I recently complained to Deborah Swain that the streets of Saint-Denis were dead and uninteresting. It’s always like that. When things don’t go the way you want, you have to find scapegoats. Oh yes, my camera is rather old … The streets are terribly empty … There’s nothing going on here … You know, it’s a small city compared to NYC (as if everything wasn’t small compared to NYC …) In short, all sorts of excuses that aren’t worth a damn. I’ve already written many blogs about this, but I get the impression that it’s human nature not to learn lessons (who said anything about wars?).
I went through this kind of phase in Aix-en-Provence too. It’s undeniable that there are fewer people in the streets of Saint-Denis, but does that mean that it’s less interesting? Does that mean there’s nothing going on? As usual, it’s the “grass is greener elsewhere” syndrome. It’s well known that we French are born complainers. Always complaining about the smallest thing. In street photography, it’s routine that often puts the blinkers on. In the end, it’s quite normal. Here we are, walking the same streets over and over again. After a while you stop seeing things and there’s that air of déjà-vu!
I’ve said it many times before, in Street Photography we don’t photograph places, we photograph people. The city is the backdrop. I have to repeat this like a mantra every time I come close to complaining that there’s nothing going on in my city. Very often, to get my Mojo back in the street, I concentrate on little things like gestures or attitudes that are out of the ordinary. It’s as if I’ve turned myself into a giant magnifying glass and I’m tracking small details through the lens of my camera.
There’s so much going on in the street that very often when I’m looking at an overview of a scene unfolding in front of me, I’m looking without really looking. I’m a passive spectator, whereas what I’m trying to do in Street Photography is to do things with intention. There’s an original hat; why is he barefoot? It’s curiosity that creates photo opportunities. As soon as I stop being curious, you can be sure that my eyes won’t see anything, or only the obvious.
The other thing that also works well is to let myself be guided by my instinct without asking questions just to see what it will look like in photo.
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand
I’m not the one who said it, but it’s absolutely true. Even if I say in my heart that I’m trying to document the streets of Saint-Denis in an attempt to leave a trace of an era that will inevitably be over, we mustn’t forget the fun and amusing side of the thing. I’m also doing this because I get a kick out of taking photos and marvelling at trivial, insignificant scenes. It’s the childlike side of it that ties in with the curiosity I mentioned earlier. If we could always look at the street with a child’s eye, no one would complain as I often do.
To counter the idea that nothing happens on my island, here are a few photos I took recently.
I’d spotted these three brothers dressed in the same way, presumably coming out of the hairdressers. Obviously, the photo was a must. I really like the way the boy in the foreground is looking at someone out of frame.
This second photo was taken during our visit to the lava tunnels. Taken with a 21mm lens at ISO 800, I did quite well in terms of colour and noise. I’d already said to myself that with these helmets, there was great potential despite the flagrant lack of light. In street photography, it’s always the same thing. I’d spent the last few weeks struggling to get something right and then, all of a sudden, there’s this scene where all the elements are lined up and all I have to do is click. I have absolutely nothing to do but live in that moment and capture it. You know that. It’s a rare moment and you enjoy it because you know it won’t happen again soon…
Photo of a couple of sugar cane cutters we met at the end of our visit to the lava tunnels. I chatted to them a bit, as most of the farms are run by machines and they couldn’t do it because their plot was too small. It’s a thankless and difficult job, but they were all smiles. They deserved a photo!
Boucan Canot! You’re getting to know this beach. I really like this place and this time it was really crowded as it’s still the school holidays. I let the kids go in the water and hung around for a while snapping photos. What could be more normal than a father taking photos of his children?
On the way back up I passed this guy sunbathing. You often find people in improbable positions on the beach. I have to admit that it’s easier to photograph men because it would be a bit of a pervert if I photographed girls in funny positions. But frankly, there’s plenty to do!
As I walked down Maréchal Leclerc, my eyes were immediately drawn to the ballet of this woman’s hands behind her back. It was as if she was sensually caressing her lower back all the time. Don’t ask me why! I just saw a photo opportunity …
Here too, it was the details that caught my attention. The bare feet of the man playing with his slippers, the cigarette, the beer. That’s all it took for me to click. I didn’t see the whole scene in detail. It wasn’t until I looked at the photo later that I realised it must have been a homeless man, given the state of his dirty trousers. I’m not saying that because I don’t censor homeless people. They’re part of the street. It’s just to tell you that at the time, I’m just attracted by the details that interest me and I don’t see the rest.
The gestures are what made me click here. Shocking!
I often see this gentleman in his red beret. It’s clearly this accessory that motivated the photo. A step to the left in relation to the orientation of the sun so as not to have it against the light. It’s obvious, but as soon as I arrive at a place, I always look for the sun to know where to place myself. A scene can be ruined because of its position. If I have to shoot against the light, it has to be deliberate.
Sometimes I’m just drawn to street furniture. Nobody saw a cross there. I’m not even sure people saw the “piétons” sign… It’s not because I’m Catholic that I saw the symbol of the cross (more visible in the opening photo of this Blog), but simply because I let my mind wander and I let it make free associations that led me to see these things. I then simply composed, taking care to incorporate a rather sexy poster from the lingerie shop next door.
This photo is the perfect example of a ‘fluke’ photo. There was nothing intentional about it. The only thing I wanted was to take a photo of this girl about to light her cigarette. I saw that and that’s why I clicked. But look at the overlay between the cigarette and the shop logo! It’s impossible to do spontaneously without posing. I could say I saw it, but I didn’t. It came to me in post-processing ! Lucky bastard !
For this last photo, I stumbled across a Tamil ceremony in Saint-Denis. There was a procession in honour of the goddess Kali. Obviously, even if the procession was already a call for photos, I had to try to get away from the basic ethnic photo by offering something else. And of course we had to be careful to capture the gestures of the two characters. Without them, the photo would have been colourful but insignificant.
So there you have it. Nothing ever happens in the streets of Saint-Denis… The next time I say something like that, you’re allowed to insult me and make fun of me. “Jeff stop whining and shoot for fuck’s sake!”
All photos were taken with the Ricoh GRD IV.