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Updated: Dec 1, 2023

You can ask a room full of photographers "what is street photography?" and you'll get an overabundance of very similar, yet somehow quite different definitions. And probably start a fight if you're not careful. In the many years I have been discussing street with other photographers, I found that we can all agree on a few aspects such as: The photo should be taken from a public place, it should be a candid image, and it should be pleasing to the eye and/or tell a story with a sense or hint of humanity. And that is my base definition of street photography. Pretty simple, right? You would think so...

But things are never really that simple, are they? It almost seems like there is no legitimate, concretized definition to this genre of photography that most people can fully agree on. Why is that? Well, the way I see it, it basically comes down to two main factors (there are more, but I want to focus on the main two that really jumped out at me the most from from my time dealing with the subject), and they are: Inspiration/influence and morals/ethics.

For example, someone who is influenced by, say, Bruce Gilden, will be quite adamant that getting up close and personal and firing a flash in a random characters' face is the way to go, and even if things escalate, the ends by far justify the means. Whereas someone who was influenced by an artist such as Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB), who favours the more discreet approach of observing and shooting a scene with natural light and/or graphical elements, will find the prior method unethical because you are no longer an observer, but influencing your subject by interacting with them, usually to get a desired reaction or facial expression. I am not one to judge which form is better or worse, or which is more or less "street". Both techniques have produced some iconic, timeless images with the right vision and technique. So, which approach do I prefer? Personally, out of all the different styles to document the streets, I favour the HCB approach. Observing and blending with the crowd to find the right scene, and then firing the shutter at the decisive moment. To be perfectly candid (pun absolutely intended), I prefer this approach mainly due to my personality. I am an introvert, and getting up close and personal with people is not really my favourite thing to do. But, if you are the opposite of me, you might find my way of doing things boring and want to dive in to a crowd of people to pick out a few faces that catch your eye. Either way works.

When it comes down to what is street photography, there are lots of definitions out there, some people even take it literally by saying that "if it's not urban, or in a city, it's not street". And yet street photography has many sub-genres that are not situated in urban areas, beaches, for example, can sometimes be a hot topic if someone is not familiar with the works of, say, Martin Parr.

So, when I get asked what is Street photography, I say: it is taking a well composed, candid photograph from a public space, showing human influence, and adding what inspires you and where you draw the line in terms of acceptable behavior with a camera out in public into the mix. And that is why I believe that there doesn't seem to be a solid definition or answer to the question: "What is street photography?", so many people make their own definition with their influences, experiences, and vision.


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