Greetings from Palermo, on the beautiful island of Sicily. I have just finished running a workshop and now I am shooting and filming. It’s been a great week for me!
Di and I were talking recently about why travel feels so exhilarating to us.
We travel to see the beauty of nature and the ingenuity of people.
We travel to see the majestic buildings, the ancient sites of worship, the beauty of the old.
We travel to see different formations of nature, animals and wildlife.
We travel to see different colours, smell different smells, try different foods, feel the air of a faraway place.
But we also travel to remove ourselves from ourselves. To find other ways to live, and to be away from everything that traps us into who we have become.
To experiment and explore other ways of being – and that is exhilarating.
It brings life, and it’s meaning to us, into focus in way that being at home day after day doesn’t.
I wonder if you like to travel? What does travelling mean to you?
When I travel I have one essential need – and that is to meet local people.
Even though I am not a people-centred photographer, I have more photos of nature, empty streets and sunrises than the humans living in these places.
But it is the people I meet that makes my experience of a new country deeper, more fascinating than anything I could do on my own – by simply bearing witness.
Meeting local people brings to life everything I am seeing. Instead of just seeing history I become part of local culture, living history as it were.
Instead of just eating the local foods, observing local culture, seeing the sights – by meeting people, and becoming involved in the community, I become part of life being lived.
I recently came across the Instagram account @everydayeverywhere. Growing out of the success of @everydayafrica, whose aim has been to break down stereotypes of the continent, tell stories and show those outside of Africa a different collection of images than the ones we just see on the news.
I like that it reflects my experiences of travelling – where I see people living their lives in almost exactly the same way, with similar values, as I have in my country (or what has recently become my many home countries :))
Why is this important?
Because we often form view of countries we don’t know from our media, and they are usually highly selective views about a tiny collection of events.
We start building up ideas in our mind of cities, groups of people, whole countries or continents being dangerous or totally poverty stricken or inhospitable – when in fact the majority of life being lived in that place is just like ours.
We often think – over there – is so much more dangerous than right here at home.
For me – one of the best way to eradicate stereotypes is to travel.
“I have no reason to go, except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance. What better reason could there be for travelling?” Freya Stark
And if you can’t travel or you just love to explore – thankfully we have fantastic projects like Everyday Everywhere where we can see lives all over the world.
In an age where stereotypes are becoming used politically to alienate and separate – I can’t think of a better way to combat this than be focusing instead on our similarities.
Italy is known for its delicious food. I know this to be true because I have travelled all over the country and eaten food that is embedded in my ‘best food memory bank’.
(All of my family has this memory bank, including my kids; we love food.)
Fifteen years ago I had some unbelievable sea-bass ravioli in Trieste that I can still recall the divine taste of.
Also in my list of memories is homemade wild boar pasta in a castle in Tuscany, delicious lamb on the Amalfi coast, tasty bites of cicchetti with my family in Venice, gelato in Rome… the list is literally endless.
I was therefore very excited to discover the array and quality of street food in Palermo. The arancini alone makes my stomach hungry just thinking about it.
If you love food, you’ll love Palermo!
Palermo is (perhaps) the most conquered city in the world….
It is often said that Palermo has been the most conquered city because of its key position in the Mediterranean.
This means that the city is a fascinating mix of cultures and history. As you wander the city you can see the influences of the Greek, Byzantine, Arab and Norman conquests.
“Sicily is the pearl of this century…Since old times, travellers from the most far away country…boast of its merits, praise its territory, rave about its extraordinary beauty, and highlight its strengths…because it brings together the best aspects from every other country.” Al-Idrisi Arab geographer, The Book of Roger, 1138 – 54
I love to photograph places that are mixes of things. That’s why London is so awesome – ancient next to modern – and Palermo has a similar feel. So many influences.
Being an island of warmth and sunshine, so much of life is lived out on the streets. Every where you go life is being discussed, celebrated and enjoyed.
I love to walk around listening to the beautiful Italian spoken all around me, watching friends enjoying the cafe culture, wandering through the pretty streets and people watching. The feeling of Palermo is just so vibrant.
It’s therefore an excellent place for street photography. We had a lot of fun photographing people here last year.
I’ll admit, I am not a big architecture nut. I feel a little like the famous Turkish photographer, Ara Güle
“When I’m taking a picture of Aya Sofia, what counts is the person passing by who stands for life.”
I do love a beautiful building, but it’s rare for me to photograph a building on its own. For me it’s about so many other things – the light, the people or life around it.
Palermo has this great mix – beautiful architecture, interesting street life and of course that gorgeous Mediterranean light.
With good street food often comes fabulous street markets.
Italian markets are some of the most sumptuous looking I’ve seen. The fresh, colourful produce overflowing in baskets and boxes, is mouth-watering.
Now, if you want to get a feeling of the vibe of Palermo, this is a cool 2 minute video we found:
So those are my little delights of Palermo. Does this make you want to zip over to the Sicilian capital?
And if you want to join me in Palermo in a few weeks, two last minute places are now available.
Have a great day everyone,
Springtime in Palermo! Come discover this magical city of contrast and chaos. This workshop focuses on Sicily’s capital and the beautiful surrounding areas. We will photograph the mystery and charm of Palermo, as well as venturing out to capture the landscape and villages around the city.
On my workshops, taking photographs of strangers seems to conjure up a wild mix of terror and excitement. Most people are naturally drawn to photographing people, and I understand. I love it too.
I think it’s a tremendous honor to photograph people, as they go about their lives and reveal themselves in such interesting ways to us.
I’ve already written about fear and photographing strangers, so I won’t go over that again (street photography really is an ‘inner game’). But I will repeat this point, in case you are feeling a little nervous. Just remember that:
“Most people love to be noticed. Taking someone’s photo says to them: “I see you and you interest me”. For the majority of the population, that’s an exciting and affirming act. That’s your key.” Me
Here are five ideas to help you get awesome photos out there on the street – tips from me as well as from other photographers I love.
“If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.” Bruce Gilden
In this post I’m talking about two different styles of photographing strangers. One is street photography – which is a “type of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places. Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying “unmanipulated” scenes, with usually unaware subjects.” Urban Picnic Street Photography.
The challenge with street photography is actually making a great photograph. Maybe 1 in a 1000 is worth looking at again. Trent Parke is famous for shooting thousands of images to get a few good ones. (I love his feeling for light. Incredible.)
The other type is street portraits, where the subject knows you are taking their portrait. They are most likely posing for you or allowing you to capture them in situ. This is how I photograph most, it’s just my personal preference as I think I’m drawn to people’s faces and I love exploring their facial and physical expressions.
This is a nice comparison of the two styles of street shooting, and here I am classifying street portraits under ‘documentary photography’:
Bottom line – do what you love! Do what thrills and excites you. No right or wrong answers here.
Photographer: I quoted Bruce Gilden above, a street photographer who is famous for (usually) photographing his subjects very close up, without their permission, using flash so that the light is very harsh. The results are pretty intense, so you can almost see people’s life history in their skin, see his site. I’d say his methods are pretty controversial.
2. Don’t be (too) dazzled by the humans and their behaviour
Sorry to say this but most street photography, and street portraits, are boring! I think one of the reasons is that we get dazzled by the humans we see around us and think they are being way more interesting than they really are – meaning our photos can end up being too obvious or just quite dull and ordinary.
Humans are usually pretty private animals – and yet it’s amazing how easily people reveal so much about themselves as they go about their day to day lives. I think most people are so wrapped up in their world they forget about people around them. So, as photographers, when we start paying attention to people we can fall into the trap of thinking they are being more interesting than really, objectively, they are.
It can also be a super intense experience photographing humans – especially ones you don’t know. Often the adrenaline starts pumping as you enter the orbit of strangers and again you get overwhelmed by the experience of photographing strangers, rather than by the uniqueness or compellingness of the shot.
So the aim is to get away from taking the ‘obvious’ shot. There has to be a certain je ne sais quoi about the person you are shooting. There has to be something about their person that makes your mind think – interesting…. And really that’s a lot to do with your own personal intuition. Trust it!
With any portraits – it’s always good to remember that people will have their barrier up initially, the ‘person’ they show the world. And everyone has their photo ‘pose’. You need to get beyond that, because that is very unlikely to make an engaging photograph. So you need to wait for their mask to drop, and it will, usually quicker than you think. Just keep watching them or photographing them. It’s like unpeeling like an onion, getting down to the deeper layers of a human being.
Look for what the story the person is telling you with their eyes. Eyes give so much away about how a person is feeling. There are also striking, subtle gestures that people make with their hands, legs, bodies. It’s extremely hard to hide anything for long.
Photographer: If you’ve never looked at Vivian Maier’s photos, I would totally recommend you do. Her work only became widely known after she died, a tragedy as it’s some of the best street photography I’ve seen, especially as much of it is from a time not as well documented as our current one. Love her colour work.
Photo project: Brandon Stanton Humans of New York project is a good example of how we are drawn into learning about those people who surround us. I listened to this interview with Brandon and his key advice on approaching strangers was: be confident – anything less than total confidence will stop people from trusting you.
3. Pick a theme
One of the easiest ways to get started is to pick a theme – like the amazing street photography of Eamonn Doyle who shot old people passing by his house in Dublin. All the photos from the subsequent book were shot within a half mile radius of his home (excitingly for those joining me for my Arles photo retreat, Doyle has an exhibition at the Arles photo festival, plus here are some other great street photographers showing there.)
I like how Doyle explained his vision for his work:
“The one guiding idea was to strip away the visual noise of the street so that the people emerge in a different and hopefully more surprising way.” Eamonn Doyle
Having a theme gives you a focus if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of just stepping out onto the street and taking photos.
Other interesting themed projects are Stan Raucher, who photographs people on the underground all over the world, and Tirzah Brott ‘Women of a Certain Age’. Brott’s project reminded me that even though it didn’t sound particularly original idea, it was in fact not something that has been done that much. I think there are certain parts of society that are very well photographed, and some that aren’t. There are some people who are ‘seen’ more than others, and that’s an opportunity for us photographers, to seek out the ‘un-seen’.
So, inadvertently, I’ve taken a lot of photos of people taking selfies. It’s such an intriguing concept to me, people photographing themselves and totally controlling what they look like.
4. Photography as poetry
“Living in modern and crowded cities make photographers forget about poetry as a part of their lives. Gazing upon street scenes through our lenses reminds us of our lost innocence.” Ako Salemi
I think all photography is a form of poetry. Photography is about rhythm and creation and recognition of beauty. What I believe is so special and important about street photography is when you get away from being overwhelmed by the human experience and into the natural flow and spirit of the humans around you – that’s the poetry part.
Photographer: I love Ako Salemi’s photos, particularly This,this and this from his story asking Iranian professionals about the nuclear deal.
I also agree with what photographer Andrew Hinderaker says, that his photos are like finding little gifts around the city:
“But my favorite photos aren’t so contrived, they are little gifts that you happen upon, some weird moment, or some strange interplay of light reflecting off buildings in midtown, for instance. I look for subtle moments, gestures, people interacting. Generally I just shoot and move on, but I love that having a camera basically gives you a license to go up to anyone and ask them what they’re doing and why.”
5. Photograph what scares you
There are people who are easy to photograph – their demeanor is so open and friendly and warm that you move easily toward them and photograph them. My suggestion is – don’t just go for those people, that’s the obvious shot!
Now think about those people that you stay away from because there is something that scares you, or a place (OK have to state the obvious here – don’t endanger yourself OK!!!). People you are super intrigued by, but maybe their energy is less encouraging. Step towards your fear, rather than away from it. You will be surprised that more often than not their response will be positive.
This, for me, was actually the most scary photo I’ve taken on the street – for some reason I was totally intimidated by shooting these French guys, but I got over my fear and I did it! And I love this photo:
Thanks for reading this and I hope it has given you some ideas or inspiration for your street photos. Taking photos of strangers is such a cool and fun thing to do when you get into the vibe of it. I can’t recommend it enough.
And please do share this with anyone you know who loves photography, sharing is so helpful! I also have a very cool free creative photography e-course for everyone who signs up to my newsletter 🙂
Plus – I’d love to know what you think of my post – and what ideas you have for taking photos out on the street? Comment below.