What’s In a Good Documentary/Street Photograph?

Even in the genre of documentary or street photography there are many different “types” of photographs. And it’s tough to put a finger on just what exactly makes an image memorable or “worthy” of being a keeper.

I have pondered that question for years now. And even after trying desperately to separate myself from my own images I often ask myself, “What is it that makes me want to keep this image?”

There is no doubt that the viewer’s own background or upbringing has an influence on what they may think is interesting to look at, and we know that all art can be quite subjective. But in a much broader sense, I think there can be several reasons that separate keeper images from trash photos.

1.) Composition (Does it work? Is it not bothersome or distracting? Is it interesting?)

2.) Moment (Did you capture an event or a gesture that is memorable or interesting?)

3.) Interaction (Is there an interaction, a lack of interaction, or a dissonance between the players?)

4.) Mood (Does the image evoke an immediate feeling?)

5.) Humor (Is there irony, strangeness, or something that stereotypes a place?)

6.) Soul (Does the image go deeper? Often, images of individuals for example, can convey something more than what is on the surface forcing the viewer to ask questions and search for hidden truths.)

7.) Spirit (Does the image describe something about the human condition or good/bad traits that people have?)

8.) Identification (Is the image representative of something or some place that you have experienced and can personally identify with?)

9.) Transcendence ( Is the image universal in it’s effect on all human beings? Is there something about it that transcends the here and now that will make it timeless? Could it appeal to the emotions of anyone?)

Let’s use a very simple example that I think we can all identify with: A person walking down the street.

– a person walking down the street in a great composition is more interesting to look at than just a person walking down the street
– an interesting-looking person doing something while walking down the street is more appealing to look at than just someone walking down the street
– multiple people and how they interact or don’t interact are more interesting to look at than just an individual walking down the street
– a person walking down the street in a driving wind and rainstorm is more interesting to look at that just a person walking down the street
– a person overcome by laughter walking down the street is more interesting to look at than just a person walking down the street
– a person walking down the street who is angry because a seagull just defecated on their hair is more interesting to look at than just a person walking down the street
– an elderly gentleman out for a stroll, wearing a beret with a kind look on his face walking down the street, hands clasped behind his back with the Eiffel tower in the background is more interesting to look at than just a person walking down any street
– a person crying tears of joy and shouting out to the world while holding his winning lottery ticket in the air would be more interesting to look at than just a photo of someone walking down the street
– a person in tattered blood-stained clothes holding a small child walking down the street crying because their village had just been bombed by rebel forces would have a deep emotional effect on anyone – more so than just someone walking down the street

So even in a simple example such as walking down the street there could be many different levels of appeal that the photograph could take on. I often keep this in mind when looking for photographs and even more so when editing my work.

For those wanting to learn more about street photography, I hope that a few of these thoughts will help you out.

Happy Shooting,

Doug

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