Feedback is essential to developing our skills, and social media for all of it’s faults can often be the best place for that feedback to be found. Its faceless and at times can be incredibly cruel but also, occasionally spot on. When I posted a street photograph and received the comment ‘Boring’ from a photographer who’s judgement I trusted, I took a second look at the work I had so proudly displayed less than an hour earlier, just as soon as I had calmed down.
There was nothing technically wrong with the image. It’s sharp enough, it’s exposed correctly (albeit maybe a little high key) and the subject, the guy against the wall, well it’s nothing against him whatsoever (please don’t take offence if you ever see this).
The fault, if that’s what we’re going to call it, was the subject matter. People on phones are largely detached emotionally from the scene. There is a metaphorical gap between the viewer / photographer and the story within. A simple image of someone on their phone just didn’t ‘do it for me’ and I guess this was what the critic was getting at too. I decided there and then, to simply avoid photographing people that were using a mobile device.
And here lies the problem…
Spend any significant amount of time in a major city (London and Birmingham are my main stomping grounds) and you will quickly notice that everyone is on their phone. It’s a social epidemic. Everywhere you look people are texting, talking, tweeting, catching up on last night’s goals or seeing who’s ‘dissing’ who in the world of reality TV. It’s a fact of modern life that we simply cannot do without our gadgets. Perhaps it’s more noticeable in the city where said gadgets are stashed away in drawers most of the day, then freed to allow us to binge feed our habits as we go to grab a coffee or walk between meetings? I’m as guilty, and it drives me nuts too.
So, if I can’t avoid photographing folk on their phones, and people are what make the image, what could I do? Well this sounded like a challenge and the makings of a micro project right there, something I thrive on. I started thinking how I could incorporate distracted people into an image and still make it eye catching and noteworthy, whilst being complimentary to the subject at the same time.
Armed with a Fujifilm X-Pro2 and Fujinon 35mm f/2 prime lens, I took to the streets looking for stories. I tried playing with shadows, bold colours, motion blur and when the person wasn’t enough (I stress again through no fault of their own) I turned my attention to their surroundings and let some of the marvellous modern city architecture bring the interest. I have photographed in the rain and in strong sunlight. I have photographed people through the windows of a moving underground train (that took quite a few attempts, trust me), and at night, using the light from the handheld device to illuminate the face.
As with my landscape work, my first glance at a new image is always to see what is wrong with it, rather than what is right. I find this is the only way I learn and hopefully improve. In this instance, I initially focussed my attention on the man in the picture, the subject of the image was 100% him, and this was the wrong thing to do. I was being lazy, spotted an easy, static target and forgot to either a) tell a story, or b) create mystery.
Avoiding the ‘boring’ image is essential if we are trying to engage with the third person, in this case the viewer. Self-critique is one of the hardest skills to develop. Of course, we love our own work, were attached to it emotionally and have invested time and effort to create it, but some of the best photographers I know, are also some the most self-critical. ‘Is it boring?’ is now the first thing I ask myself when reviewing an image or scene.
I guess I still have a lot to learn in the field of street photography but little failures like the source image, and that honest feedback it received was an example of exactly what we need every now and then to make the progress we desire.