The candid street portrait is for me one of the most difficult aspects of street photography to do well. Unlike your standard studio portrait, there isn’t always the opportunity to take multiple frames of your subject until you get it right. Often taken during a fleeting moment, taking good street portraits requires an excellent sense of judgement and timing.
One of my favourite street photographers specialising in the candid portrait is Samantha Geraghty. Based in Madrid, her work has been inspiring me for some time. Filled with emotion and beautiful aesthetics, her work is much to be admired. I was able to catch up with Samantha and discuss her process as a candid portrait street photographer…
DG: When you’re out shooting candid portraits you have thousands of people to select from. What do you look for in a subject when deciding to take a shot?
SG: In my mind there’s a lot of discarding, and then somebody will catch my eye and I have this instinctive need of taking their picture. It’s a person whose life I might imagine, which would be defined by sonder, “the realisation that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own”. When I came across this concept, coined by John Keoning, I could finally explain in one word why I was driven to take photos of people on the street.
I certainly look for aesthetic. For reasons unknown I am very much drawn to capturing women in my photos and I have not yet been able to figure out why this is but it has probably got a lot to do with colour, sensitivity and style. I am also beginning to put more effort into composition and background, and isolating subjects in a world I try to fragment regardless of being in a crowded city.
DG: What is it about the process of shooting candidly that you prefer over asking someone to stop and actively have their portrait taken?
SG: I feel that a lot of our visual landscape is posed and creates a world we can only aspire to live in but find it difficult to really relate to: advertising, fashion editorials, influencers on Instagram… Street photography celebrates the beauty, spontaneity and serendipity of real life, so I try to keep it candid. We disguise ourselves enough as it is, finding our good side for a photo when our best and most truthful version is probably candid anyway!
I also enjoy the difficulty that comes with street photography in looking for those ephemeral moments or gestures. Candid makes magic happen.
I do however admire those who go through a difficult process of documenting situations on the street and are able to reflect harsh realities through consented portraits, documentary photography certainly requires a whole lot of empathy, understanding and putting yourself in the shoes of others. These images probably pour out a whole lot more truth than the aesthetically pleasing.
DG: What I find interesting about candid work, is that you are having a brief intimate moment with a person, often without them ever knowing it has happened. Do you ever carry any guilt with that? And if so, what do you do to overcome any mental barriers?
SG: I have no interest in painting anyone in a negative light. The only criteria street photographers can follow is respect and common sense. I will always look at the photo and ask myself whether I would feel comfortable seeing myself in that same image. As long as you respect the person or situation on the other side of the lens, I can’t see a reason for feeling guilty. It would be too strong a burden to carry for every photo we take!
DG: None of your images you contain children. Is this a conscious decision? And if so, why?
SG: I tend to isolate my subjects in my photos, so it definitely becomes more of a challenge with children. I have a couple of photos containing children but that goes back to the serendipity of the moment. Guilt-wise, I am not sure how a child might feel or react seeing a stranger having a camera shot at them, let alone their parents, and it’s definitely a situation I would rather avoid on a general basis with a few exceptions I will probably be willing to make along the way.
DG: Finally, if you could go to one place in the world and take candid portraits for one day - where would it be?
SG: I have only really shot in Madrid, so anywhere new would be a breath of fresh air. (I know, I really need to do some serious city-hopping!) New York is too obvious an answer, but I would love to get lost in the city where street photography really took root. Some cities just seem more attractive and culturally diverse for street photography than others, and as much as I love the city I live in, I’m not sure Madrid has what it takes to be on the top of anyone’s street photography list (legal restrictions included).
I am off to Japan this summer so that seems like a pretty good choice given the cultural contrast and their fascinating visual culture. Finally, having been born in London, it would be a great way to go back to my roots and get lost along the way!
You can keep up to date with Samantha by following her on Instagram - @samantha.geraghty
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