Lovers at the Shop Window (Amsterdam August 2013)
Reading a post from the Book of Life site, reminded me of a dilemma many artists, many street photographers face: how do we practice our art in a world cursed by suffering, conflict, environmental decay, corporate greed and the rest?
The post poses this question. The opening paragraph reads:
The cultural elite gets nervous about cheerful or sweet art. They worry that pretty, happy works of art are in denial about how bad the state of the world is and how much suffering there is in almost every life.
It goes on: have we forgotten about the misery, corruption, and suffering?
The author proposes that, rather than having forgotten, the reality is we feel too small, too inadequate to the task of doing anything, so we withdraw from the struggle.
At this point, I have a confession to make. I wish I knew far less than I do about the suffering that is going on (and always has) in the world; I wish I knew less about history and how the political and economic systems that plague us all work*.
It’s hard to be optimistic, to have hope that things will change for the better. But the author suggests: ‘Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.’
That’s where artists come in. That’s where street photographers come in. I know, not all street photographers believe what they do is art. That’s okay; doesn’t matter what you call what you do. Same difference, as we used to say. The point is, artists need to produce art that inspires hope, that celebrates the good in the world and celebrates humanity.
Of course it is also the artist’s role to highlight the suffering, the inequalities, the injustices, the threats to the planet. In fact without these artists there are many people who would be able to say, “but we didn’t know about … . ” The role of the artist is to make sure nobody can ever make this excuse.
But, I and I suspect many other artists, aren’t able to focus on that side of things. For me at least it is not a case of not wanting to, or that I don’t care. It’s more that I am physically and mentally not able to. However, I do not ignore the suffering in and of the world; I do not deny it and pretend that all is well.
What I choose to do about it is celebrate humanity through street photography. I choose to photograph the ordinary moments in people’s lives; moments in which they might be expressing joy or sorrow, laughing or crying, going about the normal business of daily life. I choose to do this as my way of contributing to change in the world.
Sound pretentious? Sound a tad immodest? It’s true that street photography doesn’t seem on the surface to be a part or the political or moral and ethical battles which at this very moment in history are determining the future of humanity and of the planet. After all, one might ask, how is the making of photos of people doing ordinary things in the street help anybody?
It is a valid question and I will try to give an answer that means something.
After World War II the French Humanist photographers, as well as other artists around the world, sought to shift the focus; after so much death and destruction, they turned their cameras (and paint brushes, music and the rest) towards the good in humanity. They sought to celebrate life.
In France, photographers began focusing on a number of themes which, for them, reflected this desire to celebrate humanity. They seem obvious to us now, but then, after so much pain, their work represented a revival, an affirmation of survival and the possibility of a good life:
- Lovers. Couples kissing or otherwise showing affection. Couples strolling and enjoying each other’s company. Such scenes, such moments, demonstrate our resilience as a species.
- Children. Children playing. Children enjoying life, laughing and being, well, children. After years of war people must have been overjoyed to see children once again free to be.
- The Family. Photographs of family groups, of families around a table enjoying a meal and the company of loved ones. Weddings too, played a part. Again images of normality, of hope in a future brighter than the past.
- Work. For so many years the main role of working people had been to fight or to otherwise support the war machine. Humanist photographers saw the workers as the new heroes, so they showed people engaged in all kinds of labor and occupations to celebrate their efforts and nobility.
- The street. As life returned to normal, photographers began to portray people going about their ordinary business: shopping, chatting in cafes, gossiping on street corners, buskers, stall holders and others making their lives or living on the street. All the ordinary things that for so long people had been denied.
- Public Gatherings. During the war years, there was little tolerance of public gatherings. So, now that peace had come, photographers spent time recording fetes, carnivals, festivals and the like. Documenting these celebrations of community became a big part of humanist photography.
Of course for a great many street photographers these themes form the foundations of who and what they photograph. But how many of us think that we are helping to change the world?
Now, intention is key. It is why you make photos that will, at least in part, determine the impact they have the potential to make. I can’t speak to anyone else’s reasons or intentions. I can only say that for myself, photographing ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary things’ is an act of resistance to the dehumanizing and numbing power of the obstacles all people of goodwill are up against.
In this way, there is a possibility that my photos might bring a smile to someone, or perhaps prompt a happy memory or even suggest a course of action. And then there might be a time when a photo of mine brings a tear to someone’s eye, or brings up a sad memory. Both are valid; both are about what makes us human and both just might have a chance of engendering a little hope.
Why do you do street photography? What do you hope comes from your photos?
* No, this isn’t true. After all, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s just ignorance. I just wish it didn’t upset me as much as it does, but then, if it didn’t, what sort of person would that make me? And what use would I be as an artist?