Recently I read something that talked about how street photography tends to make people look like “animals in a zoo,” which sounds like criticism, but can be seen as a compliment, depending on who holds the peanuts. Even in the work of photographers whose work I enjoy looking at and learning from, there is often a palpable distance between photographer and subject, no matter how physically close the two may be. (I’d like to say the distance is metaphysical, but I’m not really comfortable with the wideness of what metaphysical means.)
Anyhoo, from what I can see, the bridge across this “looking at people as if they’re animals in the zoo” issue is Access. Access can be bestowed on you by someone, as in “come photograph me!” or “here’s your press pass!” or you can create it yourself. Not to beat a horse, but there’s quite a bit in the Arbus biography about how she created her own access to subjects (and there’s this bit about what it was like to be on the other end of her lens).
I have very little real experience with creating my own access, but when I’ve taken that extra step, it’s proven to be completely worthwhile. While photographing on the street is an amazing, unpredictible stew, making a great photograph of a stranger will always be a photograph of a stranger no matter how startling, insightful, or decisive.
The reason I keep mentioning Arbus is that she was able to push her work from the street into houses and apartments and bedrooms where her photographs grew and gathered great force. And it seems that if one is interested in making good pictures, there may be a natural trajectory in at least attempting to create access that normally wouldn’t be there. (And by access, I mean conversationally, even. Try talking with your subject. This sequence (and this shot in particular) is a good online example of that.) If you’ve grown comfortable with photographing on the street, why not push yourself to do something uncomfortable, like photographing off the street, in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar subject?
There’s a great, practical tidbit about access in this interview, and there are as many ways to create access as there are photographers. I have no real advice to lend (because I’m just beginning to do this myself) but it seems that if you have an interest that’s particular to your life, pursue it. I grew-up with sports, so a few weeks ago I spent some time photographing boxers.
Pursue what you know. Pursue what you don’t know. If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, try something new. If your photographs look like stock photography, try something new. If you’re indecisive, try saying yes. Make it happen. In the end, you’ll be able to stand back and assess the results of what you tried, rather than having not tried at all.