I Call Myself a Humanist Street Photographer And With Good Reason Too

Posted not too long ago on my other blog Instants Out of Time, but I felt the need to revisit it and post it again.

While researching the French Humanist Street Photographers, I came across a great post on the (possibly soon to be defunct) F/50 International Photography Collective site. The post, titled ‘I’m not a Street Photographer  by Collective member Peter Barton, In the post Peter points out the problematic nature of calling oneself a ‘street photographer’, especially nowadays.

‘I’ve never been happy calling myself a ‘Street Photographer’. There’s something about the term that makes me shudder – especially when the short form ‘togs’ is used.’ Peter says in the post. He then goes on to talk about the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) street photographer who is well known for the statement, ‘I have no ethics’ and who Peter describes as ‘aggressive and bullying’.

While accepting that there is more to street photography than this particular photographer’s in-your-face style, Peter says:

‘If that’s what it takes to be called a street photographer then it’s not for me.’ He laments that the photographer described above and ‘his ilk’ have such a high profile. What to do? he asks.

In a search for the answer, he came across the term Humanist Photographer. The term resonated with him and he tracked down a definition in the introduction to a course at the Simon Fraser University:

Humanist photography is the celebration of life and its inexhaustible diversity as seen through the lens of a photographer. Often called poetic realism, this genre celebrates the ordinary, the small pleasures of life, and the daily pitfalls of our existence; it never ceases to enchant us with its truthfulness and poetics.

I had to thank Peter for his post and for quoting this definition. Why? Because it’s exactly what I do and his feelings more or less mirror my own. Well, I suppose anyone who has read any of my own writing will already knows that, right? Anyway, Peter prefers the term Humanist to Street.

And this is the only point on which we don’t agree. I have for a long while now called myself a Humanist Street Photographer, and I intend to continue. In fact, if I weren’t already disposed to do so, I would anyway for exactly the reasons Peter is rejecting the term Street. Here’s why:

I am very pleased, very honoured and very privileged to be a photographer. Or, let me rephrase that. I am privileged to be a Street Photographer with the same kinds of motivations that drove (and drives) the great humanist photographers of the past such as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronas, Edouard Boubat, and people like Joel Meyorwitz and so many others nameless and unknown in the present, who have sought to celebrate humanity as described in the definition quoted above.

So, I will not allow the faddists, the hucksters and the social media hammer wielders to dictate what I do. Nor will I compromise in order to distance myself from those who have hijacked the language of the genre and have sought to remake it to their own purposes. Why should I?

Photography is a really huge business these days. Camera companies, social media ‘gurus’, workshop ‘teachers’, all are on the bandwagon. Well, not all of course, but there is definitely an industry called ‘Street Photography’.

And it’s a business based on fads and on fashion; and, like any fad or fashion, there’s a lot of hype, hyperbole and marketing surrounding it. But, like any fad, it will pass; the business people involved will move on at some point in the not too distant future to the next latest and greatest thing.

What will be left amidst the who knows how many millions of ‘street photographs’ (the good the bad and the ugly, and in all the multitude of sub genres and styles) will be the work, the photographs, made by the street photographers of the past and of the present who were and are motivated by a humanist view of the world and have an intent to simply record the daily lives of the so-called ‘ordinary people’.

I am not saying that my work will last; I am not comparing myself with the greats from the past or even the present. And there is one thing you can say about me: I most definitely do not have a high profile; in fact no profile is closer to the reality. But in my work as a Humanist Street Photographer, I strive to ‘celebrate the ordinary, the small pleasures of life, and the daily pitfalls of our existence.’ And I plan to keep on doing it too, long after the fad has faded, just as I was doing it a long time before the fad was fomented (or was it fermented?) in the minds of the marketeers.

And I have a dream: I dream that my photographs will ‘enchant [people who see them] with their truthfulness and poetics.’


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