I have been practising Street Photography for some time now. As the years have gone by I have been happy with the progress that I have made, both aesthetically and in obtaining knowledge. A few days ago I was reviewing my portfolio, trying to understand exactly what direction I want to go with my body of work. As I went through the images something started to bug me. In a wake-up call style moment I found myself in front of my laptop asking - “Does my work have any meaning?”.
What is meaning in Street Photography?
In today’s world, where cameras have become accessible to pretty much everyone, there are millions of images depicting street photography. With that comes some very good work and some very very bad work. From my perspective, the more minds that are concentrated on the craft, the greater the variety of the kind of street photography that is produced. For example some photography may focus purely on being creative with light, whilst another wll have a strong eye for those humorous juxtapositions. I myself tend to drift through many sub categories, having a preference for shooting what I am attracted to, rather than finding that niche style.
Through all these approaches, how would I define a photograph, or set of photographs, having meaning?
For me, meaningful work is thought provoking and has you asking questions that you strongly want the answers to. It tends not to be timeless, but rather gives an accurate overview of a certain period of time and the impacts certain decisions and values society what experiencing.
A good example of this is Robert Frank - The Americans. The book has beautifully composed images, and gives you an understanding of the difference between class and race in America back in the 1950s. The images in this book make you feel, they make you think, make you ask questions. More so, and for me this is the single most important factor for making your work meaningful, they make you empathise. For a photographer to be able to make you put yourself in the subject shoes, it is the ultimate sign that they have done their job to the highest standard.
Where my work lacks meaning
Today if, say for example, race riots break out in America or new social norms develop on the streets, you and the millions of others with a camera will be there to capture it. There is nothing meaningful about content everyone is producing, and in result many things of the past now verge on being cliche. This makes the challenge harder, but not impossible.
For example, when I was shooting the below frame I was initially taking my images much wider — giving a general overview of a protest held in London. Then I saw the potential for an image that spoke more when you viewed it, so I came in tighter. There were many elements here that I felt could build a story. Firstly, the woman’s attire – often seen to many in the west as a sign of oppression. Then, just behind the subject and above their head, a sign that reads, “Feminism” — a movement filled with strength and a desire to fight the establishment. I waited patiently as there was one final element I needed for this frame to work: I needed to catch her eye. As soon as her strong, powerful gaze looked straight down my lens — I took the shot, the story was made.
This is only one of a handful of shots that currently have such value. The rest of my folders are filled with humour, juxtaposition and eye catching colour. Of course I am happy with this — but I want to achieve that little bit more.
Coming Up with a Project
Conflicted with my own standards on how my work should be, I wanted to come up with a way I could bring more meaning to my portfolio. How I could tell a story through the streets and make it my own unique perspective.
The idea I came up with was to focus on my own personalised project. Something that has a direction, a visual concept, and an end goal. With that said, I have booked a three month trip to Central America, a continent often sold to Westerners as dangerous. However as I believe that good human life is everywhere, I want to embark on the streets with a positive eye, and capture the lighthearted, the humourous and the beautiful.
The work may not be ground breaking, but to me when I review it, I know it will mean something and have context. Something I see as the next important step in one’s development.
Ask Yourself the Difficult Question
Like me, as you browse through your collection of images that you have taken over the years, ask yourself the question, “Does my work have meaning?”
If the answer is no, and you would like it to, then it is time to dig deeper within your creative arsenal and come up with something that will help you stand apart from the millions of photographers who are currently taking the exact same photos as you.
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