The Picture That Changes Everything: the Pleasant Madness of Street-Photography part 5

5: The Kind of Suffering We Are Interested In

The subject isn’t always human, it could be another animal. If you’re aware of my work, you probably noticed that I use the word ‘human animal’ a lot- a term I borrowed from philosopher John Gray actually. It’s important in my mind to not single out humans being different than animals. It would be hubris, it would be wrong. We are animals too, just because we can create or enjoy art doesn’t make us any less of animal than a pig. But the worst hubris of all is the idea that we are ‘better’ than other animals. Sure it would be reasonable to fight our survival rather than a different animal species, but it still wouldn’t give us any more of a right. This idea of rights, like religion or government, are all man-made. They are not universal truths, they are our truths. We need these truths to make us nicer animals- though more often than not, we use these truths to justify heinous acts. We don’t apply them to other species. We’ve trained our children to dilute our conscience for other animals. They are stupid, we are smart, therefore we deserve more. It’s a lie and a dangerous one to boot. Being more evolved doesn’t make us better, it just makes us more powerful.
So the subject of street-photography could be another species of animal as well: the eager dog on leash who went he notices that people are looking at him endearingly, nearly jumps free from his leash just so can receive some heavy petting; a cat lurking the crevices for a little snack, perhaps to give it as a present to her provider; a couple of pigeons hurling downwards with incredible speed when they notice that some guy is throwing a piece of bread away; a rat carrying a pizza down the subway. Their world is not as complicated as ours, though it’s perhaps more perilous. There’s no human drama, just the search for the next meal so they can survive another day. We were much the same in the past. But we evolved, we lost hair, we grew smarter, we were blinded by the fire. We made up a God that told us he created the world just for us. We created empires on our manipulation of the environment through the burning of fossil fuels and the subjugation of animals for livestock. These things were important to us, even if it involved great evil. We’ve destroyed an ecosystem or two. We’ve watched the occasional spill, a spill that became a natural consequence, we cleaned up the goo from animals we’ve always considered too cute too harm. We’ve made excuses to invade countries so we can conquer their oil refineries. All the animals we subjugated for livestock, the mass-genocide we were fine with so long as their bodies are used for fast-food. All the land we needed so that we can slaughter these beautiful creatures. It’s all part of it. So many died so that we can continue pretending this world belongs to us. It became so bad, we are now actually influencing the climate, created manic weather patterns and the prospect of doom for many who live nearby the sea.
The end belongs to us. We won’t be there for a new beginning. Perhaps we will leave enough behind so that other lifeforms will wonder about our existence.
But now, most of us are comfortable. We suffer in various ways, as our lives today conflict with our genetic code of yesterday. Our savage ancestors never needed to invent existentialism to give meaning to their existence or see a therapist about their marital problems. Simple put: we ponder too much shit. Suddenly our existence is supposed to have a great meaning. Suddenly this short time on earth isn’t enough, we demand eternity for something we call our ‘souls’. And we can have this eternity if we just follow several rules- naturally these rules vary across the religions. Even so, most of us don’t need to kill for food, being an accessory to the fact as we shop in grocery stores, is the closest most of us will get. Most of us don’t need to fear predators, perhaps there’s the spiritual kind, the drug-peddlers, the nefarious gurus, the money-suckers, but most of them don’t have claws scratch open your belly nor the jaw filled with sharp teeth that can bite open your neck. While there are enough photographers fascinated by wildlife, who do amazing work as they hide in the bushes, waiting for the predator to pounce on her prey, us street-photographers are far more interested in the quiet suffering of the human animal. On the other hand, the image of a lone dog scrounging for leftovers in an impoverished city might be the most heartbreaking of all. But that’s because of the dog’s innocence, not because we can really connect with this animal. We can connect to a dog through mutual respect or reciprocal love, but not because we can fully understand how it is being a dog. We only know how to be human. It’s not the same connection we have to our fellow humans who are dealing with their complicated humanity. The instinct that has been tarnished the consciousness and expressed itself through the conscious.
There is debate among whether or not the hunters in their prime, lived superior lives than ours. The farmers that came after certainly weren’t happier but it did start the process for our continuing survival. Even if we want to, even if it would be better for us, we can never become this primitive. It’s too late now. We have to be the modern human with all the pain that it entails.
One could state that those who don’t live in affluent countries, live in their own urban jungle. These animals don’t snarl like the animals of your lush jungle, but they do curse and point guns at each other. There the occasional bout of violent machismo, the male that needs to prove that he’s the ALFA and therefore deserves the better woman. Bruce Gilden has made wonderful pictures of these Yakuza gangsters, men who collect their money with stoic expressions. There is no time for mercy, they will hurt you if you don’t pay up. The Alfa-males has organized themselves, they honor their ALFA, the ALFA is protected by lesser ALFA’s. If a lesser ALFA screws up, he might have to chop of a digit. There are rules in their streets but as history has proven, these rules are easily broken. There’s always an asshole among them that inspires others to be even greater assholes. The savagery of the jungle pales in comparison to the savagery of the human animal.
So you make pictures of the youth, the ones who if they don’t receive intervention, they will become just as savage as their fathers. They hang out in abandoned buildings, they play games with each other, they beat down scaredy-cats. The streets are full of them, you can spot them in the way they walk. Some of them are wannabee’s naturally, but some have prospects for greater and more nefarious futures. I don’t often make pictures of them because I don’t want to get in a fight with them. I prefer to make pictures of scaredy-cats like me. People who are trying to make sense of their lives. You see them trapped in their thoughts, they often forget that more often than not: their thoughts are not them, it’s just events in the mind, filled with clutter they should ignore. They confuse it with the murmurs of the soul. But they don’t have a soul, nobody has but we are accustomed to belief and feel that we do. Even if we don’t believe it, we do act like we have one. We cultivate this made-up soul, probably for the better. The things that don’t exist can be imperative for our existence.
The stories we capture in our flash, no matter how poignant they seem, are often imagined. They are part of the illusion or ourselves or based on a shattered dream. They are real because we live them- we are who we pretend to be, so be careful who we pretend to be- but we should have been taught to dilute the ego and seek clarity, make ourselves nothing instead of everything. Instead we have filled our children with this notion that we have all this identity. We didn’t tell them how fragile this mind and its feelings are. We didn’t tell them how easy it is to get lost in the streets. We didn’t tell them that nobody has an answer, and that it’s hard to find your way back if you stray long enough.
Even this philosophical diatribe might be an illusion. There might be several or just one answer to everything. We can’t deny physical reality but the reality in our minds, the fantasy-lands inside us, are hard to ignore. These memetic forces has made us more powerful, has given the greatest chances of survival. Yet even in the most affluent cities we can spot them, we can see it if we look close enough, the people trapped in fantasy-land. The fantasy-land which is empowered by the constant adds and bright lights and their Facebook feeds. There might be freedom for this suffering, but this suffering is what keeps the economy booming.
But through all this suffering, the right photograph can give it meaning. The suffering of others can move us, make us feel less alone. The whole point of art is make our suffering meaningful. The difference with street-photography is that we never ask for permission. So people get angry, they ask you to delete it. The trouble is, if we asked them, we wouldn’t be able to capture the truth. We have to be bold, we have to be rude. We suffer as well, we just want a glimpse of your suffering so we can feel better about yourself. Somehow, perhaps there is no great reason, we must express ourselves through the lens of this camera.
Bruce Gilden often makes pictures of these street creatures, you will have intimate close-ups of junkies with no teeth or old men with shrunken faces, a life that has given them some form of facial deformity. They accuse Bruce of making fun of them, but it’s not like that at all. He finds them as beautiful, if not more than all the models on these adds. And I have to agree with him- models are just too fucking boring.
And we apologize for your suffering, but we’re just trying to make it beautiful. It would be a shame to waste all that suffering.

Picture belongs to Tom Plevnik, https://tomplevnik.wordpress.com/
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The Picture That Changes Everything: the Pleasant Madness of Street-Photography part 4

4: The Glimpse

There’s the world surrounding the subject, there’s the energy of the streets. It’s part of a story we will never fully know. The Street-photographers tries to capture this part of the story inside the flash of his camera. It doesn’t always work, the focus might be wrong. The eye must receive the necessary information in less than a second. The eye must feel compelled to take a closer look. If this happens, the photograph is good. It should capture the viewer immediately. There is just something, even if its a photograph of something mundane, that captures their attention. If this does not happen, if the viewer loses interests within seconds, the photographer has failed the story.
Imagine a movie, a dramatic scene of dialog between two spouses who are on the verge of getting a divorce. The actor must the emote the tragedy of the screen, the connection is becoming lost between these two people. The chemistry must be there, but if you take a still picture of that scene, the body language must confirm the content of this scene. Image them looking away or looking down, or looking at each other with wanting and desperate eyes. If the still is at the wrong moment, this information might be lost. Timing is everything.
One must remember though that there is always something interesting going on, even in the mundane moments. It’s just that not every moment is as picturesque. A war-torn country has a lot of energy, I’m not saying that everyone can make beautiful photographs there, but you are bound to make some interesting ones. There’s a greater victory in capturing normalcy, making it look beautiful. You wouldn’t notice the old man reading the newspaper, but the Street-photographer saw something and now this old man is something special. Now you begin to wonder about the old man’s story.
Often times The Street-photographer never really knows if the picture will work. Sometimes they are so sure that they have something special but when they look back, it’s not there anymore. The angle was wrong, the ISO was too high, the shutter-speed is off or they simply missed it. They were simply too slow. They missed that one precious second that would have made all the difference. Other times The Street-photographer manages to make a picture that at first, didn’t seem that noteworthy but when they look through the collection of the day, they realized that they have something much more than they had initially thought. The caught the energy, the subjects come alive. They have more of a story than they had initially presumed. We often don’t know we have a story until we actually look at the photograph.
They forget that the shutter catches more than you think. There’s the story of graffiti in the subway and as the Street-photographer pushes the shutter button, a lone human lighting a cigarette is getting captured inside the flash as well. Both the graffiti and the human become one subject, one whole story or two sides of the story; the history of the graffiti- the city perhaps- and the history of the lone man. It doesn’t matter how shitty the graffiti art is or how seemingly unassuming the lone man looks, if you capture it right, you catch part of an interesting story. There’s a wonderful book of Polaroid pictures, Colors, The Polaroids by Dennis Hopper, which, as the title suggests was made while he was scouting for locations for his gang-land drama Colors. Looking at the vast kinds of graffiti in L.A., he understood there were stories behind these paint sprays, it enamored him, he needed to make pictures of this- besides being an masterful actor and director, he was an equal master photographer. He understood there were stories there, they deserved to be seen. He captured not just the atmosphere of the streets but the mindset of the youth and artists who left these messages on these walls.
The first time I really began to get serious street-photography, I started with makings numerous pictures of trash such cans of energy drinks or cigarette butts, whatever you could think of that would be lying on the street, and many, perhaps rightfully so, laughed at me, ”why is that guy making a picture of that can of coke?” one pedestrian said to her partner as they passed me. Irregardless, I felt there was something there, though at first I couldn’t explain exactly why. I guess it could be subconscious, you more you let yourself be free with your art, the more you reveal of yourself. Often times I’m writing and suddenly veered into a subject that was dear to me, even though I wasn’t planning on it. It’s about the imagination then, if you make the art vague enough, the viewer/reader might interpret it in their own way- perhaps the pictures of trash by Mr. van Dijk represents the our carelessness of the environment! Art needs to be personal, not just to the artist but to the one that enjoys it. Even if it isn’t personal to the viewer/reader, he will make it personal. An artist often times doesn’t know why he’s drawn to one direction. He just feels there’s something there and so he needs to go there- same as how this article went.
It’s the little things, if you can capture the little things, the bigger things come easier. A shattered beer-bottle might have been used during a fight, perhaps if you look close enough, you would see some smears of blood. This was a battle between two brothers, the story of Cain and Abel resurrected in the twenty-first century. All these examples are props for the seemingly mundane yet complex stories. Just like artifacts of an ancient past, we wonder about what we are seeing, we research and we can only image about its users. These props were used while these subjects were contemplating great things. A little moment might evoke a greater truth. A simple moment captured between two lovers on the streets can be considered everything, making a picture of them sharing a piece of pie might be even better than seeing them kiss on the streets. The kissing might evoke youth, the beginning sparks of a promising romantic relationship while the sharing of the pie, might evoke comfortability with each other, a deeper intimacy between the two- if you made a picture of them together in a private hotel room, you would see one of them laugh as they smell the fart of their significant other. If you made a picture of the plate where the pie was eaten, with the fork laying on it, some crumbs still left, you would catch part of a story. The story might be more clear if the couple were in the picture, but the glimpse of their story is there. Remember: it’s always about the glimpse, the street-photographer will never get the full story, the writer may but never the street-photographer. We can only catch a glimpse, the glimpse is all that matters. Our job is to catch that glimpse and make it look good so that the viewer of the photograph, can wonder about what was behind that glimpse.
The details are everything, you want to be like Sherlock Holmes and catch all the details so you can uncover the mystery but you never will. The random person on the street, seemingly on a great mission, we can only wonder what this mission was. The rambling drifter, we can only imagine where his madness came from. The worried middle-aged woman, what was she worried about? The pubescent with green hair and dirty clothing, is this a sign of rebellion and individualism or this a sign of neglectful parenting? Tourists, people on a break from the jobs they hate. People on meditation retreats, closing their eyes, feeling the moment. There’s so much to tell, you wish you could freeze time just so you could make pictures all day. If there was an eternity, I would spend a hundred years just making pictures.
In the end, we are storytellers, even if we catch only part of the story. Sometimes that little seemingly insignificant part is just as poignant as the whole story. Photography can teach us, in a sort of Buddhist manner, to look at life differently. Unlike a movie or literature where often enough life is perceived as ‘the whole story, where every part is intrinsic to this one character, his tragedies and ultimately his death. It’s not always like that and perhaps it’s not even a proper way to perceive our existence. It’s one way to look at it but not the definitive way. We shouldn’t perceive life as so simplistically cinematic. Life is a series of fleeting moments, it all goes away too quickly. To my mind, in this fleeting moment of consciousness this wisdom comes to mind: the only way we can keep these moments safe from our fleeting memories, even if the complete experience is forever gone, is by taking a picture.

Picture belongs to Tom Plevnik, https://tomplevnik.wordpress.com/
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The Picture That Changes Everything: the Pleasant Madness of Street-Photography part 3

3: There Is No Reason To Hide

There’s an argument to be made that perhaps remaining childishly narcissistic could grant someone a more blissful life than an empathic one. Perhaps, but it seems like such a meaningless story. Even the greatest stories about loners are about their relationships to people in the past: people they have lost, relationships they have ruined, people they fell in love with, people they watch from a distance. There’s the need for connection, even if you think you don’t need anybody. I can’t decide whether I’m a real loner or not. I guess I’m not. I might be extremely misanthropic but I love too many people. All the enjoyable times spend with myself pales in comparison to the happiness I feel when I’m with my girlfriend. It’s how she holds me, looks at me, kisses me, it’s the way she says good-morning with those loving eyes. Watching films by myself is never as much fun when you are watching it with someone else. I love watching their reactions during a sudden shocking or humorous moment. I would have seen a film already and I would just wait until that scene just so I can see how they react. People can be so wonderfully goofy. Hell might be other people but so heaven. It’s good to love people, to feel that some are more important than others. It’s good to love someone so much, you’re willing to die for this person.
But in order to be good at any art form, you have to spend a lot of times with yours truly. There will be great big parties which you will have excuse yourself from because you need to work on your craft. I’m not saying I’m some brilliant writer, but I certainly got better by practicing. You need to learn to be alone, you need to find ways to express yourself through your art. This takes time, this takes loneliness.
It can take a toll sometimes, as it did with me. I went too far in my loneliness. There was a short but destructive period in my life in which I felt compelled to use drugs to inspire my writing. Writing would enhance your high. You write something good, you feel extra good about yourself. You feel like you just tapped into something, like a hidden secret. You feel a greater connection to the universe, you feel like you finally did something worthwhile.
As you can expect, most of my writing then was shit and drugs became less tools for inspiration and more habitual forming, until they became a huge problem. When I finally quit, it took months, maybe even longer, to get me out of this funk. The damage is often times far greater for the mind than the body. I’m better now but when I look back at it, I do feel sympathy for those who never managed to escape the spiral. If you don’t get out in time, you might get stuck for a long time. It’s so easy for good and beautiful people to slip into this cycle of self-destruction, all it takes is a few wrong choices.
But it only takes one good decision- with fierce determination- to get yourself out of it. If I can, so can anybody else- which isn’t really true, but it sounds hopeful doesn’t it?
It’s the loners, the desperate, the lost that interest me most not only in writing but in photography. It’s easy to spot them, you only have to pay attention. They don’t like to be photographed, when they see you aiming a camera for them, they quickly put their head down, they pretend not to feel any shame when somebody sees them for who they are. The beggars don’t like it, to them it often feels like exploitation. The junkies don’t like it, to them it often feels like you’re making fun of them. But it’s not only those inside skid-row, those in shabby clothing and plastic bags. The Lost are everywhere, in every social-group and every class-group. It’s just that one is less obvious than the other. Sometimes I spot them, you can see them lost in thought, dealing with some grievance, some heart break. When you do you have to quickly move on, pretend you just made a random picture and you weren’t targeting them. They will get angry if you did. They don’t want to be seen. Everybody wants to hide. They look away because the pictures tells the truth.
So you need to chose a distance, you need to be quick. This sounds simple but it isn’t. You need to have an eye for composition, to chose the right angle and all in seconds. There’s not much time to think. If you think one second too long, the shot is lost. You will only get a glimpse but the glimpse is everything. You will never know what they are thinking, but you know that whatever is on their mind, it means everything to them. It’s destroying them, it’s taking their soul hostage. To imagine what goes on through their mind; a lost spouse, financial troubles, desire, paranoia, even boredom can be fascinating.
I am not taking pictures of them because I’m mocking them or I feel better than them. I do it because I am them. Even if I have escaped this feeling now, I can only go back to it. I could have easily stayed in that moment. I could have been one of them at moment. It’s so easy to get lost in this world, too easy in fact. To me, only art can make it meaningful. Only art can make this suffering means something. I guess this is also a reason of why I take pictures on the streets, preferably in the city because they have so much more to offer. If you live in a secluded rural town, you might only see the regular ones. The smaller you make your world, the less complicated it becomes. But if you live in a big city, where on a regular stroll you might walk pass tens or even hundreds of people, you can see them everywhere, they are on display. They think they can hide among the great mass of people and they can, just not to street-photographers.
We see them, we make a picture, we move on. We hope we did it well because we can give meaning to them. You might never see the picture but we will cherish it because you have become so beautiful to us. If you only knew how beautiful we think you were, you wouldn’t feel like you had to hide. You would smile at the camera.

Picture belongs to Tom Plevnik, https://tomplevnik.wordpress.com/ 

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