I started shooting street photography a year ago through a course assignment at Austin School of Photography. Up until that time, all of my work was very sterile; concentrating on the technicalities of photography, but not driven by a focus or desire for content. I was shooting a lot of time lapses and "travel style" photography, and though I enjoy them both, much of those styles can be obtained by enabling the "auto" functions on your camera. With all the benefits that modern technology has brought to the world of digital media, I think one of the most influential is the increasing affordability of "smart" media tools for both amateurs and professionals.
While some commodities have increased in price over the last few decades, quality cameras and video equipment are available at sometimes half of the standards of ten years ago. That goes to say, though, the advent of the smart phone has forever changed our industry. Despite the new pricing benchmarks at the consumer and professional end, nine out of ten consumers prefer using a smart phone as their main camera over a dedicated system.
Widely documented effects of this can be seen in instances such as that of the Chicago Sun-Times, which let go of its entire photo staff in May of 2013. As the news industry shifts and consolidates, expenses have to be trimmed. The thinking of those in charge of the Sun-Times' media coverage is that the photos featured in their stories merely need to convey a basic sense of what's taking place in the article. For every story, there is already at least one journalist sent out to obtain the what's relevant and important, so let's eliminate the need for another staff member (and department) entirely, and start snapping images with smart phones. Therefore, the Sun-Times cleaned house and enacted mandatory "iPhone Photography Basics" courses for all of its journalists.
I may discuss the evolving photographic look that's desired due to the iPhone and social media, but in general, I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from using their phone as a camera. To that point, I feel that the sweeping changes taking place in the photographic marketplace can only be embraced with a sense of possibility. It would be disingenuous to say that people will only benefit from these advances because some will ultimately lose work and the marketplace will continue to increase in competitiveness, however, I know that I wouldn't have been able to pursue this dream in the same way in decades past, because we truly are living in one of the greatest time periods for this profession. As much has changed in the past half-century, one can only imagine what a camera will resemble or do fifty years from now.
Barring the development of artificial intelligence, though, one thing that has been and will remain a constant is that there is nothing your camera does for you through "auto" features that you are not capable of achieving on your own. Moreover, the camera cannot see the entire scene the way you can, and knowing that there are generally 50+ ways you could capture elements of a given scenario, your camera will likely not capture what you can see to be possible. Knowing that, and understanding the limitations of modern cameras and smart phones, drives photographers to view their surroundings differently. If everyone is taking the same pictures the same way, what is there to separate the "good" from the "bad?"
Through social media we are swamped with photos of those we follow. The average smart phone camera user has evolved during this technological infancy period, growing to appreciate certain traits and characteristics of the media they encounter. Even if it's on a subconscious level, the average iPhotographer has increased their "photographic IQ" since the device's inception, establishing specific styles of shooting and observing. We live in a day where the world is just beginning to truly be documented, capturing images that were never before possible or would otherwise never be shared with the masses. New systems and methods of cataloging have had to be developed simply to process and contain the massive amounts of data that we are capturing and creating.
This brings me to my reasons for starting this blog. On a fundamental level, one of the main aspects that I enjoy while practicing street photography, is that it challenges me as a person more than as a photographer. I usually walk around in the evenings for photos, and after living in Austin for some time, I've become pretty familiarized with the area: Who hangs out on what corners, what time it gets busy, what days of the month will be slow, etc. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm using just one camera and one lens (5d3 and 24 f1.4), so my settings rarely deviate from where I start them. With all of that, there's a certain monotony that can take place. What drives me, though, is the fact that at any given time, there is at least one person and scene on the street downtown that would make for an incredible portrait. The photo is out there, the question is, "Will anyone be able to get it?"
I'm a slightly introverted person by nature, so there's a certain amount of fear and anxiety that comes up for me if I know I'm going to put myself in a public situation with a person whom I do not know and ask their permission if I can take their photo. This is exaggerated by the fact that I shoot portraits with a wide-angle, non-zoom lens, so the "sweet spot" of the lens' distance relative to the subject is about 8-12 inches. However, as much of a challenge as the scene and subject may give, the payoff throughout the entire process is almost always exponentially greater, as it forces me to move past my own hang ups in that moment.
Even if it's in mild doses, there is usually some sense of euphoria that onsets when a person feels they can be authentic and open with a complete stranger. Whether through the exchange of stories or simply from being present, it's a little hard to place, but I find I can lose myself in that "present" moment and look up hours later with a catalog of images documenting the way I saw the world that night.
As much as I enjoy television, I find it interesting to compare the images that I take of people that I meet with the characters that I watch on TV and in the movies. It reinforces the notion for me that television projects a world where all of the bits we don't want to show are hidden. The paradigm I've gathered from this experience thus far is that everyone has a story, everyone struggles, and everyone is human.
With that, and as busy and hectic as downtown Austin can be, the challenge that I pose to myself with this project is to learn to spot the person and the story that's truly worth telling in that moment. So to say, in a room full of yelling, can I learn to hear a whisper?
Here are the seven shots from this week. (Click the image to flip through)