The PhotoPlus Expo seminar called “Street Photography: How & Why” offered insight into the motivations and methods of four notable street photographers, including Daniel Arnold, Elizabeth Bick, Julia Gillard and Gus Powell. Each took a turn to show their work and explain their practice.
Arnold, for instance, articulated the single-minded obsession of his own practice, which he described in philosophical terms as a way of life, while underscoring the idea that success often comes to those who seek it the least.
“I would like to convince you if I can that the pictures don’t matter,” said Arnold, who has a sharp eye for absurdity and dissonance, and the quick reflexes to capture them. “I’m so engaged, so obsessed with and addicted to the process that the photos don’t matter.”
Arnold started making photos about 15 years ago to keep track of his everyday experiences. He was making his living as a writer at the time, but disliked his writerly voice. “As a writer, I was gushing and vulnerable,” he said. A camera liberated him by giving him a new way to observe life “and not have to articulate my feelings. I could let the pictures do it for me.”
Arnold started taking photos “with no expectations of success” as a photographer. Street photography simply enabled him to live a life “that I’d otherwise be afraid to live,” he said. “It was boredom-proof, and depression-proof. I turned life into a game. I had my camera in hand all the time and it was a non-stop job to find the crazy stuff, the choreography, the cast of characters.
“People try to dismiss street photography as snapshots, but that misses the point,” Arnold explained. “It’s free school. It’s dealing-with-your-life school. It’s looking hard, finding moments, connecting people to your state of mind at that moment.” And because he constantly saw those moment but missed the photograph, he said, “You experience the world as a happy, constant failure. You embrace this lifestyle of failing over and over and over until you are immune to failure.”
Arnold might have continued photographing in obscurity, but about five years ago, he said, “Instagram came into my life [and] put me in a position where I was getting regular commission work without training or experience.” Under the “manufactured fear of the photo assignment,” he added, “I did very badly.”
But only at first. By then he’d been practicing street photography for more than a decade, and he soon learned to rely on “this muscle memory” and instinct he had developed over the years.
“I have the responsibility, the audacity, the guts to go where I’m afraid. I get paid to be afraid. I’m in situations where I’m reduced to my instincts, and I get to make an almost involuntary record of my emotional experience,” Arnold said. “The pictures make it so I don’t have to talk, thank god.”
Q&A: Gus Powell on Street Photography as Poetry
Fadi BouKaram on How to Shoot Better Street Photography
Street Photographers on Success, Methods, Motivation and Overcoming Fear
Q&A: Alex Web on Street Photography as “Exploration and Discovery with the Camera”