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Daily Life Hums Along in Tokyo

Street Photography Examined

“What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question the tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person?”

–Dr. Cornell West

I have long tried to get at the underlying philosophy of Street Photography. What is it exactly that makes a normal and decent human being (wait, I’m talking about photographers, i.e. not normal, decent, nor probably human) strap on a camera and and carry ten to twenty pounds of lenses, film (or ahem…memory cards) and other essentials around in a bag to take pictures of perfect strangers on the streets of anytown, anycountry, earth?

Because it’s expensive, it’s intrusive, and well, there is something there that bothers me. Is street photography an ethic, a lifestyle, or merely a moment? Is it exploitative to photograph people without explicit permission? What do you do when people say NO! What if means a paycheck? Do it anyway? Or figure out a work-around?

  • Expense

Unless you are a Paparazzi trying to get a Lindsay Lohan nipslip, hack Scarlett Johansson’s phone, or you are on the ground with MSF in Mogadishu, your brand of Street Photography probably doesn’t pay all that well. Sure you may get a lot of attention on Flickr and Facebook and your Google analytics is off the chart for your hardcore, gritty, high contrast portrayal of Seoul, New York or Sydney, but how many jobs have you gotten from it? So, it’s a very expensive hobby and more likely a way to bond with other street photographers in the area. Either way, you’re in the red. And if you shoot digital, doubly so. Why? because digital photography costs more. A lot more. Ask your Macbook.

  • Intrusion

Most photographers worth their salt know that within the public domain anything goes. Almost. In the United States, legally you can take a photo of anything happening anywhere outside. Basically. Unless it happens to be a potential terrorist target. Like a building. Or a bridge. That would make New York–and in the You-Are-Either-With-Us-Or-Against-Us modern age, most modern cities–a photography-free zone. In Japan, shooting with a tripod requires a similar permit as that of a commercial shoot and will be vigorously challenged by any and all senior citizen security guards with no real authority. Police across the globe can be vague about legalities, insulting, and even violent toward photographers who are demonstrating their right to record. And the average citizens you turn your lens on can all too quickly turn very ugly. Why is taking a photograph of people in public illegal in certain countries? Why is it that some people tend to hide or become aggressive when their pictures are taken? Is it the paranoid thought that this could end up making them look bad on the internet somewhere? The primitive fear that it may capture a part of their soul, never to be returned? Or something altogether different? Rather is it a moral question? Or a civil liberties issue? What about Google Earth? Satellites in general?

  • The Kernel of Doubt

Photojournalists help us see the world while reporting the news. War photographers risk their lives in the understanding that they can take a bullet for being in the middle of the action. Artists help us make sense of the chaos that clashes all around us. What is the legacy of the street photographer? What does he or she get from loitering in crowded public spaces in countries with low crime rates reeling off frame after frame of girls holding umbrellas? Chain-smoking touts with Bowie hair? Homeless in parks? What is the impetus for standing around holding a machine to your eye and clicking a button to record a fraction of the present, only to go home, unload the camera in the dark, develop, fix, water bath, hang, dry, cut and sleeve the negatives, to eventually hold them up to the light and print one, two or maybe five images? What process is served? What do we get from recording one particular moment in a sea of infinite times? Is this system an analog memory backup? Or do we merely seek kudos from peers and fans? Is the world so big and flush with memorable scenes that in order to grasp at understanding it we need to try to catalog its chaos?

Or is it capturing a specific scene? For many westerners, the neon lights and bleached blonde kewpie-doll gyaru’s of Shibuya seems to possess some kind of neo-modern allure. What Koichi Iwabuchi, says of “western observers of Japan…shared ontological assumptions about the West and the exotic but inferior Other, Japan. They were fascinated with some exotic parts of Japan, and lamented the loss of ‘authentic’ Japanese tradition in the process of modernisation.” Are we post-racist or is this still relevant?

  • Street Photography Examined

Can you define it? Or define what it isn’t? Is it color? Or black and white? Grain or noise? Sex? Exoticism? And why am I so addicted to it? Why does it make me feel guilty? And similarly so satisfied?

Ultimately if I am not hurting anyone, does it matter?


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  1. Great write up. You’ve put all my thoughts into words. I feel the way you describe.
    For me I guess there are two motivations for shooting street photography. The first is my initial motivation which was to offer up a view of everyday life people seemed to ignore. You could show someone your unique viewpoint of their neighborhood and they wouldn’t recognize it. Show them a few pictures of the same area and you might coax them out of their stupor. I.e they may choose to pay attention to their surroundings and re engage.
    The second motivation is the value to me of these types of images as time goes on. I find looking through books of street photos taken 20+ years ago from any place interesting. A recent 20+ history gives you a little glimps into what was and what is now and helps contextualize the now.
    Images taken now by others of the area in which I live are rarely interesting to me unless the photographer has an eye / style that appeals to me. But if I look at the same area 20 years ago I’m fascinated.
    Street photography will rarely bring any money to those that shoot it but it can be a rewarding exercise in connecting with others via your point of view and leaving some kind of history. Street photography can be a lonely sport where you get to meet interesting characters you would normally never encounter.

  2. Well, I was thinking of some of our misadventures together when I wrote it, so thank you!

    Street photography will rarely bring any money to those that shoot it but it can be a rewarding exercise in connecting with others via your point of view and leaving some kind of history.

    I agree. It’s how I met you and all of your rambunctious ne’er-do-wells! I also like the part of your comment about how we view neighborhoods. For example, walking around any urban Tokyo living area can be alternately fascinating and dull as drywall – the smell of roasting fish, the alley cats nesting on ivy-covered walls, the dilapidated buildings we all are mysteriously drawn to – to a Tokyo-ite are probably as horrifically boring as someone reading Proust in a fake French accent aloud on PBS, and they wonder why all of these mundane things have any appeal to the shooter.

    I guess one of the things that bothers me would be someone apeing the style of you Motion-id, for ex. asking advice and buying similar equipment to repeat results and garner social media “fame” rather than wandering around and experimenting solo style in the outlying areas that often produces nothing so much as mistake after mistake, until, like with Jon’s obsession with his GOD you get something more than just a flat representation of a pointless object. Your work in the Kanto region has been excellent to this effect.

  3. Great article ! I believe this is link with pleasure, pleasure generated by this whole process, this is bringing us more than the result, the photograph, the print and whatever you do with it afterwards.
    One afternoon, try to go for some street photography with a camera not loaded for half of the time, then put in the fridge for one year the remaining few rolls exposed, and the same week, use your remaining available time in your darkroom to print print negatives from one of your friends instead of yours.

    Do you still like it ?

  4. Good idea. There are always new ways to see if we choose to do so. Being locked in a very specific range of subject matter canbe viewed as constricting or liberating, depends on your point of view. Hope you’re doing well. Send me a link to recent work!

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