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Street Photography

This assignment ran from Feb 4 to Feb 25, 2015.

Editor's Note: Only photos taken during the assignment (Feb 4-Feb 25) will be selected for the final story.

Street photography. It sounds dirty. It sounds urban.

Behind every syllable is a honking horn, a toothless grin, a siren wailing in the background. Chewing gum under your shoe, the smells of the street wafting up to hit you in the nose.

Street photography is a harsh name for a beautiful pursuit. To tame the chaos. To frame the cacophony of modern life. To capture what it means to be alive.

Street photography is more than a phrase; it is a way of seeing, a way of experiencing life. Sports photography can be street photography on the field. Fashion photography can be street photography backstage. At its very essence street photography is capturing life without interrupting it. Witnessing and capturing a once-in-a-lifetime moment as it unfolds in front of you. A pursuit that intrinsically means photography without permission.

So street photography can be scary.

There are three important elements that make up a successful street photographer—probably more, actually—but for this assignment we will concentrate on three:
• Controlling composition in a fluid environment
• Controlling fear
• Controlling the visual narrative

On the street, you don't have a backdrop, no seamless, no directing of light. The world is your backdrop and you have to figure out how to frame your subjects within the space they and you inhabit. This means paying attention to the light, to buildings, to walls, to negative space.

Street photography terrifies me. That's why I practice it every day. Push yourself outside the boundaries of comfort. Photograph on the subway. Shoot that man sitting at the bus stop, or in Starbucks as the setting sun hits his coffee cup. Don't listen to that inner voice that says stop. Go beyond it.

Once you have the images, figuring out how to say something is the hard part. Are all your images random snapshots or a collection that speaks to your heart? How do you start seeing and shooting something cohesive?

Read the assignment guidelines below.

Curated by:

Benjamin Lowy
Assignment Status
  • Open

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  • Closed

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  • Published

    Once the submission period is over, we'll review all contributions and select our favorite images to be included in the story. Learn more.
Published Mar 10, 2015.
Thank you for your contributions!

Push Yourself to See Differently

Posted feb 23, 2015

I just wanted to get my last two cents in before this assignment ends.

I've read a lot of your comments, and I know how hard it is to shoot:

a) In the freezing cold winter
b) In between work hours
c) When you aren't in a city
d) In the allotted assignment time

The reason National Geographic and I set the timeframe was because this assignment wasn't about greatest hits. It's about how you can push yourself to make great new work and see things a bit differently.

I ended up scrolling through the feed to check out and like all types of work, regardless of time shot, because I like to see how people visualize. That won't mean those images will make the cut; I just think they're interesting.

I also think there are quite a few people on this site with a great sense of humor—yes, all those folks who actually shot the physical street. Cobblestones and concrete and asphalt.

Some interesting compositions I saw and noted were when photographers used the environment around them to construct the image—that means mirrors, glass, reflections, shadows, and all those elements that complement and accentuate images.

It is my belief that to make successful images we need to present a viewpoint that most people cannot see with their own eyes. We all walk down the street to get groceries. We all can imagine what it looks like to wait in a line. Now make an image that will blow people's socks off. How does the street appear from a dog's point of view, a bird's, etc.?

The aim is to reimagine and reinterpret the content in front of you.

Fear is still a big issue for most people. I realize that.

The worst thing that can possibly happen has already happened to someone else. So chances are you will be OK.

If someone says no, say "OK, I just thought you were really interesting." (Or beautiful, handsome—people like being complimented.)

Remember, I was chased though the streets of Paris by a leather-clad dominatrix. I was also hit by the same car twice. But that is a story for another class.

And more than likely, it will not happen to you.

Should I Make This Photograph?

Posted feb 18, 2015

Street photography is about exploring. Not just exploring the world around you but also your role as a photographer, as an observer, as an artist. It's important to push yourself outside your comfort zone. You don't have to answer the question about why you're photographing—that insane drive within us all to create and document. We are nostalgic creatures after all.

You will have to answer to yourself—late at night amidst angst and regret—why didn't you make that picture? Why didn't you make that image of the old man in the café window? Why didn't you make the image of the mother and child sitting across from you on the train?

Fear. Uncomfortable, unfathomable self-doubt.

It's what holds back each and every photographer in every situation.

“Should I make this photograph? Is it wrong? Am I taking advantage? What if they say something? What if they get angry? What if someone looks at me strangely? What if I am chased down the street?"

Case in point: In 2001 I was living in Paris trying to train myself to become a photographer. I ended up shooting on the streets everyday, just to see what I could do. At that point in my career I was a student of Winogrand and Meyerowitz, Frank and Depardon. I was shooting a manual film camera on a limited budget and would print my images every week at a lab near Rue Saint Denis, the “working ladies” street. One day I decided to try my hand shooting there. And I was promptly chased down the block by a rather large dominatrix in a purple leather bodice waving a purple wooden paddle at me.

That to me is the worst thing that can happen. But in retrospect it is kind of funny. But that memory—that someone might be upset—has kept on chasing me for years. A purple leather memory.

So how do we get past our fear or shame or self-doubt?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Shoot with a friend or friends. Having people with you always helps with what I call shame displacement. Ever notice how groups of teenagers are always loud and rowdy? It's because they aren't embarrassed or scared when they're with a group. So to with photography.
  2.  Give yourself an assignment. Today, only pictures of couples holding hands. Or people drinking tea, or steam vents. An assignment is a way to streamline your thought process and give you more focus.
  3. Pick a place instead of wandering. If you are a smoker or coffee drinker grab a cigarette or mug (this helps with not looking like a stalker, standing around the same place with a camera). Stand in one place and wait for people to walk through your frame.
  4. This is the most important: Don't shoot for this assignment. Don't shoot for anything other than you. Don't make an image of an empty street because you think you have to. Make an image that is hard. Make an image that twists in you mind. If you start to walk away and regret it immediately, turn around and push yourself.

Go get 'em.

P.S. I photograph everywhere, but some countries have different laws. For the most part in the West, photography in public is allowed without permission. I am a firm believer of, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission."

Assignment Guidelines

Posted feb 4, 2015

Please create NEW work for this assignment. This means I will only be selecting photos shot during the assignment duration for the final story. Make sure your camera settings including the date are correct before you start photographing. The Your Shot team may contact you to validate your image as we close out the assignment.

You have three submissions for this assignment. 

You are welcome to use any device, including your mobile or DSLR camera.

Caption your photos with meaningful information. 

Need some inspiration? Take a look at the Street Scenes series on the Your Shot blog including posts on members Amy SackaMarian Zidaru, Diogo Pereira, Stephane Arnaud, Matthew Wylie and Tatsuo Suzuki

Benjamin Lowy

Benjamin Lowy

Benjamin Lowy is an award-winning photographer based in New York City. He received a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 and began his career covering the Iraq War in 2003. Since then he has covered major stories worldwide. Lowy is one of the early adopters and a vocal proponent for mobile photography. He is interested in working on subjects that deal with conflict and social issues, but has also demonstrated his expertise in sports photography and feature work covering a variety of subjects. Lowy has received awards from World Press Photo, POYi, PDN, Communication Arts, American Photography, and the Society for Publication Design. Lowy has also been a finalist for the Oskar Barnak and Eugene Smith Awards. His work from Iraq, Darfur and Afghanistan have been collected into several gallery and museum shows, and shown at the Tate Modern, SF MOMA, Houston Center for Photography, Invalides and Arles.