On Considering My Motives as a Street Photographer

On Considering My Motives as a Street Photographer

I’m sure most of us have been there before: standing on a street corner, your “camera bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag” slung casually over your shoulder. Your camera is in hand, its strap hanging loose, dancing in the summer breeze. You raise the rangefinder window to your eye and snap: the perfect shot of a homeless man! He looks really sad; this will finally change everyone's mind — straight to Instagram. But there’s a fine line between biting social commentary and “Poverty Porn,” and sometimes, it's hard to see which side you’re on.

I was recently given an awesome opportunity to travel to Cambodia with a bunch of photographers and spend a week shooting around Siem Reap, all on Panasonic’s dime. We stayed in a nice hotel, and we had our own bus and guides, as well as an itinerary packed with temples and tourism. Cambodia is an incredibly photogenic country: tropical jungles hiding ancient ruins, fishing villages floating on an inland sea, and beautiful, friendly people. But Cambodia, like a lot of Asia, suffers levels of poverty I’d never had to come in contact with. I found myself questioning where and why I was pointing my camera.
I’m not a landscape photographer. It’s not that I don't like beautiful images of scenic locations; I’ve shot my fair share of old buildings, but it’s just not my comfort zone. Years of weddings have trained me to look for the people and to watch for the stories, but the stories I found were deeper and sadder than I was ready for. Shanty villages propped up by the tourist handout with children kept out of school because they can make more money begging than their parents. Institutional corruption is draining the resources, leaving whole villages to fend for themselves. These people deserved more than my meager Instagram feed.
I felt like a thief, taking these people's lives and farming them for my own ego, their struggle converted to social media likes. Looking around me, I saw a sea of my fellow tourists, all doing the same thing, and the Cambodian people just smiled and waved. What could they do? They couldn’t say "no," or the tourists might not be there tomorrow. I became self-conscious of my behavior and selective with my shots. I wanted to catch all the incredible beauty I was surrounded by in a way that would be meaningful to me but still respectful of the people that had to put up with my intrusion. At first, I ran in the opposite direction, trying not to shoot any locals out of fear of misguided motives, but I was left with images that felt unsatisfying and lacking in human touch. Then, I got my wake up call.
We traveled out to the Beng Mealea Temple (a highlight for me), where we were to meet up with a few local Buddhist monks. Our hosts had made a generous donation to their monastery, which in turn would flow back into the local economy and by way of thanks, the monks would act as our guides, talk to us about their history and beliefs, and then graciously suffer through our incessant photography. It was a wonderful experience, and the photos I took didn’t have the sheen of guilt I had felt earlier. I realized where I had been going wrong.
From that point on, I talked to people, no longer being just a passive viewer, no longer stealing my shots. Usually, I talked about simple things, wherever the language barrier could take us, but my trip was transformed. I was still shooting for my own personal use, but now the shots were personalized. From the tuk-tuk driver who wore Spiderman gloves because his son loves Spiderman to the little girl who told me that she had met Angelina Jolie during the "Tomb Raider" filming, despite looking at least six years too young. The poverty I found in Cambodia was definitely part of the story I found, but it wasn’t the whole story.

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8 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Nice post, and nice shots, but is this "street" photography? Granted, the term is about as wide as the earth, but this strikes me more as cultural/social photography, which a bit of politics thrown in for good measure. Yes, I suppose "street" photography can fall right in there. I dunno, I guess this can be qualified that way. I suppose due to how I've been shooting "street", this strikes me as more cultural work. My own "street" work is nothing like this of course, and not necessarily making any profound social/cultural comment. As a matter of fact, it's more a tongue-in-cheek observation of the world around me, but that's just me of course.

Regardless, lovely work.

Alex Cooke's picture

I see your point, but I think it's important to remember that what the "street" (i.e. the public environment in which people generally congregate for work, travel, or pleasure) is may look vastly different from our "streets."

I think it only seems like "cultural/social photography" because it isn't your culture or society. If it was, you'd consider it street photography.

Rob Mynard's picture

Exactly. I could recreate these images on the streets of any big city really, they're just some buskers, a bus driver, a taxi driver, a couple of priests, and a shot of some old building. In fact that might be an interesting project, to recapture my Cambodia images on the streets of Brisbane.

Rob Mynard's picture

I see your point @Spy Black and the reason I consider this to be "street" is because I wasn't shooting with any social/cultural ideas in mind, I was just taking photos of things that I though were interesting to me personally.

Spy Black's picture

All good points from everyone here. I suppose ultimately "street photography" could use a better name. :-) Interesting idea to try a similar concept back home, go for it!

Rob Mynard's picture

If I do, you'll see it here first on Fstoppers.com :-D

Oh! This article was getting very sad not to mention uncomfortable until the point when you had your revelation - Talk to them! I think this is way more interesting than snapping people candidly without them noticing, which I know is fair game, but always struck me as a bit unfair and lacking that vital thing - a relationship with your subject. I heard it said somewhere, and am paraphrasing badly, that portrait photography contains three things 1) a photographer 2) a subject and 3) the subject's awareness that they are having their picture taken.

After an unsuccessful and nervewracking attempt at doing street portraits on the streets of Oxford, I gave up after all the refusals, went to the countryside and spent half an hour chatting to this bloke, who then said that yes, alright, I could take his picture. (he'd originally said no, but I persisted).

I think it's all about the relationship. And when your subject is someone living in poverty, you have a chance to give them some food or money as you talk to them.