The Sense of Purpose in Street Photography

My students often ask me about the differences between a single image and a series, about the content of a photo and the stories they want to tell.

Street photography is one of the most widespread photographic modalities in the world, the “hashtag” #streetphotography on Instagram alone having almost 42 million publications. What I take away from this is that street photography, something that has been done for many, many years, is living its golden moment. With digital cameras, mobile phones and social networks, this “tradition” of documenting the street and everyday-life has become very easy to continue, however, when your hobby becomes your passion you begin to ask questions.

David Alan Harvey, one of the great masters of photography, says that one of his greatest sources of inspiration has always been the impressionists. These painters depicted everyday scenes, the street, the light and made art from it.

I think that, in part, that is what makes street photography so attractive; we can transform any moment into something special.

However, and going back to the beginning, we often lack something. We may have found a style that we like and of which we control the technique, but what we do not know is what to ‘say’, the implicit story that exists in the photographic medium, the purpose of our photography.

Is it mandatory to tell a story? The answer is no, art is an axiom in itself, its sole purpose is to exist, so if you consider yourself an artist do not give it more thought. However, if you consider yourself an author, someone who wants to explain something, then the answer is yes.

I believe that most of us street photographers consider ourselves to be authors and that is why we have a deep sense of purpose, which is great! This sense of purpose is what motivates us to go out and take pictures, to ask ourselves questions, to investigate, but many times we make the mistake of wanting to tell too much. When we talk about the need for street photography to tell a story, it does not have to be something very specific or concrete, it can also be a concept that’s more artistic.

Legend street photographer Alex Webb has a whole book in which his sole purpose has been to explore color, light and shadows, with photographs that he has taken over many years, in different countries and without any apparent relation. But, this cumulative work draws from a concept from Goethe in colour is interpreted as the result of the tension between light and darkness, something that has always intrigued Webb.

On the other hand, an example of a less artistic and much more specific concept can be found in the work of Susan Meiselas, another legend of Magnum agency. One of the most acclaimed works of this photographer is her series “Prince Street Girls” in which she documented a group of girls from her neighbourhood from 1976 to 2011. This work has become one of the most important jobs of her career and It has turned out to be an interesting study of adolescence, femininity and the gentrification of New York.

So how do you find a story?

I’m afraid it’s something you’ll have to answer yourself, but without a doubt the best thing you can do is to take your camera and go out and shoot, and when you have an idea, no matter what it is, pursue it; one thing will probably lead to another and you will see how at least your sense of purpose will be satisfied.

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