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You're not that interesting. Why my approach to street photography changed after Covid.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Black and white photo of a line of people queuing patiently to buy food under a sign called Doughnuts and Coffee

Once I was an avid people watcher and street photographer. I'd catch those quiet, yet public moments we so like to see and dwell on. I had walking routes and lenses and the skills to make a decent fist of it. Throw me in somewhere unfamiliar and I'd bag a shot or two before the day was out.

Something's changed.

Later I discovered the big white building in the distance was the Women's University in Kobe. I'd not reached the sign yet, and it hadn't registered as a presence. A bridge crossing a dried up waterway had caught my eye and I'd paused to take a photo.

A bridge spans a concrete waterway, partially hidden by trees.
The photo that prompted my soul searching. It's not that good - it just interested me.

Finding my camera was a bit uncomfortable, I was fiddling with it, knocked a setting and had to play with the menus. A young woman walked towards me, then stopped, said something and I responded with an instinctive hello and a nod of the head. She was gone before that part of my brain still struggling with Japanese got around to translating what she'd said.

"Did you take my photograph?"

I assume something about my response and general state of frustration signaled it was best to walk on. Otherwise we might have ended up having a heated discussion on Google Translate. Or worse.

As I was mulling over this brief encounter the realisation hit me it never occurred to me to take her photo. Or anyone's. If there was a purpose to the long walk I'd set off on, it was to capture engineering, architecture and nature. I find these far more interesting than kimono wearing couples on the tourist trails, people crossing the street with dramatic shadows, or whatever else is passing for street photography these days.

At home I trawled my photos looking for when things changed. People faded in to the background before I arrived in Japan. The UK lockdown seems to be a turning point. My daily photo challenge, carried out on the permitted exercise walk, seems to have been the trigger. With so few people around I took to shooting the mundane for something to do. Japan brought the shiny lights back into focus, and the new and exciting took over. As familiarity has nested, so my photography has turned back to the everyday. Things forgotten on street corners, buildings with interesting details, markings on the road.

Public Footpath marker on the side of the Grand Union canal
A milestone by the Grand Union Canal in Watford, UK, taken during the Covid lockdowns.

But not people.

They are there. Usually in the background or used as an object to enhance the composition of the real subject. Occasionally "Rule 4" applies, and they’re captured up close as they wander into shot.

Two people walk past a shop entrance called Lemon in Kobe, Japan
Rule 4: if a person walks in front of my camera while I'm lining up a shot they agree to be in it.

These are exceptions.

Maybe familiarity will bring an interest in people back. Maybe not. At the moment I seem determined to catalogue every raised expressway in the local area.

"Did you take my photograph?" she asked.

My reply? 

"No. You're not interesting."

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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