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Photographs in the street: interaction of people and environment

3 August 2003

One problem in photographing people in public spaces is the lack of connection between pedestrians and their environment/background. For those people who are tied to the environment through work, dwelling, even activities (withdrawing cash from an automatic teller, shopping) this is slightly different. Of course, particular quarters have particular 'matching' people (witness Hamburg Kirchdorf Süd) but there are areas (inner city) where there is a mix of people from many parts of town, plus a share of tourists.

The disconnectedness between people and environment can be read as a bland metaphor of the state of affairs in modern society, but such meaning is rapidly depleted. Either there is a non-relation where the figure-ground relationship does not add anything, or worse, it touches the comic or hyperbolic or conveys a social pseudo-message (beggar and rich passer-by; drop-out staring at luxurious goods in shop window).

It is therefore useful to find places and situations which knit people and environment together. This may be achieved through physical affordances leaving an imprint on peoples' position, posture or movement (queues, fences, human proxemics, immaterial barriers such as traffic lights). Other purely visual means are the use of reflection or shadows. This is not just a formal issue; the environment (and others) acts on us, looks back on us.

A question is whether this is only peceptible for the observer / the camera - what is the status of an observation that seems to be induced only by a particular well-chosen setting (say, camera position)? Would the implication be that people traverse their environment largely mindless - and that such art is revelatory, in an unpleasant and banal way?

A second question relates to the transformation of the results, the creation of artificial snapshots through digital editing. Someone lacks a shadow or reflection or has a reflection showing someone else... Is the subtlety or subliminal nature of such a device (many won't notice, inferring a realism from the photographic status) the only saving grace? How will these images be perceived once the epistemological doubt when confronted with seemingly 'documentary' photographs has become the default reaction?

Last update: 28 July 2004 | Impressum—Imprint