Category Archives: Odds and ends

Why I’ve (sort of) quit street photography

The Guardian ran a piece this week on the absolutely delightful Tumblr site Women Who Eat on Tubes.

As the name suggests, it’s a site full of pictures of women eating on the Tube.

Given that there are blogs out there that carry highlights from spycams hidden in men and women’s public toilets, that a US court ruled last month that it was fine to take photos without consent up women’s skirts and publish them, and that there’s a new word (“creepshots”) to describe the phenomenon, Women Who Eat on Tubes is pretty tame.

But it did remind me why I’ve more or less abandoned taking photos of people in the street without their consent.

It took three things to do it.

First off, I took the photo above.  And I thought it was really cool.

Look, she’s swearing at me ‘coz she doesn’t want her picture taken.  Hur-hur.  That’s, like, so EDGY and ANGRY and it makes her look, like, really UNFRIENDLY.  Hur-hur.  That’s, like, literally so AWESOME.

It took me a couple of months to think about it and decide that, no, it wasn’t, like, edgy and angry and, like, literally so awesome.  She didn’t want her photo taken and made that clear.  Indeed, the only thing that’s interesting about the picture is that she clearly doesn’t want her photo taken.  But I took it anyway, did it up and went and showed it to all my friends.

Why the hell did I do that?

Second, I papped a woman crossing Waterloo Bridge.

She got really angry and demanded that I delete the file because she didn’t want her picture taken.

I lied to her and told her that I hadn’t taken her picture.  Then, when she didn’t believe me, I got really angry back and told her I had every right to take it and she couldn’t stop me doing whatever I liked in a public place.

Again, it only occurred to me quite a while later.

Why the hell did I do that?

But what really did it for me was walking along, minding my own business and trying to get on with my life on the streets of London, only to have people not only taking pictures of me from afar at random, but taking pictures right up in my face.  As people get into Instagram, Tumblr, and documenting every second of their lives via their camera phones, it’s been getting worse.  And, more and more, when people do it to me I think two things.

Why the hell did you do that? and Get out of my face, you f*cking creep.

We can’t really avoid living our lives in public to some degree, particularly in big cities.  And I, for one, don’t take very kindly to having my every private moment at risk of being captured with a sepia filter and uploaded to Tumblr.  More often than not, I don’t have my stylists in tow, my hair’s not salon-fresh, and I’m due a manicure. I’d really rather not be published.

Do I think taking pictures without consent should be illegal, as is now the case in Hungary?  Certainly not.

There are people who do this for a living and make impressive art from it.

Art photographer Arne Svenson has taken a whole series of stills of whatever he can see his neighbours getting up to through their windows.

Would I like it done to me?  Really, no.  But that’s a world away from making it illegal.

Bruce Gilden has made a whole career out of surprising people at close range with a camera and flash.

Again, I’d be pretty annoyed.  But I wouldn’t want it to be illegal.

There are countless others — from street photographers to photojournalists — who take pictures without the knowledge of their subjects.  The world would likely be a bit poorer without their work.

But as for me, street photography isn’t something I do for the art.  It’s something I do for kicks.

So, from now on, I’m only going to do it if the subject’s OK with it.

If something truly artistic is going on, maybe — just maybe — I’ll take a picture of it without the person’s knowledge.  If my career radically changes direction, then I’ll give it some more thought.

But if all I’m doing is taking pictures of people for the hell of it  because they look absolutely miserable in the middle of the street, because it’s really interesting to invade someone’s morning paper read or because I just want to see how far I can get a camera in someone’s face before they deck me then, no, I’m not being cool or awesome or edgy or anything like that.  I’m papping someone to get myself off.

I’d rather not be a f*cking creep.  So I’m giving up the creepshots.










The physical product

For a while, I (along with many photographers, I suspect) have been thinking about prints.

Or, rather, the lack of them.

Not so very long ago, you used to shoot 24 frames on a roll of film, pop into Boots and pop out again with a little folder of physical photos on glossy paper that you could flick through.

If you really liked one, you might put it in a photo frame.  If you really, really liked one, you’d get it blown up and hang it on the wall.

Then again, if you really didn’t like one — perhaps because it was the one of the ex who cheated on you with your great aunt or the restaurant you went to the night before you woke up with food poisoning and a boil on your nose — you ‘d rip it up or burn it very passionately in perilous proximity to the net curtains.

We don’t do that any more.

I’ve just shy of 39,000 photos in my working archive.  All digital, all clickable.  If I want to look at them, I stare at them on a screen until my eyes go raw.  If I want to get rid of them, I press delete.

It’s the same online.  Earlier this year, Facebook noted that its users upload an average of 350 million photos to its site each and every day.  Almost every news site going allows you to consume more photos in a minute on the front page than used to fill an entire newspaper.  Twitter is a constant stream of everything from instagrammed pictures of people’s breakfasts to avant garde photo art.

And how do we consume it?

Click-click-click-ooh that’s nice-click-click-click-click-hmm-click-click-click-click-click-clicketyclick-maybe I should do some work now.

Photography’s become so digitised and ubiquitous that I, certainly, lost track of the fact that staring at a photo on a smartphone screen with a vomit-green tint (or a “so saturated your eyes may pop” zing, if you’re an iPhone aficionado) for three seconds is as unlikely to make the earth move as studying the Mona Lisa as reproduced on toilet roll.

So, a few months back, I ordered two big prints for my bedroom.

They were of photographs I’d taken that I loved, of places I’d been that I loved.

When they arrived, I got out the power drill, put some screws in the wall, and strung them up.  Then I sat on the edge of my bed.  And I stared at them.  For two hours.

I’d completely forgotten: prints are AMAZING.

Physical, permanent, paper photographs can make you see things you’d never pick up on on a quick clicketyclick round the internet.  They’re what photography used to be all about and what made photography about anything at all.  Prints make you feel.

So, you might well ask, why am I blogging about them now?

Well, it’s been a project a long time in the making but I’ve finally gotten round to choosing and finishing up 25 images from my personal archive that mean something to me.  They’re shots of places everywhere from Guatemala to Bhutan and Sussex to New Zealand.

And you can now buy them, if you like what you see, on my website.

But at the end of the day — whether you go gooey for what I do, or for pictures of Americana, or for shots of shipwrecks underwater, or for anything else — I really wanted to share what I recently remembered: there is an inexplicable magic to the physical photograph that we ought not lightly to forget.