This blog post is the second of a series on creativity in street photography, which will later become my next ebook! Through the lens of 8 contemporary street photographers, we will explore in this article the workings of our creativity – decoding a mysterious process as unique as the artists interviewed here. David Carol, Rammy Narula, Rohit Vohra, Mike Lee, Melissa Breyer, Martin Waltz, Nima Taradji and Arek Rataj – You’ve inspired me. Thank you!
Based on these interviews, I have identified 3 fundamental elements to creativity. Each of these elements influences image-making and creativity for street photographers. This second post is about our internal experience, that I define as: our inner thoughts, feelings, and unique ways of relating to the world – how we feel internally.
Being a photographer means learning how to see – but the way we see is heavily tinted by our own experiences: how we relate to the world, and to ourselves.
In this second section, we will explore the role that inner experiences – our thoughts, feelings, moods and desires – plays in the making of an image. As Arek Rataj remarked: “Street photographers are not interested with the facts, they end up telling their own inner stories instead”. Given such a high level of subjectivity, it’s even more important to understand the power of emotions and moods on what we create, and further on, developing greater awareness of ourselves. Understanding who we are, what attracts us, and what makes our work unique in a way, is a critical step in finding one’s own voice in street photography. The more we know about ourselves and our art, the more we can become whom we are meant to be.
1. Seeing beauty in the world. In essence, street photographers are not interested in showing the real world around them, but in the possibility of turning the mundane into the extraordinary. While being keen observers of the world, it is not the world itself that makes street photographers see what they see, but the specific way they relate to the world. And it is as much a thought as it is a feeling that bring them to specific scenes and subjects. As Melissa Breyer beautifully explained: “I feel something from what I am seeing – and my hands make the camera follow suit”.
Yet recognizing such beauty requires a very personal, intimate relationship with the world, and oftentimes results in stories that tell more about ourselves than the world around us. When describing her Waitresses series, Melissa Breyer said that her work was closer to a self-portrait than a documentary. She recognized herself in these women, and was more interested in capturing moods and subtle hints of their lives than exposing their real story to the world.
2. The depth of the mind. Many street photographers have sooner or later realized that recurring patterns and themes have been emerging across their work. Arek Rataj never consciously realized his obsession for micro-expressions until it was pointed out to him. Similarly, Nima Taradji discovered that hands played an important role in many of his images when David Carol mentioned it to him. It appears that our work is filled with inner symbols and themes that are very unique to us – in other words, a representation of our feelings and desires, whether we are conscious of them or not.
The importance of our personal experience is even clearer when we look at the output that we’ve produced. “All my pictures look the same” says David Carol. While he tried to produce something new, more edgy, more serious when he was younger, notably using many different formats of lenses and cameras, he realized that he was still producing images that “looked like him”. This unconscious part of us appears to have a strong influence on our personal vision in street photography.
3. Emotional attachment. Many street photographers have experienced an emotional attachment to certain pictures displaying objective shortcomings. It is as if the experience of shooting this image was enough to make them fall in love with it, after the fact. Our internal experiences as such strongly influence what we shoot, but also how we appreciate and edit our work. Winogrand was quite aware of this fact, and always recommended to wait “at least 6 months” before looking at your pictures. “Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgment that the photograph is good.” While this length of time will rarely apply to the digital photography world, it’s important to realize the power of emotions when it comes to assess the value of our work.
4. Mood and creativity. For many street photographers, “seeing the world differently” requires to be in a specific mood, in a certain state internally. It requires Mike Lee to “get into the right internal rhythm”, while Melissa Breyer confesses following her moods when it comes to choosing her subjects. Our internal moods are therefore intrinsically linked to creativity. Moreover, it seems that moods can also influence directly the type of images that we make. Martin U. Waltz explains that he alternates between two different mood states: Introverted vs. extroverted. While his default state is introverted, resulting in precise and sophisticated compositions, he’s started to enjoy acting as an extroverted. In this latter mode, Martin gets very close to his subjects, entering their private space to take raw moments of life. Mood shifts therefore result in vastly different sets of images for Martin.
5. Blurring the boundaries. Street photography is art, and for this reason, street photography is life as well. Our personal experiences can have a huge impact on our art. Rohit Vohra, for example, keeps a diary with text and drawings, and messages addressed to his late wife. It has become a log of his life, a trace of time passing, and a critical source of creativity for his photography. He notes down questions and thoughts that stick in the corner of his mind and change the way he sees.
Case study: Martin U. Waltz
Martin U. Waltz is a gatherer of raw material – his work is authentic, raw, and inspired by the flow. From this raw material, Martin aims to see and reveal the beauty in the mundane. But as Martin says “it’s a learning process, and it never stops”. To refine his personal vision, Martin pays attention to patterns and themes emerging across his images, eventually aiming to create a “unique narrative between himself and his work”.
As a street photographer, Martin U. Waltz alternates between two modes: introverted vs. extraverted. The mood states have a strong influence on the images he will be making: introverted will lead to sophisticated compositions where Martin observes the world but doesn’t engage in it. Extraverted will lead on the contrary to positioning himself at the heart of the action, in the middle of the flow – with personal, subjective close-ups taken at short distance from the subjects.
Case study: Melissa Breyer
Melissa Breyer creates moody, dreamy pictures of New York, a stage that she never tires to explore. She shoots very shallow to isolate and abstract, emphasizing impressions and visual cues rather than revealing the detailed facts. Her motivations are simple: she’s interested in capturing how it feels to be in the city.
Melissa’s work is intensely personal and intimate – a reflection of her own stories and moods that she projects on the world around her. She describes her recently published Waitresses series as “much more of a self-portrait than a documentary”. For Melissa, a day’s shooting is primarily define by her mood, which sets the stage right out of the door. Weather and light go hand in hand with mood for her, further defining her subjects and scenes. As Melissa describes herself: “Everything is determined by an inner pull. It’s like a magnet; I feel something from what I’m seeing and my hands make the camera follow suit.”
- Street photographers are not interested by the facts, they often tend to tell their own inner stories.
- Seeing the beauty in the mundane requires to experience the world differently, trusting our instincts and feelings.
- What we see and how we see is determined by both conscious and unconscious factors that are unique to us.
- Recognizing patterns and themes emerging from our work is critical to develop a unique voice and vision.
- Street photographers tend to become emotionally attached to their images, making it hard to self-edit their work.
- Mood influences our images and sets the stage for a day’s shooting – it is a key driver of creativity.
- The boundaries between photography and life are often blurred, and our personal history changes what we see.