On the street

“There are two types of street photographers: Those that have been yelled at, and those that are about to be yelled at.”   -Me

It happens. Comes with the turf. Some people just don’t like having their pictures taken, and I try to respect that.

I’ve been yelled at before, and although it’s an unpleasant experience, it’ll probably happen again. I’ll usually just sheepishly smile, and walk away. 

Then there are those that demand that you delete the photo that you took. Well, that’s up to me. If the person asks me in a civil manner, I’d probably do it. (What’s one photo? Is that picture really going to become one of the highlights of my hobby? Probably not.)

If they’re being an asshole, I’ll just ignore them, and keep walking. 

I was walking through Trinity Bellwoods Park a couple of years ago, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, with my camera slung around my neck, and even though I wasn’t about to, this guy who was tanning, wearing nothing but a thong, started yelling at me not to take his picture. 

Holy fuck! My hands weren’t even on my camera. 

“Why the fuck would I want to take YOUR picture, asshole?” Or words to that effect.

Seems these days, more than ever, some people really go out of their way to find things to be offended with.

On the other hand, most people just don’t care, but, I see the point of those that are wary. Everybody’s got a camera these days, and most of us are aware that photographs can be used online to embarrass, or shame, and that’s the problem. Abuse.

What are you trying to say with your photo? How does it affect others? It’s a bit of a moral paradox. Yes, you’re perfectly within your rights to photograph anyone in a public space -at least in my country, but should you? Here in Toronto, women won the right to go topless in public years ago, but do they? Choose your battles wisely. 

There are those that feel that one should never photograph the homeless, or less fortunate, or people in distress. Do I? Sure do -but not for what I feel are exploitative purposes, and not any more than I would photograph anyone else doing something I thought was interesting. Am I to pretend that these people don’t even exist? They are a part of humanity. I don’t take any more, or any less, of any group of people.

I am mildly amused at the fact that I don’t really have any friends, (I have plenty of ‘associates’) I don’t ‘hang out,’ and I avoid socializing whenever possible, yet I still like to take pictures of strangers. Maybe that’s the allure. I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. Guess that makes me a flaneur. People are an interesting subject; sometimes for the right, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. 

The badass in the picture above, just showed up at the coffee shop I was sitting in one afternoon. My camera was sitting on the table in front of me, so I asked if I could take his picture. This guy just knew he looked good. He does.

Beaten by the pros. Or, you can’t win.

Years ago, about 1995, I guess, (I just googled the shit out of it, and can’t find anything about it online) there was a massive fire just up the street from where I now live. I just happened to be right nearby, because there’s a road with a train crossing about 100m away, and I was standing there that morning (hopefully) taking pictures of passing trains.

I heard the sirens first, and looked around and saw the smoke. I walked over, and saw the blaze. I was there before any other press showed up, and at the time, there was only one fire truck, and the Fire Marshall’s vehicle.

Naturally, I started taking pictures.

Within minutes, a fleet of other fire trucks showed up, spilling out frantic firemen doing their jobs, and a hoard of police, ambulance, and rescue service vehicles had arrived on the scene.

Then the press showed up. 

Because they were press, they seemed to be able to ignore the security tape strung from pole to pole with impunity, so I thought to myself, “I’ll just go where they go, and try to blend in.” Short of having press credentials, it wasn’t too hard, because back then, I had my (slightly obsolete, but still quite useful) Nikon F3, with a motor drive, and a couple of good lenses.  Adding to my credibility, I saw a pro photographer in the pack, who had an identical set-up as mine!

I was super excited to be standing among the pros, even though they just nonchalantly banged off shots as if they were doing rote photography of students for a high school yearbook. 

I had the gear, I was in the right place, at the right time, and I still recall that I was shooting with Kodak Ektachrome 100 slide film, so I knew I had the ‘pro’ level quality for everything.

Now, the rest was up to whether I was capable.

I fired off two rolls of 36 frames -that was all I had on me at the time, and figuring I’d gotten all I could, with what I had, I jumped on my bike, and headed down to the lab to get my stuff processed. Normally, it would take a couple of days to get slides back from the lab, but because it was still morning, and because I was a good customer (I’d spent thousands in that place getting stuff developed over the years) they told me they might be able to get it back to me by the end of the day!

I grabbed a few more rolls of Ektachrome, then went back to the fire, and shot off another couple of rolls of the last of the blaze being extinguished, and the mess being cleaned up. 

I was dying to see what I had gotten that morning, and so later that day, just before the shop closed, I went back to the lab to get my slides.

Well… I was a little impressed with myself. I had captured different scenes that showed the drama of the fire from various angles, as well as the brave (and I’m not saying that lightly here. In places, where I was standing, the heat was ferocious. They were much closer. And the massive walls that eventually came crashing down could have fallen on them at any time!) firemen working hard to douse the inferno.

I was pleased with myself!

I watched the news coverage of the fire that night on TV, and found out that it was one of the biggest blazes Toronto had seen in decades. Firemen from all over southern Ontario were called in to help. Fortunately, apart from a few cases of smoke inhalation, no one was seriously hurt.

I was curious to see what the papers would print the next day. Surely, what I had gotten would stand with what they were going to print?

The next morning, I went out to the news box to grab the dailies, to see the shots that they used.

Taking up almost a whole half page on the front of The Toronto Star, was an overhead shot taken from a helicopter! A mutherfucking HELICOPTER!!  How the fuck do you compete with that?!? I never stood a chance…

The above two shots are survivors of that long ago shoot. As mentioned, both started out their lives as slides, but were digitally duped. From the first, I can definitely tell it was Ektachrome. It’s got that saturated red and blue look to it. The second was robbed of it’s colour by yours truly.

Breaking some rules

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta chuck the rules. Sometimes, things like motion blur, out of focus subjects, grossly over, or under-exposed light are part of the story.

The photojournalism approach. Get the shot, even at the expense of technique.

However, the best photojournalists know know all the rules, and know how to break them in ways that actually add to the story they’re trying to tell. Unless you’re trying to do something like Richard Billingham, that, to me, seems the way to go.

Make the effort trying to learn -or at least understand all the rules, then, spend the rest of your life mostly trying to ignore them.

The above, from a purely technical standpoint, are rather shitty photos, but putting them into context allows me to ignore all the flaws.

The first, taken with a phone cam, is someone doing what we’ve all done plenty of times before. Getting out of the rain.

The next two, were taken the night the Raptors won the NBA championship. People were running amok, celebrating, and high-fiving strangers. (If you’ve ever thought of getting into street photography, start by going to a big celebratory event, or something like it. People are more likely to want to have their photos taken, or are at least more accepting.)

It was nearing midnight, on a Tuesday, so obviously, the lack of light was going to be a big concern. High ISOs, and the lowest possible shutter speeds I could get away with, meant there was going to be some grain, and motion blur. 

I’m no photojournalist, that’s for sure, but I thought of some of the things that I had learned -wide angle lens; get in close; shoot lots, and did my best.

I’m happy with what I got.

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