I just read a recent essay/blog post from Charlie Kirk (http://bit.ly/17Aqi1L) about staged street photography. It’s a great essay with very valid points that I agree with, and you should read it before or after reading this. What Charlie doesn’t get into is: Where does one draw the line between candid and staged? There’s a blurry middle ground between the two. The moment the subject is aware of the camera, this is when things are not candid and also not staged. And it’s a huge part of street photography.
If the assumption that a basic tenant of street photography is the candid photo, at what point is the photo no longer candid? And does it even matter? Is there another way to frame this?
Clearly if the photographer is giving direction, the photo is no longer candid and moving very close to staged. At that point, one can argue the point of staged vs. street portrait or something. But I want to stay focused on the concept of candid or not candid. In physics, there is a variable known as “the observer effect”, briefly defined as the observer, or act of observation, of a phenomenon having an impact on the phenomenon itself. We can apply this directly to street photography. As soon as the camera’s presence is known to the subject, the photo is no longer candid, and we have to consider the effect the observer had on the resulting photograph.
Below is a great example of how my presence and the act of taking a photo impacted a shot. The two photos have a completely different feel. The photo on the right has much more emotion. I didn’t intend it, but my presence provoked a reaction, and I took a photo of it.
One of my favorite parts of Charlie Kirk’s essay is the way he describes WHY he would like to know how much, if any, of a photo is staged. As a street photographer himself, he appreciates the process taken to arrive at the final image. He wants to imagine that brief moment in time that took place and wonder how the photographer was able to pull off such a great shot. I love doing that too. I find there is usually, but not always, a correlation between how interesting a street photo is and how curious I am about the process. How did this image happen? What’s the story here? Of course I would feel ripped off if the photo were staged and I was spending the time and energy to imagine the candid process.
When I imagine the story behind the photo, I have to think about the observer effect. Think about all those great photos we’ve all seen, and even taken, where someone in the frame is looking directly at the camera. Not a portrait, but a street scene and someone in the frame seems to be making eye contact with you. When you see these photos, ask yourself if it would be better or worse if the subject were NOT looking back at the camera. Sorry, there’s no correct answer. No black and white rule to shoot by. But you can always take more than one photo of the scene and compare them later.
Personally, I find street photos where one or more of the people in the frame looks at the camera are often very engaging. A degree of empathy kicks in that otherwise would not have. As humans, we’re constantly searching other humans’ faces, especially the eyes and mouth, for visual cues as to what they are thinking. It’s a basic, primal form of non-verbal communication that we all share because all of our faces are wired the same. Studies have proven we all make the same facial expressions for the same emotions, regardless of race, language, and origin.
Since a photo can be both not staged and not candid, it makes more sense to look for authenticity. It’s much more simple to give a yes or no answer to staged vs candid, but the right way to do things is usually not the easy way to do them. When we’re thinking about the story behind a photo, we want it to be an authentic photo to make the process worth thinking about in the first place. Not a fraud. There is rarely a situation where we can fully know the story behind a specific photo or set of photos. So many images can be staged in part or in whole. For me, the best way to judge authenticity is to become familiar with a larger body of a photographer’s work. Patterns and styles become obvious across a larger sample size. If the patterns and styles feel authentic, I can let myself trust the photographer to stay true to the spirit of the street genre and I can think about the impact of the observer on the image rather than wonder what might be staged.
Authenticity and passion bring the cream to the top regardless of process….regardless of trends. Even in the soulless, regurgitated realm of manufactured pop culture (of any culture) some amount of authentic art blasts through the cracks of mediocrity and turns heads. Then watch as the copy cats attempt to ride the wake of this new and different art or style. What I notice in street photography is there’s no room for bullshit because the most avid consumers of street photography are street photographers. Unlike mainstream art made for the masses, we run in peer driven circles. We are our own biggest fans looking for each others’ approval and respect. People, in general, operate in patterns. When a photographer consistently shows off disingenuous work, it becomes obvious to the other photographers looking at it. Just as the cream rises to the top, the shit will sink to the bottom.
Regardless of a photographer’s skill level, there will always be room at the top for the honest and sincere images. It doesn’t matter if a person in the frame sees you or not, just take the shot. Even if you have to stage a photo, do it, take the shot, and present it as staged. The image is nearly always more important than the process. No one will mind that the shot is staged when it’s known upfront.