One of the most frequent dilemmas that you will face while shooting street is that uncomfortable feeling that you may have while considering taking a photo. If you never have this feeling, then you may be a raging sociopath, but all jokes aside, at times, I wish that I had a few more sociopathic tendencies while shooting street because street photography is uncomfortable. However, the feeling of capturing a great moment far outweighs the discomfort. Some will feel otherwise, and that is why street photography isn't for everyone. So, what are these different dilemmas that you will face? Probably not a whole lot different than the ones that I face on a daily basis.
Taking photos of homeless persons:
A topic that I have discussed countless times with other street photographers is the ethics of photographing the homeless, those with obvious mental health issues, or both. I will start off by saying that I am not a fan of photography that focuses on homeless persons, especially if it serves no purpose. Of course, there are always exceptions. Photojournalists looking to raise awareness of the levels of poverty and mental health, to me, are in it for the right reasons, and also have a way of photographing the homeless with the same level of dignity as any other portrait that they may take. By the way, despite what I've said here, I have taken photos of homeless people, and those with mental health issues, but I always ask myself what I'm looking to say with this photo. What do I want people to feel? I'm definitely not looking to make this person a spectacle and have zero messaging or thought behind it.
I want to provide some examples of my process. There was one specific occasion where a homeless man that suffers from health issues was standing just outside of the West 4th train station with a sign asking for anything that people were able to spare. This whole neighborhood is one of my most frequently shot neighborhoods, so I have seen this man hundreds of times. Additionally, the people that come in and out of that station on a daily basis have likely seen this man and his sign hundreds of times as well. However, on this specific afternoon, I was standing and watching a bit of a basketball game that was going on at The Cage, but I couldn't keep myself from glancing over towards the man and his sign.
Each time I did, I grew more and more dejected by the overall scene. People passed by him as if he wasn't even there. They awkwardly averted their eyes to avoid making any kind of acknowledgment that they had seen him. I was already standing about ten feet behind him and decided that I was going to take a couple of photos that captured this moment. I wanted to take these photos to show we can often avoid situations (and people) that make us feel uncomfortable. However, when I got my negatives back, I didn't quite feel that message coming through in the photos, and it simply looked as though I was trying to take a photo of someone that was down on his luck. I never posted any of these photos.
Recently, I was shooting out in Los Angeles, and while I was there, I was reminded just how bad the issue of extreme poverty is in our country. When I looked around, I just saw mile-long roads of despair. I was contemplating taking a photo, but nothing about it felt right. I didn't really know why I would be taking the photo at that point. Maybe that will be a story that I will want to tell in the future. I did, however, take a photo of a homeless man on my trip, which is shown below. My reasoning behind taking this photo, despite my usual objections to taking photos of the homeless, is simple. I do not feel that there are some people in this world that are not worth photographing. While I do not like objectifying people that are far less fortunate, this moment did not feel like that to me. I saw this setting with the beautiful light and shadows, and him resting peacefully just at the edge of the frame, everything about it felt like a beautiful moment. Some may disagree, but one thing that I always tell people when starting out in street photography is, if the moment feels right to you, then click the shutter. If it doesn't, ask yourself why does it not feel right. Sometimes it's hard to tell if the moment doesn't feel right, or perhaps, our nerves are just getting the best of us. (More on this in a future post)