I’ve been feeling for a while now that something has been lacking from my street photography. I seem to have settled into a “style” or “way of seeing” that features themes of solitude and isolation, monotone color palettes, and generally bland scenes – in line with my descriptions of “New-Wave Street Photography”.
I want for my photography in general, as well as my street work, to feature a little more emotion, which to me means interesting characters, eye contact, action and interaction between two or more figures in the scene, and unique, surreal situations.
It has been very difficult to transition my workflow and to tune my vision to these kinds of images. It is simply too easy for me to shoot in the previous style as that is what I have been working on for the longest amount of time in my photography journey. I’ve struggled with trying techniques like close-up candid portraiture, Bruce Gilden style, as it simply doesn’t fit with my attitudes. I’ve tried for more photojournalistic approaches, but these just turn into genuine long-term projects, which make it difficult to justify actually sharing my work. My street photography needs to remain distinct and separate from my other work, telling its own story with its own themes.
Travel has always been a way for me to help re-contextualize my philosophies and approach, and after a so-so trip to Iceland in January I was hoping that my week in Morocco would provide something. I wasn’t quite sure what, but I wanted to make sure I kept an open mind to whatever might happen – and this definitely paid off.
Shooting street photography in Morocco was unlike anything I have ever experienced, and if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a mindset shift I think I would have taken away only negativity from the experience. When I arrived in the country I was initially wary of the locals based on warnings I’d read online, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer aggression I would have to deal with, not only as a foreigner but as a photographer as well.
After landing and dropping off my luggage at my hotel I headed directly for the Souk, as marketplaces tend to be very lively and therefore good spots for street photography. Almost instantly I was targeted by a seemingly unending group of people trying to sell me various knick-knacks which is nothing new for me except for one thing: they didn’t know how to take “no” for an answer.
I hadn’t even had time to get my bearings and review the scene without bringing the camera to my eye and I was already having to deal with more stress than I’d ever encountered in my time shooting around London – or anywhere else I’d traveled to for that matter. When I did see something interesting and thought to take a photo it became worse, as people would come over and demand money for taking their photo – even if I hadn’t pointed the camera at them!
This is very unlike the attitude I face in London where at worst someone will swear at me, or ask me to delete something. They don’t ask for something in return and are less aware of cameras in general. In Marrakech however, my camera connoted a paycheque to anyone who thought I would be an easy target. I was both an outsider and a photographer, and I received negativity for both.
As I moved through the streets this behavior did not let up, and I was grabbed at, shouted at a lot, asked for money simply for existing in the same space as them with a camera. I’ve never been a confrontational person, so having to face this attitude, especially with the amount of physical contact involved.
Everyone I encountered had an agenda, usually involving money from me, and even when they seemed to approach with kindness it was an aggressive kindness with nothing “real” behind the eyes beyond wanting to seem like my friend, or a tour guide, or simply a friendly local, in order to fleece me. I had to deal with what seemed like whole communities geared towards hassling tourists and felt true conspiratorialism from others who seemed genuinely spontaneous in their decision to see if they could part me with my money for any arbitrary reason.
This caused me a lot of stress, and I felt constantly drained by their persistence even after I had asked them to leave me alone. I know I missed shots because of this attention, and although I’m mostly happy with the images I produced during my time there overall I still feel like I should have done more at the time to adapt to the situation.
As time went on during the trip I realized I had a choice for how to deal with this. I have always advocated reframing problems in different ways in order to reveal potential solutions through lateral thinking. Reframing my attitude towards this aggression was tricky but I managed to decide that while candid scenes may be difficult they could not be possible – after all, I have seen a lot of excellent street photography from this area of the world and if they could do it so could I.
I adjusted my shooting style, attempting more shots from the hip, using my 90mm almost exclusively and reserving my 50 for traveling on trains. Although I trust my ability to frame these focal lengths on a rangefinder from intense practice with my digital cameras I still wasted some frames shooting this style.
I loaded mostly in daylight so the majority of my best images were shot on Slide film (the recently re-released Ektachrome) – perfect for the intense bright sunlight, which meant I spent as little time as possible in the shade. I also adjusted my attitude towards people who would approach me, becoming more abrupt and stern with my requests to be left alone.
Although I was never aggressive in action I changed my body language to be a little more assertive and confident, whereas in London I usually remain a little more discreet and timid-seeming. I also bought some new clothes in order to try and seem less like a tourist. My usual approach to travel, which is to dress for comfort, and pretend to be an “out of my depth” tourist (which is a great approach for my street photography at home) did not seem to be working at all, so changing the way I presented myself as much as possible made the most sense.
I have now been shooting back in London for a few weeks now and feel like my time in Morocco helped me to both overcome a few mental blocks and also to desensitize me (to an extent) to confrontations. I have been thinking about and mentally reframing my perspective on aggression, both from the perspective of a photographer and a subject, which now help me while seeking out potential street photography opportunities.
Morocco feels like almost a “crash course” in experiences of rejection, being treated with hostility, and general negativity towards the presence of a camera. By the end of it, I was numb to these confrontations and had shed any politeness I had originally been countering their advances with.
Realistically there has never been anything “real” preventing me from making the kind of images I want to. I have the technical skill, so what I’ve lacked has been a combination of boldness and vision. I’ve “learned” a certain way to see, and my images so far have had a certain style, so I need to spend longer learning how to find the situations I’d rather be shooting.
The boldness comes into play once I’ve identified such a scene, and relies on me valuing the potential image more than any self-consciousness that comes with carrying a camera with purpose.
However, I’ve felt a definite mental shift in the way I feel I can treat London as a place to shoot since my time in Morocco. I feel less afraid and bolder; situations I deal with in London pose far less risk both physically and mentally to me.
You can tell from my images throughout this article that this mentality did not simply come into existence while I was out there. There is still a distance and lack of intimacy in my shots, and no portraits whatsoever (although I prefer to distance portrait photography from my street photography on the best of days!).
Compared to my other travel projects my takeaway from Morocco has been a slow burn of contemplation, criticizing myself for not dealing with this environment in a better way straightaway, rather than allowing it to be a mindset I’ve brought back with me. For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with my “New Wave” Street Photography shooting style, and have wanted to direct myself towards more classical ideas.
I want to be focusing around people and moments of behavior rather than simple interaction with light, or moments involving temporary light. This means a more proactive and direct response when I see something interesting.
I think that fear is one of the biggest hurdles in street photography regardless of how close and intimate you choose to be. There are only so many compromises you can make before this fear starts to affect the quality of your work, and even whether you are making this work in the first place.
As always, respect plays a large role – respecting yourself and knowing your rights when it comes to photographing in public, and also respecting not only your subject but also anyone around you.
Before Morocco, I feel that I would sometimes spend quite some time deliberating every click of my shutter, and that would often result in a poor image compared to the moment I had seen. Part of my new approach means that as soon as I know I have seen something worthwhile I will press the shutter.
I will follow through on this unless something happens to physically stop me – I won’t have second thoughts based on people’s reactions or expressions, or anything that would have previously made me pause. I think I can get so caught up in not wanting to cause a fuss that I read too much into the faces of the people around me.
While writing this piece I had a discussion with another photographer, who drew a parallel between the way that the hustlers and street traders acted and the behavior of some street photographers themselves. Ideas of harassment, and not taking “no” for an answer, as well as seeing people as opportunities for exploitation are definitely attributes that some street photographers possess.
Although I don’t think that any of these apply to me I am still careful to conduct myself in a respectful way, as mentioned before. There are some tools which are useful for this which I think some street photographers overlook, like reading body language, discretion, understanding boundaries and consent with close-quarters portraiture, and so on.
If you do choose to shoot aggressively and disrespectfully then I do have some advice I think is important: make those images the absolute best you can. The ends must justify the means when it comes to adopting an attitude of feeling like everyone on the street is there for your benefit as a photographer. If you are producing mediocre photos and making people miserable as a result then practice and practice until one of those things is no longer happening. Do not share mediocre results; simply improve.
Looking back I’m overall quite happy and comfortable with the experience, regardless of how I might have felt in the moment. The images and, most importantly, this new perspective on the way I interact and may be perceived by those around me, is invaluable to my photographic journey. Perhaps I was naïve before, as I’ve dealt with similar in Rome, Paris, and even London, although never as focused or frequent.
Although it will take some time to truly realize what effect this has on my photography after shooting in London again I do feel liberated to an extent. In London, the worst that will happen is I’ll be shouted at, but rarely will there be a blow thrown – I’ve always felt safe in London but have never really exploited that safety. I could probably be ten times as assertive in London and not receive the same amount of attention in a decade as I did in the week I was in Morocco.
My time in Morocco has really helped me to work through some of the issues I have been dealing with not only in terms of the scope of my street photography but also in my general outlook and life attitudes. I look forward to seeing how my work and interaction with others changes as a result of this, and of course I stay open to seeing how these opinions and attitudes may change and develop over time as a result of reacting to the world in a different way!
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.