Some will say that a picture should need no caption, that it should stand on its own. It is true, in some cases, that a photograph can stand on its own and need no caption, or description. In many, I would suggest most, instances; however, some complementary text can be very important. Our own personal experiences play a large part in how we perceive visual imagery. A photo of Birkenau has a very different meaning to someone who is Jewish than to a Christian or an Atheist. A different meaning still to those who are older vs. those who are younger. We are informed by our own history. I understand the particular areas of Toronto I shoot in. I know the neighbourhoods and some of the people. Others who know the areas have a similar understanding of the pictures as I do because they have that history. What’s that old saying about walking a mile in someone’s shoes? We do not all see the same things, nor should we. What is appreciated by one person may not be by another. And there is nothing wrong with that.
As an example, I present the image below. As it stands, it is simply an image of a homeless man, apparently, mugging for the camera. Some may see it as exploitative. Others may not give it a second look because of the ubiquity of similar pictures in the street photography oeuvre. When a few lines of text are added. When the content of part of the conversation with this man is included, an entirely different message is made. Instead of just another homeless picture, we see a man who still has pride and dignity. Who retains hope and faith in humanity.
What I am getting at, in a purposefully less that direct way, is that subtlety in a photograph is not a negative. You can hit your viewer upside the head. Alternatively you can make then think about what they are seeing. At first glance, it may not seem like anything. But in the back of their mind they’re saying, “Wait, there is something more to this, what is it?” We see the obvious all around us, and not just in photography. Hyper-saturated landscapes. Otherworldly surrealistic HDR imagery. Blatantly obvious messages and clichés. We tire of these quickly. We become inured to the impact of a normal colored landscape or a well done black-and-white image with subtle gradations in tone throughout the picture instead of high contrast, harsh tones that are so often rendered today. We have come to expect the obvious, the overdone, and when we do not get it, we often dismiss the effort as lacking. In documentary and street photography, there is an art of subtlety that causes the viewer to pause and look more carefully. Or at least there should be. To look for the layers in the image and seek out the story. We come back, once again, to the idea of seeing rather than just looking. It takes something that is all too often missing in our world today. It takes patience. It takes spending more than a fleeting moment. It takes looking deeper and actually seeing what is in the image. Street photography, good street photography, is slow photography.
Most street photos, and most photographs generally, we see and show are single photos. We spy a photo-worthy moment and we capture it. In these cases, the image needs to stand on its own. Each individual photo needs to have something that causes it to click with the viewer. Whether it is humor or sadness. Whether it is irony or stark reality. Be it an individual or a group of people. Be it a picture that includes people or one that does not. It is that single moment in time that we have hoped to capture and convey to the viewer.
There is another way to think about and use street photography. That is as a body of work. There are two ways to look at the idea of a body of work. One is that it contains a series of pictures taken with a similar theme in mind. A second is that is a visual essay of a subject, or a series of visual essays on different subjects.
How do these differ? In a body of work that is made up of individual pictures that have a common theme, each picture may tell a story on its own, but together all of the pictures tell a consistent story over time. That length of time can be a few hours, a few weeks, or several years. When we talk about a body of work being made up of visual essays, we are talking about a series of pictures that individually may not tell a complete story, but when curated and collated, then viewed together do present a compelling narrative. Again, the essay can encompass any space of time, from a few minutes to years.
The first type of compilation will generally be of different subject matter but the same theme. The second will be of the same, or similar subject matter, or location but using different angles, views and perspectives.
I have mentioned the idea of context in the course of these pages and it becomes of great importance when putting together a collection of work, particularly the visual essay.
The theme and visual essay approaches to creating a collection do not, in any way, suggest that a body of work cannot be made up of individual street photos. Of course it can. And that is the way we do it most often. It is not a lot different from creating a portfolio of other types of photographs like landscapes, or wildlife, or commercial subjects like architecture, food and drink, or products. In that case; however, each image stands alone and has its own identity separate from the others. It is a representation of our best efforts in a particular genre.
When putting together a portfolio, or body of work, of street photos, the same thought processes apply as with any portfolio. Include only your strongest work. Group like images together – for example, street photos which include people, street photos which do not include people, street portraiture. I would also suggest, as much as you can, to group landscape and portrait orientation shots together to help minimize your viewer having to constantly flip the portfolio around. One key aspect of creating a portfolio is to begin and end with your strongest images. Why put some of your best work at the end of the presentation? Psychology. It’s called the Serial Position Effect and it plays on how we recognize items in a list or series. Studies have shown that we will remember the early and late items in the series and tend to forget the middle. By putting your strongest imagery at the beginning and end, you are keeping your best work in the viewer’s mind longer. Determine your best six or eight images and split those evenly at the beginning and end of the presentation.
In the themed collection or visual essay, it is the whole of the presentation that tells the story to the viewer. In these cases, the story builds as each image is viewed in sequence.
The Themed Collection
You can develop any sort of theme that you wish. Going back to the picture of the family proselytizing in Toronto that was presented in the Prologue, that particular block is where one can find people engaging in trying to spread the word of some deity or other pretty much any day of the week and time of the year. It would be possible, then, to make a themed collection of people and groups who engage in this type of activity. Street musicians or buskers could be a theme as well. Activity around street vendors could be a possible theme for a collection. It can be whatever you wish it to be. Gerry David’s Humans of Inglewood is another example of a themed collection. As are any of the other Humans of…. projects. Although, in that case, each image stands on its own as well.
Niagara Falls, Ontario is a tourist trap destination. It is about as tacky a town as you will find. And many of the people who visit fully embrace the tackiness and schlock that is The Falls. I began a collection a few years ago in Niagara Falls and it has expanded since then that I call The Tacky Tourist Series. This is the the idea I mentioned earlier as well. It is poking fun at tourists, sure. But it is also poking fun at everyone because we have all done this some time or other. We take turns taking pictures of our group, or get someone else to take a picture for us, in front of tourist attractions, or with prominent landmarks in the shot. Invariably the pictures fall into a few different categories. Perhaps the most common is the very stiff pose with the forced smile. Another is the subject that decides to ham it up for the camera. The third is the family with young children and one or more of the kids does not want to have any part of the exercise. Individually, the pictures do not tell us anything. They just look like photos of people taking photos. But as they are viewed one after the other, the pattern or theme becomes more evident. And the humor starts to be realized. We laugh at the subjects of the photos but we also, perhaps a bit sheepishly, laugh at ourselves. Below are a few shots from my growing Tacky Tourist themed collection. For this collection, I purposely use a smaller aperture (generally f/5.6 to f/8) to try and mimic, as closely as possible, what the subjects will be getting in their shots using small-sensored point-and-shoot cameras or cell phones. I, typically, do not worry about trying to isolate my subjects from their surroundings because I want to show the chaos of the setting. Often times I will consciously center my main subject, again, to try and mimic what most vacation snapshots look like.
The Visual Essay
A visual essay is a story being told with imagery rather than words. To be successful, it needs the elements of any good story; a beginning or introduction, a middle and an ending.
The beginning sets the stage for the rest of the story. It introduces the main characters and lays the groundwork that will be told over the coming pages. It gives us the who and the what, but not necessarily the how or the why. In the middle, the story unfolds. The characters are developed and we learn the how and the why. When we come to the conclusion, the tale is wrapped up. We gain some measure of closure on the characters and their activities and an outcome is determined for the story we have been reading – or in this case viewing.
How do we go about creating those components of our visual story? First you have to come up with a story you want to tell. Once you have the topic, you move on to define your main and secondary characters. With the characters determined, then will come the task of figuring out how the characters interact with each other – either directly or indirectly. After the character interaction is sorted, you can then move forward with framing the scene in which the story takes place. You now have your characters, you know how they interact and you have your setting. With those three components determined, you can now go about deciding how you want to have the story unfold.
Recall that the beginning sets the stage for the rest of the story. This is the context that I mentioned earlier. The middle part of your story is the interaction of the characters over time. What impact do the protagonists; and antagonists if there are any, have on each other, on themselves and on the setting in which the story plays out. The conclusion will show the resolution of the interplay of the characters.
There are any number of different ways to photograph your story. You want to use different camera angles and different framing to tell the story. You can use different times of day as well if that helps convey the message you are telling.
Your essay can, if you choose, be cinematic in nature. The classic film “12 Angry Men” is a cinematic masterpiece in the use of framing and lighting on the part of the director, Sidney Lumet and his DP, Boris Kaufman to convey emotion. In the early part of the film, the framing is wide and airy with fairly soft light. As the film unfolds and tension builds between the 12 men, the framing gets progressively tighter and the lighting more harsh. At the end of the film, once we have resolution and the tension is eased, the framing reverts to wider angle and the lighting softens again. The final shot is outdoors as the sun is breaking through the clouds after a rain storm. Powerful imagery.
That type of framing sequence was the inspiration for an attempted visual essay of mine. First a bit of the backstory. This particular column on a corner in Toronto dates back to the late 1800s. Over more than 125 years, people have, for one reason or another, touched and rubbed the column as they passed by. All of this contact has resulted in the column becoming worn and damaged. The column is formed from soft limestone which is easily decayed. So much so that it was in danger of collapsing. Framing jacks and I-beams were placed around it for support until the column could be repaired. I began the essay with a series of wide shots from varying angles and gradually tightened the framing to show just the column and the damage that had been done to it. In one of the wide shots, you see a woman touching the stone. My story, although not the story of the column, is unfinished. My intention was to go back on different occasions to get additional material. I contacted the company that owns the building to ask when they planned to begin repairs so I could try to plan future trips into Toronto. The company was unwilling to give me any information. The next time I went back to Toronto, not that long after I first started the project the column was boxed in and the repairs had been completed. This small project included people but the presence of people is secondary to the main character in the story which is the limestone column. The goal was to build on the Atget approach of showing the effect people have on their environment without showing the overt presence of people in the environment. The column was the main character in this story and the people were the supporting cast. The wide framing at the start sets the scene. Gradually the framing was to become tighter as the story unfolded and we would see hand after hand on the column. Tight shots showing the damage illustrate the effect of the people on the setting. The hands on the column were intended to show the interaction between the protagonist column and antagonist citizens. In the end, we see the column being repaired and know that we have a positive resolution to our story. Much of the middle part of this story is missing, sadly. The choice of black-and-white was a conscious one. Color is immaterial to the story and, in some cases, may get in the way. The unnecessary distraction of color was removed to place the concentration on the characters and the impact the supporting cast has on the main character. The tight framing of just the hands on the column would have stripped the supporting cast members of their identity. Their identity was not important, only their actions mattered.
While this project was not completely successful, it was not a total failure either. We can learn from our less successful endeavours. What did I learn in this case? That if I seek cooperation from an outside party, and they aren’t willing to provide it, that I should not delay in trying to complete my project as soon as possible. Don’t procrastinate.
Another visual essay I have begun, and that will be continued over a period of years, is on the renewal that is taking place in Detroit. It’s titled Wreck and Renewal.
A key component in creating a compelling essay is editing. I am not referring to how the pictures in the story are edited in the digital darkroom. Rather I am talking about the selection of the images that are used to tell the story. Your story needs to be tightly told. Meandering off subject or including images that do not progress the story not only do not add anything, but actually detract. They detract because your viewer begins to wonder why those were included in the first place. Their focus begins to wander just as your story has. Their interest wanes. This is particularly relevant in an instance where you are using a visual essay to try and change minds or opinion. When you are trying to convince someone through advocacy, your focus needs to be ramrod straight. You do not want to give the person or group you are trying to effect change upon any excuse not to finish your story or to feel your story was not compelling. Be ruthless.
A friend and I – Gerry David of Humans of Inglewood – were engaged in a conversation about an essay he was putting together for a competition. We were talking about the construction of the story and feedback he had received from another photographer. In the end he said ‘I have a 36 page limit, BUT I don’t need to use all those if I only have an 18 page story.’ That is the kind of awareness that is required when constructing a story which will be compelling and, if necessary, coercive to viewers.
Arguably one of the most important bodies of work every produced in book form was Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus. The images chronicled the movement of tens of thousands of migrants from the midwestern farmlands, which were hit by catastrophic drought and windstorms in the 1930s, westward to California in search of a new start and a better life. That is the theme for the collection. How Lange assembled the images is masterful.
As just one example, there is a two-page spread that, on the left, shows a father and son. They are leaned back on a bench and appear comfortable. But their facial expression belies that outward comfort. Their faces show anxiety, worry. On the facing page is a woman, the wife and mother of the man and boy. She is leaned forward. A much more active, engaged pose. But it is not a positive expression of body language. In this case, her body language is entirely consistent with her facial expression, which shows the same worry and anxiety as her husband and son.
I would recommend watching the film Grab a Hunk of Lightning, which is a documentary made later in Lange’s life and which shines a bright light on her thought process for making pictures and in compiling them to tell a story.
What visual essays do you have plans for? What will be your introduction, middle and conclusion? How will you use framing and light to assist in telling your story? How will you put the images together in your compilation?
Galia Nazaryants was born and raised in Russia, and has been living in Cyprus for 18 years. Her photographic journey began in 2003. It was only in 2014 that she decided to take it to another level but attending workshops and submitting work to competitions. She has garnered numerous prizes in the last couple years including 1st prize at the 2014 Vienna International Photo Awards. In 2015, she held her first solo exhibit in Limassol, Cyprus. From there the exhibit traveled to La Quatrieme Image in Paris. “I am an intuitive traveling and documentary photographer, looking for beauty in the streets of the world.”
Images are used with permission.
1. How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?
Street photography is anything photographed in the street and that is my main field of activity. But if you ask me if I consider myself a street photographer, I would say no. The common approach of the street photography, i.e. catching funny and ridiculous in the streets is not appealing to me. I look instead for dignity, harmony and beauty and I believe a documentary photographer suits me better.
2. What are your ethical boundaries?
I never photograph people when they obviously don’t want that. Respect is the key word. However there are a lot of situations when I simply stay unnoticed. I never try to hide intentionally, and I feel that this open approach helps me to win people’s trust. I am in the street to explore the world and take some good pictures if possible. And if it happens I am praising the moment.
3. Can you tell me more about your ‘The Way We Are’ project? What is the genesis of the project? What is the current status?
“The way we are” is not really a project. It’s just an idea to make a photo book about people, the way I see them, the way they are, the way they live, the way they love, the way they want to be happy. And here the key word is beauty, the beauty that according to Dostoevsky will save the world. To make it happen I will keep exploring still for a while and then we’ll see.
4. You were born in Moscow. How do your years growing up there, transitioning from Communism, imprint on your work as a photographer several years later?
Because I grew up in the USSR it happened that I discovered photography in my late 30s, and that is probably the only imprint of the past on what I do. Rather than that I always had a feeling of being a human of the world.
5. How do you feel being a woman informs and impacts your photography?
I think being a woman probably brings more delicate and respectful approach towards people in the street but generally I don’t like that division. We are men and women of course but first of all we are human beings. There are people sensitive and heartless, compassionate and hateful, warm and mean, etc. And it is not ruled by sex.
6. What are your thoughts on candid vs. non-candid in street photography?
7. Why street photography? As opposed to some other genre?
I understand candid in a wider sense as genuine. That makes all my photography candid. I have quite a few special street portraits when people are perfectly aware of being photographed. Still they maintain their natural disposition, sincerity and beauty. They are genuine and I am fascinated with genuineness. And that answers your last question..
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