Fernanda asked me this question recently, and I found it hard to answer right away. Indeed, I believe that the answer lies not in the genre itself, but in your personal definition of it and, to be specific, your own vision for your work. It is therefore a very personal question – not a question entitled to be answered as a group. Because if it was to be answered by all of us, as a group, we would find out that this purpose – or supposed impact of street photography on the world – can be radically different depending on the photographer. And this is the charm of street photography: there is no single written answer to everything. You have to find your own path, beyond the boundaries that are being imposed on you.
You have to find your own purpose for it.
Let’s think for a second about the possible purposes for doing street photography. To my knowledge, there are broadly two trends in street photography resulting in two very different purposes:
The first purpose is social and cultural in essence. Some street photography groups maintain a clear purpose for their work: impacting society by documenting life and the world as it is today, to be seen by everyone, and most importantly, by future generations. Their work intends to document, to show, to reveal to the world what’s going on, what people do and look like, what our generation is all about. Their vision is driven by the possible impact that their images may have on society at large: changing or expanding the way people see society and humanity around the world. And giving future generations the tools they need to understand how the world has evolved over time.
The second purpose is simply artistic. For many other photographers, street photography is not a social scheme (like photo journalism or photo documentary for example), but an art in and of itself. In that sense, the purpose of street photography for these people is that of art – to change the way individuals see the world, and themselves, according to the author’s vision. In other words, those photographers are not interested in changing society, but conveying novel emotions and feelings with their art. They do not intend to document, to record, or to show what is: they’re more interested in conveying their personal vision of the world, their personal take on it. And their higher purpose is simply to touch people with their art – to open the door to their imagination, to their feelings and memories.
For anybody knowing me, I clearly belong to the second category. My world is not that of a documentary, but that of dreams and forgotten memories. Therefore, I often find myself at the edge, at the border of a genre so characterized by rules, do’s and don’ts that seem imposed on my, assigning a purpose to my work, assigning a vision for the collectivity. Anyone knowing me also knows that I can’t care less about collective thinking. And I don’t find myself fulfilled because I am part of a group of self-minded people.
Our strength is our diversity – our diversity of styles, thinking, and purposes for doing what we do. And through this diversity only can the genre survive and evolve. Therefore, there is no one single purpose for street photography, but many. As many in fact as there are street photographers. And the more you think about it, about what drives you personally, what you want to achieve with your own images, the more you will find your vision – and escape the narrowness of a genre that is still searching itself.
Good luck in this journey, it is yours only.