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.
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.
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.