COVID-19 Proves How Invaluable Street Photography Is to Society

Street photography is seldom free of criticism, but during a global pandemic, we should be grateful it exists.

Tired, cliche, easy: these are just some of the words used to describe street photography. Those who practice candid shooting are often labeled as voyeurs, loners, and creeps. I believe no other community in the industry has to defend itself more than street photography. But, when a global epidemic comes along, and the world as we know it gets flipped on its axis, it’s not portrait or landscape photography people turn to for visual documentation — it’s street photography.

Street Photography and Covid-19

It’s difficult to imagine a point in time when the impact of COVID–19 only exists in history. People are losing their lives, and there’s little data to suggest it will end anytime soon. Alongside that is the impact our current circumstances are having on our freedom. Justified or not, our liberties have been stripped in less than two months. There’s no clear path or time frame as to when we’ll get them back. In some countries, the military roams the streets and mans the skies, ensuring people are obedient to the new rules governments have instituted. No millennial, nor most of the generation before them, have lived in the world we live in now.

“Why do you need a photographic record of these testing times? Two reasons: evidence and education.”

Although this will exist in our minds forever, practices such as photography will be at the forefront of ensuring humanity never forgets — even after people alive today have long left this earth.

Some may argue it’s photojournalism or documentary photography that will serve the biggest purpose, rather than street photography. Now’s not the time to debate what type of photograph or series falls into each genre. Instead, we should acknowledge that all three inspire each other; each style plays its role in capturing the mood and mindset of society at present

Why do you need a photographic record of these testing times? There are two reasons: evidence and education.

Photo: Mo Gelber

A Photographic Record

It’s too soon to understand how COVID-19 could have been prevented or better managed. Governments around the world are controlling their societies with different strategies, and it’s unclear which approach is most effective. But time will serve us well, and reflection will lead to understanding. Photographs, as simple as they seem, remain one of the most powerful sources of reflection — emotionally and mentally. They allow us to understand a point in time better than we did in the moment. Each person creating street photography right now is contributing to a huge archive that will serve well in years and decades to come. An often looked-down upon genre of photography has shown its true value, while other genres fall at the first hurdle of COVID-19.

“Because one day, there’s going to be a photo book about COVID-19. And inside it will be a range of street photographs.”

I’m not looking down on portrait or still life photography, for example: far from it. But, in the eight years I’ve practiced street photography, I’ve often felt like I had to defend its right to be accepted as a legitimate form of photography. Right now, nobody wants to see your abstract urban geometry (as good as it may be). They want to see how nations around the world are handling and coping with the biggest global crisis of our generation.

Photo: Mo Gelber

The Work of Street Photographers

Personally speaking, I’ve not been able to get out as much as I would want with my camera. I currently find myself stuck in Colombia, South America. Closing down an economy in a developing country leads to a host of issues, including an increase in crime. With that in mind, I stay at home for the most part and don’t take my camera out with me when I leave the house. People are hungry here, and the price of life devalues in a country where inhabitants have to take desperate measures to survive.

But, aside from me, there are many street photographers in their respective countries, ensuring they capture all that is happening.

Mo Gelber, a street photographer in New York, is documenting how the city is doing its best to manage, being one of the most impacted locations in the world. Shai Ashkenazi, has opted for a more dramatic, metaphorical documentation of the isolation society is having to endure. Anna Dickson, another New York-based creative, uses street photography to highlight how one of the bustling cities of the world has become a ghost town almost overnight. Many hard-working street photographers are on the streets as we speak, creating images while doing their best to keep safe. Am I suggesting they’re frontline workers? Of course not. But their role is invaluable in the present and the future.

Street Photography Deserves Respect

So, while many like to mock street photography, labeling it as “something anyone with a camera can pick up and do,” maybe we can be more mindful of its influence in the world. And how without it, people would have little clue as to how challenging it was for society in the year 2020. There’s going to be a photo book about COVID-19 one day. Inside it will be a range of street photographs, and their purpose will be more clear, as they allow people to think, feel, and connect to a time impossible to describe only with words.

Lead image by Mo Gelber. Used with permission.