Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Proxemic Approach to Street and Travel Photography (Part 3)

Part 1 introduced Edward Hall in the context of street photography. Part 2 explored the application of his theories to photography in the context of the "decisive moment." We now wrap things up with getting you out on the street and using proxemics to see more images.

Street Proxemics


Applying Hall's proxemic concepts is not only easy to put into practice, but it will help you see and anticipate many more decisive moments. The first step is to orient yourself.

Don't get so absorbed in what you're looking at that you can no longer see!
The process of street photography is to open ourselves to a variety of situations and discover which of them engages us. In any scene which makes us stop and look there is something which has grabbed our attention. What sparked the interest may not be apparent or obvious, and even if you think it is obvious your idea will improve by working the scene. This is done by simply engaging with the moment, and letting your seeing become perception. Take the good host's role we discussed in Part 2: observe from a distance and consider the composition of a potential image. As you start to rapidly narrow down what it is about the scene which intrigues you, observe the interaction of the people in the scene and start to integrate yourself into the public space. During this time you may be taking pictures, trying different angles and orientations, but you'll also be observing the patterns of your subjects' conduct.
Waiting for a street performance to start provided the necessary distraction to make the shot.
As you observe, the patterns will become obvious. With Hall in mind, you'll be able to determine who is intimately involved, and separate them out from people who are merely sharing limited space on a park bench. Depending on factors such as the subject's age and sex, you'll quickly notice their use of space. As you narrow down your subject, you'll start to notice the individual patterns of behavior. This is when you'll start to perceive the decisive moments of the scene, and more importantly how to time them. Through observation, you'll also be able to assess how tolerant the subject may be to you positioning yourself closer.

If you observe so that you can time the moment, getting in close does not require an invasion of privacy.
Hall helps again by helping us understand that in any public situation, critical distance is at its greatest for a stranger. Accordingly, the more time you spend integrating yourself into the environment, the less of a stranger you become, and your continued presence on the periphery allows the critical distance to reduce.

Public transportation serves as a good example. You can observe at any bus stop the pattern of new people arriving to wait for the bus. The new person is the stranger to those already waiting. But as time passes, and yet more people arrive to wait, the person who was the stranger becomes a familiar and will move closer to the original group with each successive newcomer. Those newcomers will, in turn, reduce the critical distance as their presence becomes assimilated by the other people who are waiting.
Ride the bus long enough, and you'll blend in—even in Paris.
Importantly, this process is non-verbal. There is no need for introductions or conversation. Acceptance is a matter of familiarity, and verbal communication has as great a chance of resetting the critical distance—albeit with a new set of criteria—as it does for reducing it. Likewise, eye contact or staring communicates a form of interest or acknowledgement which triggers emotional levels of comfort, and can as easily lead to misunderstandings as it can to relaxation of your subject because it obligates your subject to form an emotional evaluation of you and your intentions.

For the style of street photography we are discussing, the goal is to capture people in their most natural state, and not the mask they use in asserting their personal space. The best approach, therefore, is to  assimilate yourself simply with time, and not through a forced attempt to make your subjects accept you by engaging with them.
Waiting is the hardest part.
As disconcerting as eye contact can be among strangers, the gaze of a camera is worse. At the base of proxemics is the fundamental notion that we as individuals respond when we perceive attention. A camera represents a very high level of concentrated attention to which most everyone reacts because it's a form of staring.

Again, proxemics helps by reducing the time we need to be looking though the viewfinder. If you've been perceiving your subject, you'll have an understanding of the patterns of behavior. Whether it's a particular approach to flipping the pages of a newspaper, the stride of a walk, how your subject takes a drag on a cigarette, or when the couple will hold hands again, there will be a pattern to the conduct which will let you anticipate the subject's action, enabling you to make exposure and framing decisions before lifting the camera.
There's no reason to stare through the camera if you're anticipating when moments will happen.

In this short clip of Cartier-Bresson taking pictures on the street, you can see him applying the simple rules: observe, integrate, plan the shot, and then unobtrusively and quickly take it:



The world is the stage photographers witness to find their artistic expression. The process involves getting in touch with the fundamental ideas which compel us to make pictures, and to engage with our subjects. In fulfilling these purposes, it is vital to not only have respect for our own creative process, but to respect that our subjects are individuals engaged in their own development and existences. Approaching street photography with humility, grace, and respect for our subjects is the path to better pictures.
Up close and personal, but still not interrupting his read.
The Washington Post's obituary for Cartier-Bresson singled out these significant facts of his approach to street photography:
Likewise, he never used his camera to intrude on moments he considered too private for others. That contributed to winning cooperation from such people as William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, each captured in rare moments of unguardedness. 
Like his admirer Diane Arbus, he spent considerable time with his camera subjects before finding just the right moment to take the best shot.
There are fewer better rules to live by: don't intrude on other's privacy, and take time to relate to your subject before you start taking pictures. Understanding proxemics sets you far down the path of achieving both these worthy goals.