What is the most distracting thing a street photographer can do? I mean a street photographer who really and truly wants to learn about the human condition, who wants to understand and begin to ask the big questions about their fellow human beings. I mean the street photographer who wants to develop empathy and compassion for other people.
Do you want to know? Well, for the sincere and humanist minded street photographer, the most distracting thing she or he can do is to carry and use a camera. I can hear the reactions now: Shock! Horror! You have to carry a camera all the time or you will miss great opportunities. Besides, who ever heard of a street photographer not using a camera? The idea is ridiculous.
Well, no, it’s not ridiculous. Not really. Not for those of us who want to really learn how to be a good street photographer who values understanding and who asks questions about the people she or he photographs.
In the 1940s when Dorothea Lange returned to photographing on the street after ten years she practiced what she later called Finger Exercises for Seeing (her underline). I guess finger exercises is a reference to the scales one has to do when learning to play the piano. And this, to me, suggests how important Lange thought these exercises were in the learning of street photography,
Actually I’m making a big deal about all this, when what Dorothea was doing is really really easy. What she would do is stand on a street corner without a camera and observe people passing by and interacting with each other. She would imagine what they were doing, saying to each other or thinking to themselves. She would imagine where they were going and how they felt about it. Of course she couldn’t possibly know if any of her fantasies were true or not. But the point for her was she was learning to see. And, by making up stories, she was actually learning to ask questions—for her one of the main purposes of her photography at that point in her life.
Lange could observe, ask her questions and make up stories without having to think about composing the scene in the camera, or figuring out exposure or any of the myriad things we have to do to get a good photo on the street. No distractions you see?
She was learning to see with her mind and her heart. Learning to see with empathy the plight of the people she observed. And this meant that when she did actually go out with her camera, she could see more quickly and easily the situations and scenes that appealed to her to photograph.
‘The best camera for street photography is the one you have with you.’ It’s a statement we hear a lot. Well, sometimes it might just be that the best camera for street photography is the one you left home. Teach yourself to see with your eyes, your heart and your mind, then you will see a lot more clearly through the viewfinder of your camera.