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Photographing Without Purpose

Photographing Without Purpose

The worst self-serving selfie is better than the average street photograph. Okay, I said it. I know it sounds horrible... and I'm going to get an earful on this... but just hear me out for a second. In truth, they are both bad, but if I were to choose between the lesser of two evils, the selfie is actually better.

In going out on a limb to make such an outlandish comparison, there must be a reason to my madness. There is. It's a comparison of extremes. 

What troubles me about street photography is the randomness of content, which invariably becomes apparent when you look at the picture. The composition is usually off, the subject isn't participating, and the image capture has that look of being taken in haste without any visible signs of premeditation. In all, the average street photograph never looks complete.

Still, how could I say that street photography is worst than a selfie? Selfies are like the photographic equivalent of bubble gum. By comparison, street photography comes from a noble tradition. It has a rich history. It is documentation of street life. It springs forth from the loins of the great masters, like Henri Cartier-Bresson. And those who practice this noble art is continuing in this fine tradition. I must therefore see that street photography has intrinsic value. Don't I?

Actually, I don't - if it's not done properly.

The litmus test of a good image is the "so what" test. Looking at this image, I wonder what the point is, other than the fact that the subject is attractive. 

The composition of this image is messy, which makes the image look incomplete, which thus diminishes the impact of any purpose.

It is cute how the main female subject is resting her head on who I presume to be her significant other. But again, the purpose of this image eludes me. 

You would think that this image demonstrates purpose. But does it really? It looks fun, with the two main subject skipping down the incline. The thing is, there is something still incomplete about it, which diminishes the impact of any purpose.

Don't you see? As much as I would like to make fun of the much maligned selfie, it's usually done properly. Selfies have more thought put into it than the average street photograph. Just think about it. Do you usually take bad selfies of yourself? Admittedly, I am sure that there are those enlightened enough not to care how they present themselves to others or to themselves, but for the rest of the remaining 99% of us, we generally do care enough to make a conscious effort.

Fact is, we do care. We put considerable thought into the framing and composition. And because we're also the subject, we go through great lengths in optimizing our appearance. By the time we're ready to take the photo, we don't just take one snap. We take a series of it, so that we can pick out the best of the bunch. In going through that process, we demonstrate greater premeditation, which in the end makes our selfies look more complete.

And do you know what looking complete does to a photograph? It gives it an impression of purpose. We know what the purpose of a properly photographed selfie is. It's to make the subject look good. It's to show off. It's to provide one's self in a social context to be shared with all your friends. It's to make your friends feel envious of your beautiful self.

By comparison, what is the purpose of the average street photograph? A witty caption in hindsight used to justify the image capture in the first place? Honestly, I don't get it. From my perspective, wouldn't it make more sense to photograph an image with intent, as oppose to opportunity, in order to demonstrate an impression of purpose? I mean, that's what separates great street photographers from the rest of us.

An image taken in haste. You can tell by the way the subject looks, especially by the position of their lips. But even if their mouths were in a better position, what really is the purpose of this?

You would think that documenting a kiss is purposeful. But is it? Besides, the composition of the image is compromised with the lady smoking in the background. That smoker is competing for attention. If I had shifted my position, perhaps I would have gotten a better picture. Then again what would be the purpose, other than that kiss?

Lady crossing the street. Like the first image, other than the appearance of the subject, what exactly is the purpose of the documentation? She's not going to make this street capture any more engaging.

A lady resting against a barrier. Clearly not much of a purpose to this image or any of the other images I randomly selected from my photo archive. Admittedly, my expectation might appear unreasonably high. However, I do feel very strongly about it. Without an obvious purpose, I just don't see the point of pretending to be a street photographer.

I know that this might seem like tough medicine to swallow. But it's one that I have embraced. Finding purpose in photography makes sense to me. And until I find a purpose, I've stopped doing street photography - which as you may already know, has been quite some time. 

But I admit. Finding a purpose isn't as easy as it sounds. If it were, we'd all be doing it. Usually it requires an enormous investment of time and effort. Whether it's a project like the Humans of New York, or the Atlas of Beauty, it takes much more to do than random snaps of street photos.

Still, it doesn't have to be as gargantuan an effort as the examples I've mentioned. The thing is, as long as you have a purpose, it will show in your photograph. It will make your photographs look more complete. And as result, your photographs will benefit immeasurably by appearing more engaging with better composition and presentation of both the subject and the content of the image.

What I am suggesting may seem unreasonable in expectation. But look at it this way. If what one is doing is keeping the tradition of the great masters alive in practicing street photography, shouldn't we hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard? It's only when we push ourselves to do better would we improve.  

Try it. You never know. You might surprise yourself.

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Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III - Ultra Wide Zooming in a Crowded City

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM III - Ultra Wide Zooming in a Crowded City

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