Photography is besieged by rules — rules about where to place objects in a frame, and what kind of light to use, and where to crop, and when to use one shutter speed rather than another.
I’m fully aware of the value of rules when it comes to establishing a universally accepted means of learning about and discussing creative works, but I believe the most creative work often arises when people deliberately break rules or carry on as if the rules don’t apply to them.
Street Photography: Are Humans The Rule?
For example, most photographers abide by the custom that street photography must contain people. After all, the most commonly accepted definitions of street photography refer explicitly to capturing candid human moments…or something like that.
This isn’t an incorrect way of viewing street photography, it’s just a bit limited and possibly misleading as it sets up a cardinal rule: human beings must be present in a street photograph.
Of course, it makes perfect sense to photograph faces and human activity when attempting to reveal the character of a city. If you erase the human element altogether, you’re basically doing architectural or cityscape photography.
Don’t let street photography traditionalists tell you otherwise — it is possible to convey the human element without the physical presence of humans.
How does one accomplish this, though?
Tell A Tale Of Life
A photograph is a story in one frame and there are many ways to tell the story, but the most effective stories don’t give everything away, they say what they need to say without holding the reader’s or viewer’s hand.
This attribute that writers and filmmakers so deftly employ can also work for photographers and is especially applicable when doing street photography devoid of people.
Humans, wherever they go they leave their mark. You don’t need to see a person to know a person has been around. Life follows people and people follow life — the clues of existence are ever-present and photographing these clues can make for truly compelling street photography.
Where Is The Life?
In short, it’s in the details. The essence of life appears in the stray glove that someone unwittingly dropped on the sidewalk, the trash that unfortunately didn’t make it into the garbage can, the street signs that direct human traffic, the long unfinished construction projects and the street art — officially sanctioned or not — that appears wherever it wants.
Humans need not be present in the frame in order for the viewer to comprehend the impact of the human element on public life. This, in my opinion, is as legitimate an approach to street photography as is photographing public transit commuters or construction workers.
To successfully create street photography that doesn’t rely on the presence of humans, you will need to rely on symbolism and use that symbolism in a way that implies humanity.
The street photographer generally does four things: observe, organize, deconstruct and reconstruct. This process of interpretation is not dependent on whether humans are present.
Don’t allow yourself to be boxed into conventional ideas about what street photography is and isn’t. It is not a rule that people have to be in a photo to qualify as street photography.
Challenge yourself to expand your ideas about street photography and your creative palette will expand as a result.