at abstract art. Although I dropped art at 13, as a teenager I used to get books from the library and pore over the life and work of artists like Edvard Munch, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Rothko. I love Munch in particular: I’m mesmerized by the composition, texture and colors of his work, the symbolism and the intense emotional quality. I feel a real connection – like he was somehow painting how I feel. I felt a connection, as though these artists were my friends. I have always wanted to make work that somehow feels like those paintings make me feel. The difference being that I’m using a camera, not paint.

Street Photography has pretty much saved my life!

I remember discovering the work of Aaron Siskind in 2010, and he formed the “bridge” for me to switch my mindset from wanting to paint to being happy using a camera. Then in Autumn 2010, I discovered the Street Photography Now Project on Flickr. I realized that there was a community of other people like me! I began wanting to make pictures every day, and when I couldn’t go out to do that, I would spend time voraciously learning from other people’s work, from feedback on my own, and studying. For me, it feels natural to pick up books containing work by Walker Evans, Saul Leiter, or Daido Moriyama one minute, then a book on Edward Hopper, Rothko or Kusama the next, and then to gaze at paintings with my face inches from the canvas. I like to ingest as much art as possible, in a variety of forms!

Phoblographer: How has street photography helped you to evolve as a person and to connect to your own identity?

CC: Well, in a way, Street Photography has pretty much saved my life! The drive to create – and having an outlet for it – has kept me going through a really long period of chronic illness.

My philosophy for life in general is to squeeze every opportunity out of my circumstances, to work with what I have, rather than focusing on what I haven’t got. When I first started Street Photography, my opportunities to go out and shoot were very limited, so I couldn’t afford to be picky about lighting conditions. Using ambient light was a very important value for me, as was being able to make art anywhere, rather than having to go to an exotic or conventionally “interesting” location.

After many years of feeling out of control and overtaken by life’s events, things began to change for me at the start of 2017. I took a conscious, deliberate decision to embark on using flash as a way of taking control and being more pro-active in my picture taking, and at the same time celebrating my new-found zest for life… and thus my long-term series Fishing with Dynamite was born.

I actually hate hurting or upsetting people, so I try to read body language carefully and practice humane flash

I’ve always made pictures that come out of my life experiences and emotions – who I am as a person and it’s not by chance that I started using flash at a key time in my non-binary gender transition. Making changes to my body and appearance finally allowed me to feel comfortable and confident in myself and to feel confident with being close to people – and comfortable with being seen by people. After taking control of my life by legally changing my name – and finally gaining a sense of ownership over my life, picking up a flash enabled me to take control artistically, by allowing me to go out and pro-actively make pictures in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

Phoblographer: From your personal experience, what’s life like in the street photography community for a person who openly identifies as non-binary?

CC: In a word, it’s … interesting! Most of all, the street photography community is one of the first places where I came out because it’s made up of people who love diversity and are more than averagely accepting. Street photographers tend to be interested in the world around them and people in particular – especially distinctive, unique and unusual people! Combine that with the tendency of many street photographers to relate to a sense of being an outsider, and it’s a recipe for a very warm and accepting community.

Something I find fascinating but also a little uncomfortable is the “Women versus Men in Street photography” thing. Intellectually, it’s a very interesting subject, and I’ve written about it extensively in an article called “Where are all the non-binary street photographers”. The whole “debate” is so interesting because it really digs into “what makes people tick”, comparing and contrasting individual experiences and questioning how they fit into the “big picture”. It opens up the question of what makes us the artists we are. My discomfort is because the whole premise and language of the discussion does make it sound like, as a non-binary person, I don’t exist! But I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting my work in a Spotlight Session at Street London 18, and the previous year I had the opportunity of answering questions on this subject and others at LSPF, so clearly my existence and perspective are welcomed!

In a nutshell, I feel incredibly loved and accepted in the street photography community but, like society in general, everyone is on a learning curve with regard to trans and non-binary people.

Phoblographer: Debunk this statement – “Street Photographers who use flash are aggressive, lack empathy and don’t respect their subjects.”

CC: Well, that is a very popular misconception for sure!

The name Fishing With Dynamite comes from a combination of things: my increased sense of power and control in making pictures, for one. But also, it’s a reference to this popular notion that flash photography is always intrinsically brash and aggressive – that producing an image with visual punch is the same as actually punching someone in the face. While I love a dramatic image, I’m interested in the subtleties of what flash can do.

Yeah, there’s an adrenaline hit with flash for sure and I’m pretty addicted to it!

I actually hate hurting or upsetting people, so I try to read body language carefully and practice humane flash. It’s not that much of an extra effort, seeing as body language is one of the things I’m interested in observing and trying to capture anyway. Inevitably, I do surprise people sometimes but that’s not the purpose or point of what I’m trying to do.

Most of all for me, it’s about energy. And people tend to pick up on energy, especially when it is positive or negative. So, when I’m shooting, I want to be projecting a warmth and positive energy, so that, as much as possible, if people notice me they are not feeling threatened by my presence.

Phoblographer: I’ve always imagined there’s a thrill to flash street photography. Now that you’ve established yourself in this approach, is it difficult to get excited about shooting in just natural light?

CC: Yeah, there’s an adrenaline hit with flash for sure and I’m pretty addicted to it! And yet, there are times when natural light is so beautiful or dramatic that it just takes my breath away, or it just feels right to work flash-less for a bit. When that happens, I remind myself that flash is ultimately just a tool and I need to be honest with myself about whether the flash is adding value to what I’m trying to do creatively. Sometimes it feels right to make a deliberate choice to put the flash away and go with the flow, to see where the natural lighting conditions take me creatively and enjoy the serendipity. When that switch flips in my brain, “there are no flash pictures”, to borrow from the famous Garry Winogrand quote!

If anything, working with flash has taught me to be even more aware of the lighting conditions around me than I was before, and that has made me even more appreciative of natural light.

Phoblographer: Can you share with us a time in which you’ve faced confrontation and what your approach is to diffuse the situation?

CC: . There have only been two occasions ever where I’ve been touched aggressively. The first was a woman who whacked my arm. After “did you just take my photo?” the next words out of her mouth were “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to hit you, I just needed to stop you before you walked away”. She was afraid of being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wanted me to delete the picture. It was clearly a genuine fear for her. I explained that I had taken the picture because of her amazing hair color, that I was just making art and that in no way did I want to make anyone afraid or unhappy. And I deleted the picture. I know some people feel very strongly about not deleting a shot – it’s a very personal choice how one deals with that. We parted on friendly terms. I really believe that a sincere compliment, not being defensive and kindness goes a long way to diffusing most situations.

I experience the world very intensely, so all the time I’m looking to express that.

The second occasion involved a guy who kicked me from behind. I could hear his footsteps stomping up behind me. I apologized for offending him and kept walking as fast as I could. Thankfully, he gave up. Stopping to talk would not have worked well. Getting away as fast as possible was the solution for that situation.

Phoblographer: What kind of subjects and scenes are you looking for when you’re wanting to light them up with your flash?

CC: I experience the world very intensely, so all the time I’m looking to express that. Often the information flooding into my senses is a source of great delight but it is also frequently uncomfortable and overwhelming… and quite often it brings me to the point of sensory overload and I have to take “time out”. Flash allows me to shed light on things both metaphorically and literally; it’s a way of highlighting not only details, colors and textures but also the gestures and interactions which grab my attention. I love the creative possibilities, the freshness and the potential for making images which are vivid, cinematic and dramatic.

I’m interested in how people express themselves through what they wear, in their expressions, body language and interactions. And I want to show some context – to give a sense of how a person fits into their surroundings – or stands out from them.

My vision was to share my perception of myself and of the world, at a time when I was just beginning to articulate my non-binary identity.

I will shoot anywhere and everywhere I can but my favorite place to shoot is around where my grandma used to live, right in the heart of central London. I love the mix of tourists and people at play, intermingled with busy and sometimes jaded locals going about their daily business. As a young flaneur accompanied by my grandma, I often used to stroll around Covent Garden, Leicester Square, China Town, Soho and Oxford Street. Not that I knew at the time that there was a fancy French word for it though! Decades later, apart from my age, the difference now is that I have a camera. Back then, I just took pictures with my eyes. More and more I realize just how much I’m still drawn to the same subjects – I am going back to my roots, as well as pushing forward with something new.

Phoblographer: When people think of flash street photography, the first name you’ll hear is Bruce Gilden. Are there any others whose work you find both educational and inspiring?

CC:  As regards to whose flash work I find the most inspiring… the main stand-outs for me are Johan Jehlbo for the beautiful, almost painterly, artistry of his images and the Bragdon brothers for the sheer drama of their images, and astounding technical precision. And then two names who maybe wouldn’t immediately stand out as flash shooters: Larry Hallegua and Michele Liberti. I love the whimsical quirkiness of Larry’s work and the cheeky full-of-life feeling in Michele’s work. They both use flash in way that is completely seamless and integrated with their non-flash work – it’s just another facet of how they work, but all the more impressive for it.

Phoblographer: You published a zine entitled Playing with Perception. Tell us about the creative vision for it and what motivated you to take this approach.

CC: Playing With Perception, which I published in 2016, is a black and white zine containing a mixture of street-ish photos and some digital art self-portraits. I wanted to make something which had a “low-fi” vibe but also a feeling of drama. My vision was to share my perception of myself and of the world, at a time when I was just beginning to articulate my non-binary identity. I wanted to create a sequence of images which flowed as some kind of “story”, holding the tension between looking both inside and outside myself, between large and small, familiar and ambiguous.

Phoblographer: It’s clear your journey in street photography is aligned with the journey of your exploration of self; what’s the next chapter for Cam Crosland?

CC:  Right now, I plan to continue creating my Fishing With Dynamite zine series. I released zine #1 China Town last Autumn and am just releasing #2, which is called ZEST. My plan is to produce two new Fishing With Dynamite zines per year. The next in the pipeline are one about London’s “Theatreland” district and another about sugar consumption, which will be called Eye Candy. I would love another chance to go back to New York and make a zine there, but we’ll see!

Zines are a good way to get work “out there” on a regular basis and to create something self-contained, with a “story” in its own right but which also forms part of a greater whole. All the while, I’m trying to dig deeper into the subjects and themes which interest me and build up sequences of individual pictures, similar to the way Rothko built up layers in his paintings so that the intensity and depth gradually increase.

To keep up to date with Cam, be sure to check out their website.