How do we go about finding a niche in street photography? What is street photography in the first place? Is there a universal definition, or do we have to find our own way?
I’m not a big fan of the term ‘street photography.’ It’s a vague, nebulous term that means different things to different people. So any means we use to define the term will of necessity have indistinct boundaries.
If forced to define a single element, I would say it’s about images of a human scale. It’s not about vast landscapes, tiny creatures, or large structures or artifacts. We normally think of street photography as having an urban element. But even that should not be a requirement. At a more fundamental level it’s concerns itself with the man made environment, and human interaction with that environment.
It can’t be preconceived. Studio work of all kinds is automatically eliminated. That also eliminates all other kinds of setups that use artificial light or light modifiers including reflectors.
There should be elements of spontaneity and uncertainty. Our subjects can be aware of being photographed, but both actions and emotions should come from the people being photographed, not suggested by the photographer. The key element is a quality of the unexpected. The improvisational element is most important. We don’t want to turn our subjects into actors.
Public or Private?
I don’t think that whether the location is a public or private space matters. Nor does it matter if the photographer has permission to be there. Behavior is the focus here. What is key is that the people behave as if they are in a public space. At the same time, the photographer cannot infringe on privacy. But so long as the subjects are aware that they are surrounded by people they don’t know, and that there could be strangers watching them, then is OK to photograph them. The term used in both logic and law is the expectation of privacy. This sounds really complicated, but it is not. Before clicking that shutter I ask the simple question: in the same circumstance would I be upset if I were the subject? If the answer is yes, then shoot something else.
Are People Required?
There is a gray line between an urban landscape and street photography. This is a very tricky area. My own belief is that if the image says something about the human condition or society in general then it can be street photography. This is one area where it’s very difficult to make rules, yet most people know instinctively when an image is about the architecture, or when it’s about the people that inhabit, work in, or otherwise use the structure. The way to avoid tricky semantics is to simply ask if the image tells a story about the human condition. If the answer is yes, take the picture and think about classification later. If it’s a great photograph none of the fussing over definitions will matter.
This leads me to another point. People that don’t “do” photography have no right to define what a photographer or an artist is. Screw’em. Your job is to be a photographer, a journalist or an artist. That’s a calling well beyond recording images of locations.
If your images have meaning and value to other people, if they elicit an emotional response, then don’t worry about whether people call you a street photographer or not. It’s hard enough to create the images. Leave the labels to others and concentrate on the work.