Focus on concept over aesthetics in documentary street and social photography

There seems to be a tendency in current photography lenses to get a “look” at his work. I think this is a short-sighted goal and that a cohesive aesthetic is more the result of careful curation of a large number of works, rather than something that should be deliberately achieved.

I think a common process for newcomers to a genre of photography is to research it, see what styles of work already exist and what conversation they will contribute to. It’s not necessarily always a bad thing, but I often think that this kind of analysis of the existing aesthetic leads people to adopt this visual language and reduces their own gradual trial-and-error approach to something truly unique. .

It really does make sense, although it’s something I largely object to; people find out about the work of photographers like Bruce Gilden, or Fan Ho, and they’re like, “oh, that’s street photography,” and then they go out and create around that approach.

By adopting a “look” rather than working through a process of intention and trial and error, it also means that one of the semiotic or conceptual associations of this style is also adopted, whether or not it is l ‘intention. For example, the “new wave” style of street photography borrows heavily from the film noir genre and involves the visual language of shadows and silhouettes, which have connotations of mystery, anonymity and ambiguity.

While these can produce a beautiful aesthetic image, they’re not always the best place to start if the intention is to convey something specific. For example, I wouldn’t hire someone who photographs specifically in the new wave style to shoot a wedding – it just wouldn’t tell the necessary story where character and expression would be the priority.

Instead, a better way to work in my opinion is to start with the concept or theme. This way, I don’t just shoot in a style and force everything else to adapt to that language. Instead, I’ll be able to take a lot of different visual tools and apply them appropriately – maybe not as easy as it looks if you’re used to shooting in one style.

For example, if we take one of these new wave connotations, mystery, and use it as a starting point, then there are a number of directions in which we could take this photo. Unlimited by aesthetic constraints, we could photograph a number of situations or characters without even considering producing anything close to a new wave style image.

Creative framing in a way that informs our narrative seems to be a much truer and simpler way to represent an idea, and I think that’s true for a lot of the themes that we try to interpret photographically. A photograph of joy doesn’t necessarily limit the photographer to laughing / smiling people, grief isn’t just tears, and anger isn’t just violence. There are more abstract ways of representing a concept than these more basic forms, and in turn images produced with strong intention give the audience a little more to unpack and interpret; sometimes even in a way that the photographer himself has not seen, leading to different readings of the same image.

While this happens in aesthetically driven work, there is little left for the photographer. Instead, audiences are just projecting their association with this style rather than having something substantial in the first place. Once again, in the case of these new wave light architectures, of these silhouette shots, any real meaning is entirely a matter of reading things on the part of the public, and rarely of the intention of the artist. All these ideas of mystery and ambiguity are not the starting point for this kind of images, aesthetics are.

In my opinion, the ‘aesthetics first’ mentality results in some very beautiful but inherently empty images. Working with the concept first means that all the layers of semiotics, of history and in general of content image will be more unique to that image – allowing the photographer to make photographs with rich meaning and wonderful aesthetics while still allowing the audience to read them if the context is removed. Regardless of how the work is presented, the initial intention is the key for a photographer to truly elevate the storytelling potential of an image.

I think what has been eroded to some extent is the role of trial and error, research and soul-searching, in the pursuit of “aesthetics.” Instead of working on producing a body of work based on stories, personal projects, it’s about the overall look and aesthetics, without depth – and again, that’s fine. if the intention of the photographer is simply to follow the movements, but when they are really wanting to produce a work with depth, it is a shame to be caught up in the superficial aspects of the craft.

Currently, this informs one of the tips I give my students the most: concept first. Understand what stories you seek to tell, what values ​​you hold about situations and times. Once they have that, any aesthetic decision about makeup is a series of compromises around what’s available. This locks the focus on the moment and the situation, and away from any preconditions like light or color palette.

This ties in with my exercise of describing the world to myself during the shoot. If something makes an interesting description, even slightly, then it will usually translate into a picture quite well. More often than not, this description implies an activity, something that is actually happening, as opposed to the appearance of something.

This means that my work is currently based on action, interaction, gesture and emotion – but the light and color is not what I’m looking for at all, not like it used to be when I was shooting a short story. wave. approach. Currently things like light and composition are things I have to work on, not towards, and to create an image despite not because of.

If the only aspect of an image worth complimenting has to do with composition or lighting, that means I didn’t go far enough to find a character, time, or situation that was good enough. If I can look at a photo and understand the Why of the image, beyond just being pretty to look at, I would say this is a photo that I will continue to be happy with for a long time to come.

About the Author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist who is currently working on a number of long-term street photography and documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in street photography at UAL, which you can read here.

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