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This Toxic Approach to Street Photography Needs Fixing Now!

There isn’t one approach to street photography. That’s what makes the genre so beautifully diverse. Naturally, when there’s so much diversity, it opens the door to differing opinions on the right and wrong approach. I do my best to keep a balanced perspective; just because it’s not right for me doesn’t mean it’s wrong. However, I believe one approach to street photography is flawed, and it’s something we need to address.

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Getting Close in Street Photography

I recently wrote an article about using a telephoto lens for street photography. Admitting it put me outside of my comfort zone, I concluded this type of lens wasn’t right for me, and I prefer to use my Fujifilm 35mm f2. The comments came flooding in: some good, some bad. That’s nothing new. There was one comment, however, that confirmed something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time.

“Looking at his “good” photos, he’s scared to get close to people anyways. Probably just projecting his insecurities and blaming the equipment.”

Whether the commenter was correct in their assessment of me is irrelevant. I’m not using this piece to prove them wrong. People will always have their opinions, and that’s okay. But it reminded me of a certain trend and thought process that seems to be popular with a particular sub-section of the street photography community.

I’ve noticed online, whether that be Instagram, Twitter, or message boards, that there’s a toxic idea that getting super close to a subject automatically makes for good street photography. It seems there’s some bragging right, “Hey, look, I got right in this person’s face and took their photo,” that people applaud, regardless of what the outcome of the frame is. Moreover, they also look down on those who shoot street photography while keeping a more respectful distance from their subject.

The reality is that forcing yourself into someone’s space is nothing short of aggressive. And if the photo is weak, you’ve done nothing more than make a person feel uncomfortable. Who wants to brag about that?

Where Does This Problem in Street Photography Come From?

Some will argue that you must be close to your subject to capture emotion. I totally agree. However, there’s close, and then there’s inappropriately close. Of course, we know where part of this toxic mindset stems from. Most of these photographers are doing their best to be the next Bruce Gilden, a photographer famed for crossing the line of personal space. There are a couple of key differences, though, when it comes to his work.

Firstly, whether we agree with his approach, his work is layered with fantastic photography. Somehow, Gilden managed to find a way to create compelling images while standing one or two feet away from his subjects. Even in his compact frames, you can find several narratives that make the larger story. Secondly, Gilden grew up in a completely different time. Older street photographers tell me that people were more trusting and less threatened by street photography 40 to 50 years ago. That’s certainly not the case now. Check out this quote from Magnum photographer Ian Berry from an interview I did with him in 2021.

“I did a book in the late seventies – The English – and had no hostility throughout shooting it. Recently, a publisher asked me if I’d like to update the book, and on reflection, I declined as the reaction to photographers in England today has worsened dramatically. I would not dream of including a child in any image without anticipating hostility.”

— Ian Berry

Final Thought

Street photographers, old and new, must constantly adapt to their environment. It’s not our job to tell the public what the status quo should be, but rather, it’s our job to document the mentality of that specific place and time. People don’t want photographers invading their personal space. Maybe they never did, but now more than ever, people are more sensitive to it, and we need to respect that.

Going on the internet and bragging to your street photography bros that you got up in someone’s grill and they didn’t do anything about it doesn’t make you a tough guy, nor does it make you a talented street photographer. Let’s stop this toxic mentality, this faux toughness, and instead concentrate on making meaningful, compelling street photography that reflects the current world we live in.

What do you think about the aggressive approach to street photography? Even if it’s legal, should someone be getting up in someone’s personal space so they can brag online? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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