street photography saves me

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’ve been on a street photography bender for months now.

I mentioned last July that I’d started shooting after 4 months of no photography. That wasn’t true. I didn’t start again until September, which makes it 6 months—half a year—not using my camera. When I did finally pick it up again, I didn’t go crazy as you’d think. Instead, I did the bare minimum: an afternoon of shooting every Saturday. Street photography remains the thing I want to do the most, and not having done it for 2 years, I’d missed it sorely. But I was also afraid. Of finding out that I’d lost my eye, and was useless with a camera… which I was, mind, because I hadn’t taken pictures in a really long time. Nothing a good long span of practice wouldn’t resolve. But the camera felt so weird in my hand at first that I thought I’d lost that part of my brain. Don’t laugh.

(Ok, you can laugh. The voices in our heads are ridiculous.)

Temple. October 2020, Singapore.

A few weeks into it though, I met several kindred spirits. They got me all fired up about this thing I am technically fired up about. And that’s when I went crazy, and made up for that half year of not exercising that part of my brain.

Between October and December 2020, I spent entire weekends on the streets of Singapore. I shoot for pleasure here, not bound by assignment or much purpose, aside from the renewed need to see and capture. There is an inherent violence in photography, as Teju Cole wrote so eloquently in his piece for the New York Times. He was talking about photojournalism, but he is right in saying that the language of our craft is a violent one. Shoot, capture, snap, take—they are benign in photography’s vernacular, but all have origins in assault, punishment, conquest. Imperialism. Megalomania.

Mea culpa.

The work of a street photographer involves that. Chasing—another non-pacifist verb—after those still frames that encapsulate a world in an image. Not all of us are aggressive like Bruce Gilden in making our photos. But we all, eventually, give in to the hunt for that perfect single frame.

But in megalomania is street photography’s other function: it’s how I get to reshape my world, my bit of resistance against the way I’m commanded to see / think / feel about where I am, but especially in and about my country. Which in so many ways feels as foreign as any other country out there, except it shouldn’t, because I’m from here. Arriving back home in March, finally with the intention to stay, marked the end of a 21 year—half my life— journey away. For places that endure with little change, two decades is a long while. In Singapore, where change happens at blinding speed, two decades is a lifetime. Coming back for visits in the last few years was discombobulating. Coming back to live?

Overwhelming. Insane.

Time to go. Nov 2020, Singapore.

And I can only deal with it the way I normally deal with difficult things. Getting out and shooting the streets.

Street photography was the thing I did when I first picked up a camera, all those years ago. Some people are drawn to portraiture, others to landscape, or journalism or fine art. I was—and still am—drawn to the theatre of public spaces. There is nothing like it: all those unlikely, microcosmic moments of humanity you couldn’t script better.

Being able to immortalise them is like bottling magic.

Dec 2020, Singapore

The stuff that’s coming out of my camera these days is mostly rubbish. It’s unfocused, with no purpose or direction. Mostly me getting my shit together again after a couple of years running ragged, mending the broken bits of myself: mind, body, heart.

It’s been good to have a camera with me. The camera is always the starting point, or “the thing that gets you to the thing,” as espoused by Dan Milnor at some point.

Photographically, I’ve never been freer than I am now. I no longer work as a photographer or in any kind of content creation capacity. I am a digital librarian at work (a step towards nerdvana if there ever was one). So these days I shoot for pure pleasure, with zero pressure to deliver.

I’m free to play, and not worry about the effect of my play on client relationships. I’m also free to sit back and process the last 8 years of being a working photographer and traveller, and consider what comes next in work and life.

But it’s not all heavy stuff. I’m also free to simply enjoy myself. That hasn’t happened in a while. So I return to the things that anchor me. Street photography is more than just catharsis. It’s my whetstone: how I keep myself sharp professionally. It’s gotten, and still gets me through the tough spots: a reminder that life’s worth living, one frame at a time.

And it’s where I find my people. But that is a post for another day.

Singapore, February 2020

charlene

photographer