Small Town Street Photography Guide

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  • Street Photographyin a small town

    Joakim K E Johansson

    - a guide of sorts

    (Translated by Mns Hagberg)

  • IF YOU WANT TO SEE more of my street photography you are welcome to visit my web page at: www.masterpix.se

    Joakim K E Johansson

    CHRISTMAS 2010 WAS COMING UP. Right then I decided to take my street photography to a new level. I had done street photography on and off for years, but never done anything worthwhile of it. Certainly not in my own town. But now the time was ripe.

    To find inspiration i spent several evenings digging through blogs and You Tube-clips on street photography. Not without envy I saw photographers work their way along the streets of the most exciting cities in the world. But there was one problem. I lived in a Swedish pro-vincial town. You could walk up and down its centre in twenty minutes or so. This was not Paris.

    I FOUND OUT THAT NEXT TO NOBODY had written about street photography from the perspective of a small town. This fact quickly translated into a real challenge. Can I take pho-tos according to the rules of street photography in my town? Can I discover a feeling of city life in an environment that every so often must be described as rather desolate? I made up my mind to make a serious attempt.

    This guide is about these ruminations and about what I found out. But before we start out, let me make one thing very clear. This guide offers no universal truths hewn in stone. There are disparities not only between places, but also between photographers. Even so I do hope to give to you who are interested in street photography both inspiration and issues to consider.

    Let your smalltown be your challenge!

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  • LET ME TO INTRODUCE KARLSKRONA. You will find this coastal town, built on a number of islands, at the southeastern corner of Sweden. Here resides a county governor, some 30 000 more or less happy inhabitants in the central parts and just 65 000 in the municipality as a whole. Here I live and here I do street photography.

    How do you describe this town? Well, the tourist pam-phlets usually state that Karlskrona was founded in 1680 as a naval base and military town, that the older parts are built on a number of islands right in the middle of the archipelago, that there is a very fine Naval Museum and that large parts have been designated a World Cultural Heritage thanks to the well-preserved naval harbour of the 18th century. These pamphlets seldom mention that a Soviet submarine stranded here in 1981, even if that might be what makes Karlskrona most well known nowa-days.

    When you walk along the streets of Karlskrona you see many things typical for a Swedish town. In the outskirts cosy wooden houses, cottages and mansions are preva-lent. In the centre you encounter substantial masonry buildings dating from around 1900 and occasional older buildings. The great demolition craze that hit so many Swedish towns after the Second World War did some damage here.

    AS A FIRST-TIME VISITOR you are easily led to believe that Karlskrona is a lot larger than what really is the case. In the beginning the planners had grandiose plans. They designed the place after Italian models with broad main streets in a grid layout. At the top of the main island they laid out a monumental town square with two churches and the Town Hall. But do not let this fool you. Karlskrona is no more than a small town, albeit one of great beauty. At least in my eyes.

    This is my town

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  • IF YOU DO STREET PHOTOGRAPHY in Tokyo or Karl-skrona some basic principles always apply. The first and most important one is that street photography is about to describe life as it is lived in the public space and to do that in a documentary way. Thus, a street photographer is an observer who mirrors reality with a camera.

    The public space need not be urban. It can be a park, a beach, an amusement park, a market place or a shopping centre. The place does need to be one where people gather and interact with each other and with the environ-ment they are in.

    SINCE STREET PHOTOGRAPHY ASPIRES to be docu-mentary the photos cannot be arranged. That is as true in a great city as in a small town. As soon as you try to control what is happening by giving directions or inter-vening in any other way you are no longer doing street photography.

    The decisive moment is another important principle. In essence it says that street photos as a rule capture a spe-cial occasion, a human condition or a story of sorts in just one exposure. Street photography hardly ever uses series of pictures to show a course of events or follows certain people during a certain time. That type of photography is rather to be considered as traditional documentary photography or photo reportage.

    These basic principles apply in a small town as well as in a large city. Now let us look at the differences.

    Elements of Street Photography

    The decisive moment is another important prin-ciple.

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  • READING ABOUT STREET PHOTOGRAPHY you will come across tips that seem a bit comical if you try to ap-ply them to this noble art in a small town. For example: Take your picture quickly and then disappear right away into the crowd. I think that anyone who says such a thing never has done street photography outside a major city. You better forget a manoeuvre of this kind immediately.

    In a small town you will rather have to use substantial dis-tances and realize that there are no thick crowds. A per-son you just photographed may well reappear just around the block five minutes later. Doing street photography in a small town simply means that you are much more visible, whether you like it or not. That is the fundamental difference between small town and big city.

    The best method is to act openly and naturally with your camera. No hiding or stealth - that just seems creepy. Instead, put into practice to radiate confidence. What you are doing is nothing strange. A photographer who is just standing there with his or her camera in the open will quickly be uninteresting. When people have noticed you they generally tend to continue with their business and you can take your photos with ease.

    To shoot photos in the streets of a small town

    TIP: Always be available if someone wants to ask what you are up to. Especially a person you just photographed. To sneak away does not work in a small town. Sooner or later you will be recognized. Then the confrontation might take place in a less pleasant way.

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  • SOMETIMES EVEN THE MOST confident of photogra-phers is likely to have a problem when photographing strangers. For the beginner the very thought might be frightening. In particular in a small town where, as I said, you cannot hide in the crowds as you can in a bustling metropolis. The risk for embarrassing situations to occur is simply huge. At least it is felt that way.

    A pretty good way to get around this is to practice when there are more people in motion than usual. Look for town celebrations, fairs, events, Saturdays when shops are open extra long hours, and so on. As a rule people do not care about someone who walks around with a camera under those circumstances. This means that you feel more comfortable.

    ANOTHER METHOD is to turn the camera towards peo-ple who make shows or deliberately present themselves in the public space. For example musicians, street theatre groups, entertainers or skateboarding youth. Again, more often than not it is wholly possible to keep snapping without appearing too strange.

    So if you are a beginner or feel uncomfortable, it is a good idea to start in these situations. Often enough you will find it easier to get the images that you feel happy with, too. This in turn will be a spur to move forward with street photography in other contexts.

    TIP: If you are looking for portrait-like images of people that look naturally laid back it is a use-ful trick to stay where many people pass by. Most people do not mind moving past someone who just stands there with a camera.

    For the beginner the very thought might be frightening

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  • THE SMALL TOWN might have a limited wealth of people and vibrant environments. That means that you as a street photographer will have to find places with a lot of people around. By and large that is in front of the downtown shopping centre, at a crossing or at meeting places such as the town square, parks or the travel centre.

    There you can stroll around at a leisurely pace and find your subjects without attracting too much at-tention. Or simply stay in a good spot and wait for something to happen. Just be careful not to overuse a few chosen environments. That is easily done when you know that these give great picture opportunities. Do remember to find different views and new angles.

    Locate your watering holes

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  • ABOUT THREE OCLOCK in the afternoon on a typical Saturday shop owners shut their doors for the weekend. Within minutes, the streets are emptied of people. With luck, one can see a lonely soul rush across the square carrying a liquor bag. Thats what you see in many Swedish towns a normal weekend afternoon. Even the restaurants and cafes are empty.

    In a big city, you can go outdoors almost any time and still be served a multitude of people. Not so in a small town. Therefore it is important to learn the towns rhythm and know when its time to head out with the camera. Often its on Saturdays until the the shops close. Weekday mornings can be good, and weekdays from lunchtime onwards. Thats when most things happen in a small town.

    THE SAME THING IS TRUE with the seasons. In a big city you must push your way through the masses even in November. At that time a small township looks like an aban-doned Western town. A depressing sight for a photographer who wants to picture life in the street. Of course you can take pictures even during the winter months, but do recognize that you may have to work extra hard. If you really want to shoot street photography in the winter months the best op-portunities appear around Christmas and New Year.

    The time can be critical

    TIP: On a real good summer's day even a small town can offer a big city-like street life. Mostly during the holiday season. Then there is not only tourists wandering around, but also the locals are on the move much more than the rest of the year. This means good photo opportunities.

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  • Townspeople have their own conventions

    You are not close enoughA common mistake is to shoot from too far away. The reason is often that the photographer has not had the courage to get close enough. Remember that proximity is an important factor to make your images interesting.

    You hesitateAnother mistake is to refrain from capturing photos even if you suspect that the possibility is there. This is usually due to uncertainty or that you really do not dare. Take the picture first and think later is a common advice from experienced street photogra-phers.

    You give upEven if you miss your picture on the first try, do not give up. Quite often, a street photographer gains by hanging around and trying again. Not infrequently new situations occur or people repeat their behav-iour.

    You get no facesStreet Photos without faces are surprisingly com-mon. Silhouettes, averted heads or back panels dominate. Pictures showing the faces of people are almost always better and more alive.

    You missed an occasionTo be interesting a street photo image needs some-thing to happenin the picture. It can be an electrify-ing composition, something that stands out, that you are really close to people, or all of this together.

    FIVE COMMON MISTAKES

    THERE ARE STUDIES that show that people in smaller communities need a greater distance to their neighbours in order to feel comfortable and secure. A street pho-tographer can hit upon this fact from time to time. More often than not townspeople will pay attention if you get too close simply because it is not normal to have strang-ers close up. Especially so if an unfamiliar person has a camera in front of his or her face.

    Townspeople are not accustomed to people doing things in the public space that go against normal behaviour. Sometimes you need very little to be noticed in a small town. This means that you as a street photographer might stand out when you spend time on the streets with your camera. A certain type of people can be curious and interested. It need not happen, but do not be surprised if it happens.

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  • A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER must have great patience to walk around the streets for hours, day in and day out. A good street photographic image can never be rushed. Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson is often described as the father of street photography. He used to say that the really good pictures show up when they want. Suddenly, there they are, just there in front of you. Then you need to be prepared. He knew what he was talking about.

    This is particularly evident in a small town. At worst, you wear the pavements for days on end and do not get a single usable image. Then you can do what I mentioned earlier: take into account the citys intrinsic rhythm and think about where and when people gather in a natural way.

    Unfortunately it might not be possible to do this often enough. You are not free to get out in the most favour-able conditions all the time. Most of us have, after all, both a regular job and a family to consider.

    IN THIS CONTEXT it is important to remember that it isnt useless to go out at other times or to look at less promising places. It may be right there and then real gems pop up. Yes, even those pictures that are typical of small town. But, as I said, you need to have patience. Passion may be a more appropriate word.

    You need the patience of an angel

    The really good pictures show up when they want

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  • STREET PHOTOGRAPHY communities frequently discuss if it is okay to ask for permission before taking a picture. The strict school is negative because all off-guard expres-sions disappear once the photographer reveals his or her purpose. Although this is true in most cases, it may be okay to ask in some situations as long you as a street photographer do not try to arrange a situation.

    In a small town, this method can even be entirely neces-sary. Look for example at the picture above. On the left was taken in Siena, Italy. The man stands in one of the main streets where a sea of people passes every day. This image was shot just a few meters from his face when there was a gap among all those passing by. The man did not notice anything. The picture to the right was taken in one in the almost deserted street in Karlskrona. It had not

    been possible to use the same technique. It had simply been close to impossible to get the picture without ask-ing. After having been asked the woman continued her smoking and remained in the same position. So all went well. Two different methods, the same result.

    Do dare to ask

    It may be okay to ask in some situations

    TIP: Remember that you can ask for permission in several ways. Asking need not mean a spoken question. Sometimes its about visual contact, that you...