The importance of community in street photography
by David Horton
One of the challenges of street photography is that it’s primarily a solo endeavor. We walk miles of pavement alone searching for moments of magic. While we’re searching, we’re often unsure whether what we’re seeing is unique or interesting. We push ourselves and question ourselves, alone. We usually edit alone. The whole process can be very isolating.
In my experience, the majority of street photographers don’t come to it with a formal training in photography. And for the most part, I think that’s great. It offers the genre a variety of unique perspectives from a variety of disciplines. The downside is that many of these people have never experienced what it’s like to be a part of a supportive, creative environment surrounded by like-minded peers where people are encouraged to grow and mature together. While I never studied photography formally, I feel very fortunate to have attended an art school and experienced that environment. I learned how essential a creative community is for growth, support, and maturity as an artist.
Critiques are a valuable component to the artistic process. While they can certainly be painful at times, they probably afford one of the best opportunities for growth. There’s nothing quite like putting your work up on the proverbial wall for your peers to either rip apart or praise. The reason it’s so important is that we as artists have a tendency to hold onto our creations too tightly. That doesn’t allow us to remain open to discuss our weaknesses with a measure of objectivity and acknowledgement of what we need to improve.
The moment I started taking street photography seriously was the day I submitted one of my pictures into a street photography critique group on Flickr. I’m not gonna lie, you need to develop thick skin to participate in some of these groups, but the benefits have far outweighed the negatives for me. I grew at a pace that would have taken twice as long otherwise. Of course, online critique groups aren’t for everyone. Some people can be downright hurtful for no other reason than to put other people down. Anonymity will breed assholes. But the core reason to do it is that it’s crucial to receive criticism from people whose work you respect and that’s not easily managed online. If you choose to participate in online critique groups, do some research first. Look through the work of regular participants and note whose work you like. Pay particular attention to the critiques from those people. The more you participate, the more significant the interactions become.
Aside from growing and maturing as a photographer, another benefit of participating in critique groups is that you begin to develop your own voice and opinions based on experience and knowledge, not insecurity. You learn to disagree without being defensive and that is a very powerful step in taking you to the next level.
All these experiences led me to realize the importance of community in street photography. My participation in open critique groups led me to private critique groups, private discussion groups, and ultimately becoming part of a collective. I don’t know if this is common in other collectives but, in Observe, the friendships developed first. Transitioning those friendships into a more formal arrangement just felt like a logical next step.
Street photography is incredibly difficult. There’s a good reason people like Alex Webb say that 99% of street photography is failure. I see no need to make it even more difficult by trying to navigate it alone. I don’t necessarily mean going out and shooting with others (although I’ve learned that can also be extremely beneficial) but just sharing the experience together. There’s nothing like sending your pictures to people you trust and respect and saying, “I’m trying out something new here, what do you think?” and knowing you’ll get half a dozen honest opinions back. I’d encourage all street photographers who aren’t part of a community to consider building one or participating in one that’s already established. Seek out people whom you respect, and open a dialogue. One thing to keep in mind is that the more diverse your community, the richer the experience will be. I really appreciate the fact that the shooting styles and approaches in our collective are so varied. This adds richness to our group. It also encourages us to expand in ways we probably wouldn’t if we all subscribed to one philosophy or shooting style.
I am indebted to my online community. I would not be where I am today without it. What an incredibly unique experience it is to have friends all over the globe that share a common interest and passion. I certainly wouldn’t have found that in the city I live in on my own. For me, it started on Flickr. I don’t know what the fate of Flickr will be—I know a lot of people have left or are considerably less active since the recent redesign—but as far as I know it’s still the strongest and most comprehensive platform for street photography available. I’m not necessarily making a plea on behalf of Flickr but, rather, the community it provides. It would be a real shame if this well-established community were to disintegrate entirely.
Artists thrive on community—that’s how we’re challenged, evolve, and grow. My photography colleagues make me rise to the occasion. They call me out if I’m being lazy, they slam me for shooting clichés, they are the first to let me know when I’m not shooting up to the standards they’ve come to expect from me. This is why I love and respect them. It’s always about the work first. They’re less concerned with hurting my feelings and more concerned with helping me develop as an artist. When you hit the inevitable "street photographer's block" where you feel like everything you shoot is crap, they’re there to help you through it. I know how unique and valuable this is and I don’t take it lightly.
My hope in writing this article is that it will inspire others to form a community. For those who are already part of one, be reminded of the importance of nurturing it. What you contribute is often doubled or tripled in return. Street photography is ultimately a singular vision but the process of developing it is almost always stronger in numbers.