Street Photography and the Human Condition

 

Street photography portrait exploring the human condition near Chennai in India.

 

Street photography is a very popular genre that allows you to document the world around you and explore the way people move through urban spaces. And what better way to explore the human condition than through street photos.

The above photo was made in Chennai (i.e., Madras), India. I noticed this gentleman while visiting a small village, the building of which my mother had helped to finance, years earlier.

I noticed him in the village’s multi purpose room, which functions as both a chapel and a meeting room.

He looked like a kindly man who wore the appearance of a life lived. I couldn't help but be aware of the worry and world weariness that seemed to be etched into his face.

I’m reminded now of the notion that wisdom is a mixture, in equal measure, of intelligence and experience.

This man's experience seemed to be well earned and I wanted, as always, to make a life-affirming image.

A lot of photographers have a preference for gritty, high contrast street photography. I’m interested in beauty, even in the most banal places.

It was a simple matter to ask him to move, not far from the open doorway, into an area bathed in lovely, soft light.

Notice the delicate tonality evident in the wrap worn around the man’s body. Can you see how the ruffled shape of the wrap around the neck helps to frame his face?

I’m really glad I chose a warm tone, black and white rendering for this image. I love the way the textural qualities in the man’s beard and eyebrows have been highlighted by that choice.

 
Brass Elephant

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Do You Critique Your Own Photos?

Are you in the habit of critiquing your own photos? It’s a good practice that goes far beyond a simple like or unlike rating.

To improve your photography it’s very helpful to recognize what it is you’re doing well.

This process should see you continue to incorporate those elements or that approach into more photos, more often.

Clearly it’s important to identify technical errors and work to resolve them. Great technique is useful as it will allow the compositional, narrative and emotive qualities in your photos to shine through.

Your camera is not a barrier. It’s a passport that allows you to interact with people and immerse yourself into places at a more personal and profound level than might otherwise be possible.

But to make such experiences tangible you first need to understand how to use your camera.

If well taught one or two lessons are really all you need. And you’ll be amazed at how empowering that whole process can be.

Street photography of a bride and groom outside the Louvre in Paris.

What Is The Human Condition?

Perhaps it’s worthwhile taking a few moments to define the human condition and explore how an exploration of the human condition relates to great street photography?

The human condition can be defined as the positive and negative aspects of being human.

However it’s not the event itself, but how we experience our lives through the various events, interactions and relationships that encompass human existance that’s central to the human condition.

Can you even imagine the many thoughts going through the minds of the onlookers passing by a bridal photography session in a courtyard outside the Louvre in Paris.

Are they happy to have seen a bride on her big day? Perhaps they’re critique her wedding dress or the way the photographer is going about their business.

Attending a wedding is one of many important happenings and significant moments that make up our lives. Here’s some others:

  • Birth

  • Growth

  • Illness

  • The aging process

  • Loss and suffering

  • Death

  • Conflict

  • Emotions and feelings such as love, happiness, sadness, grief, embarrassment, pride, guilt, joy, trust, fear, surprise and disgust

  • Our aspirations for a better life

  • Morality

The Camera Looks Both Ways

The human condition encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living a human life. It’s a result of the conscious mind observing and judging the events and interactions that occur throughout our lives.

A quick look at the above list shows just how rich the range of options are for exploring the human condition through the art of street photography.

The difference between an artist and a general photographer is that what and how the artist decides to photograph is often underpinned by the question why.

If you’re wanting to explore the human condition then that notion should be in your mind when you’re planning and making your photos, both in camera and while post processing your images.

As a result you won’t just be making technically competent images that record a pleasing likeness of the subject depicted.

Your photos will speak to the world not just of who you’ve photographed, but of the message and meaning explored within those images and the relevance that has to your audience.

And don’t forget you camera looks both ways. It’s both a window onto the world and a mirror looking back on the maker of the image.

Your photos speak to the world as much about yourself as they do about the subject or scene you’ve photographed.

Human Condition In Art

What better way to begin your study of the human condition than through great art.

Art both expresses and explores the extremes of the human condition. Art is important as it helps us to experience a deeper understand of life.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is often used as a representation of symmetry in the human body and, by extension, the natural universe.

This famous work by Leonardo also draws attention to our notion of what’s perfect by showcasing the human form as a representation of divine design.

As such the Vitruvian Man, also referred to as the Canon of Proportions, explores the connection between man and the universe.

Magritte and The Human Condition

The famous Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte painted a picture titled The Human Condition in 1933.

The painting depicts an artists’ easel in front of a window. Rather than being able to see through the window, to what’s outside, the window contains a painting that suggests what might exist behind it.

The notion is that the painting shown in the window is a representation that aims to document the reality that exists outside the window. In fact both the window and the painting it contains are part of the same larger painting, the same fiction.

Magritte’s work encourages the viewer to consider the nature of our existence by challenging our notion of reality.

It’s worth taking some time to study the painting and the relationship between perception and reality that it explores.

Challenging your idea of reality is not always an easy thing to do, but it’s part of breaking the cycle of cause and effect that’s at the heart of the human condition.

Duality with a young girl against giant street art at Hosier Lane.

The Human Condition in Songs, Books and Film

Exploration of the human condition is widespread in popular culture. It’s one of the most widely explored themes in popular music, literature and motion picture films.

I photographed this young girl in front of large piece of street art in Hosier Lane, Melbourne. Unfortunately I didn’t have my Sony Mirrorless camera with me so I made due with my iPhone X.

For on screen reproduction the quality is pretty good, but I do prefer having the larger file size and pixels associated with my Sony camera.

Nonetheless I was happy to have made a photo and I think it fits in nicely in this post.

The photo explores duality, one of the concepts that underpins much of my photography. Let’s look at some of the elements in this image that are in contrast with each other.

  • I’ve used scale to accentuate a relatively small (actual) human against a huge painting of a rap artist.

  • Light cool blue colors worn by the young girl contrast with the deeper and more highly saturated reds, browns, yellows and purple in the painting.

Many people find inspiration, comfort and hope through music. As one of the most expressive art forms music can help sustain you through difficult times.

Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninov and Beethoven composed poignant musical scores. In more recent times B.B. King, the Platters and the Beatles have moved millions of people with the beauty of their songs.

There are so many songs that have deeply resonated with me over the years. Here’s just a few of those songs that so eloquently explore the human condition.

  • Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin

  • Imagine by John Lennon

  • Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles

  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the Beatles

  • Tomorrow Never Knows by the Beatles

  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want (various live versions) by the Rolling Stones

  • Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones

  • Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

  • We Shall Overcome by Joan Baez

  • Universal Soldier by Donovan

  • A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan

  • Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan

  • The Needle And The Damage Done by Neil Young

  • Woodstock written by Joni Mitchell and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

  • San Fransisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in your Hair) by Scott McKenzie

  • Over The Rainbow composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg, sung by Judy Garland

  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters

  • What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George Weiss, recorded by Louis Armstrong

  • As Time Goes by Herman Hupfeld

  • Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

  • Hallelujah written by Leonard Cohen, recorded by Jeff Buckley

  • Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel (featuring Kate Bush)

  • Kings of the World by Mississippi

In the world of literature books that explore the human condition include the following:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  • 1984 by George Orwell

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  • Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

  • Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Here’s a list of some of my favourite motion picture films that explore the human condition.

  • The Third Man directed by Carol Reed

  • A Touch Of Evil directed by Orson Wells

  • The Searchers directed by John Ford

  • Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman

  • The Human Condition directed by Masaki Kobayashi

  • Shindler’s List directed by Steven Spielberg

  • Baraka directed by Ron Fricke

  • Samsara directed by Pan Nalin

  • Yellow Earth directed by Chen Kaige

  • Kundun directed by Martin Scorsese

  • Pan’s Labyrinth directed by Guillermo del Toro

  • Being John Malkovich directed by Spike Jonze

  • Midnight in Paris directed by Woody Allen

To my mind The Lord Of The Rings has become one of the great road movies.

Peter Jackson’s adaption of Tolkien’s classic trilogy explores a number of concepts associated with the human condition, including the following:

  • Death

  • Friendship

  • Loyalty

  • Forgiveness

  • Power

  • War

  • Nature versus Technology

  • The Hero’s Journey

  • Christ figures

  • Resurrection and Ascension

By design The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory, but rather a part of Tolkien’s larger mythology about Christian and Catholic truths.

Any great art is meant to illuminate the human condition.
— Sterling K. Brown

A man in his spare parts store in the backstreets of Kolkata, India.

The Human Condition in Documentary Photography

Photography is rich with explorations of the human condition.

War, politics, natural disasters, interpersonal relationships and the various isms (e.g., capitalism, communism, feminism, racism) that have shaped the world in which we live, for better or for worst, have all been examined by photographers.

I photographed this gentleman, who I refer to as the spare parts man, in his tiny shop in the backstreets of Kolkata. There’s little else to his shop than what you see. It’s just a very narrow storage area from which he stocks and sells all manner of bolts, washers and screws.

He was friendly and happy for me to make his photo, which I did in less than a minute. I generally like to work quickly so as to keep the subject engaged and prevent them from becoming distracted or self conscious.

It’s an approach that I think you can see in the photos I make.

My favourite photographers, working within the documentary tradition, that explore the human condition include the following:

The Changing World

Travel Photography

War and Conflict

Workers

Human Behaviour and Interactions

Psychological Landscapes

Socially Aware Photography

The Presence Of Absence

Locals watching the world go by in Merbein in rural Victoria, Australia.

Human Condition Quotes

You’re looking at rush hour in the small town of Merbein, about 12 km from the regional centre of Mildura in north west Victoria, Australia.

From time to time I’m sure we’d all appreciate this kind of lifestyle. It’s certainly attractive to many folk wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of busy city life.

There are many wonderful quotes associated with the human condition. Here’s just a few

We see the world through the lens of all our experiences; that is a fundamental part of the human condition.
— Madeleine M. Kunin
I think it is a quest of literature throughout the ages to describe the human condition.
— Werner Herzog
No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute.

It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.
— Eugene Ionesco
I have been stuck, again and again, by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.
— Bill Gates
If I laugh a couple of times a day, I’m doing good. People think it’s their God-given right to be happy, and it’s just not.

It’s something you’ve got to work at.

I like to paint the human condition, and the human condition is not smiles and happy people.
— John Mellencamp

A portrait of a young boy, with his father watching on, in front of their store in Kolkata, India.

Relationships And The Human Condition

Our interactions with other individuals and with the world around us are largely based upon what we perceive to be the so called reality of the situation.

The way we respond to events and circumstances is determined by the following:

  • Information we receive, via the sense organs

  • Our knowledge and past experiences of similar stimulus or interactions

  • The meaning we attach to that information

It’s not what’s happening to or around us, but the way we interpret those moments, events and interactions that determines our individual understanding and experience of each and every moment.

Put simply, we create our own reality.

Relationships are central to the human condition.

Take a look at the photo above. I think it’s a good example of black and white street photography.

What do you think the relationship between the two people in the above photo is?

I can tell you that they are father and son. I found them at the father’s store in Kolkata.

I approached and asked if I might make a photo of the two of them. The father declined, but gestured that it was okay to photograph his son.

I’m not sure if the son was all that keen on the idea. He looked very sad. I wondered if he’d been ticked off my his dad, moments earlier, or if, perhaps, he was melancholy by nature.

Either way I’m really happy with the result you see here. I feel the photo posesses rich narrative and metaphoric possibilities and, as such, makes it an interesting exploration of the Human Condition

Regular visitors to this site will know that the human condition is a theme that drives much of the portrait photography I create.

In fact the original image contained some quite vivid colors and shinny surfaces on the chip and lolly bags you can see hanging down from a beam in the front of the store.

I had to work quite hard on the desktop to bring down the brightness of those highlights.

However, it was the decision to convert the image into black and white that made the biggest difference.

No longer were the bright, happy colors in the background at odds with the emotion in the boy’s eyes.

Putting the background out of focus, in camera, and then rendering the image into black and white, on the desktop, were good decisions.

They served to deemphasize the bright colors and tones in the background and, as a result, intensified the relationship evident between father and son.

Notice also that by rendering the father out of focus and by moving his son much closer to the camera I’ve elevated the young man’s importance and, perhaps, his power in this photo.

It’s a great example of how selective focus and a shallow depth of field can direct viewer attention and increase the inherent emotion within an image.

The human condition showcased through friendship on the Seaspray beach in Australia.

The Photos You Make Matter

I photographed this group of friends on the beach at Seaspray, a tiny town in Gippsland, Australia. I was so impressed by the closeness I sensed within this group of young folk that I made a series of images exploring the notion of friendship.

My hope is that these photos will serve the test of time and help remind them of the closeness they shared and of their time growing up together in the nearby city of Sale.

You see it’s one thing to make pleasing photos of people. But photos mean so much more to photographer, subject and audience when they explore what’s below the surface and, by doing so, delve into more meaningful and universal concepts.

There’s so much going on in your own photos that you probably don’t realize. My advice is to pick out a few images that you like and spend a minute or so analyzing each of them.

You might be surprised at the potential that’s showcased in your own photos and, as a consequence, just how good a photographer you really are.

At the very least you’ll see potential in your images that, perhaps, you hadn’t recognized earlier and which you might like to investigate further.

Here’s how the photos you make really do matter.

  • Your photos act as time capsules that preserve, for posterity, important moments from you life.

  • Your photos allow you to document your very own, unique interpretations of how you experienced your time on this earth.

  • There’s no one else exactly like you and your photos speak to the world of your own uniqueness and individuality.

Life Is The Search For What’s Beautiful

Beauty surrounds us. We just have to slow down, take a breath and appreciate the details and the individual moments that occur within the wider environment.

We have to learn to look with more than our eyes.

Our eyes are simply one end of a viewing funnel and it's our choice as to whether that funnel ends at our mind or our heart.

One will try to rationalize and make sense of things while the other will simply see and feel.

Likewise, as photographers, we have the choice as to whether the purpose of our camera is to gather as much information as possible or a tool by which we’re able to open ourselves up to the world around us.

The face of innocence on a beautiful baby in Chennai, India.

Empathy and Photography

Being drawn to the human condition suggests you’re empathetic by nature. That has to be an advantage for portrait photography.

Empathy will allow you to better understand the journey others experience and help to concentrate your mind on your own true life's purpose.

It’s my view that being focused on the other, rather than the self, is what separates compelling images that explore the human condition from more general street photography.

Street photography and the human condition have been intimately connected since the very early days of photography. As someone involved in the photography industry for 40 years I’m well aware of that connection and believe that my own work identifies very much with it.

I photographed this young baby, just after they’d awoken from sleep, in an orphanage on the outskirts of Chennai in India.

I used a technique from my days as a professional portrait photographer where I asked the carer to stand next to me and rattle some keys.

The jingle jangle sound of the keys caught the child’s attention and allowed me to make this candid image which explores the notion of childhood innocence.

A black and white rendering helps to take the image out of the time at which it was made which helps with the universal theme I was exploring.

Why you choose to do street photography is up to you. Perhaps it’s the decisive moment that inspires you, without any social comment attached.

But there’s always the choice, every now and again, to photograph the world around you in a way that pays attention to the trials, tribulations, joys, celebrations and aspirations of normal, everyday people.

By focusing your attention on why you make the photos you do you’ll be more likely to concentrate your own efforts on exploring the human condition in your own street photography adventures.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru