““To collect photographs is to collect the world.”.” – Susan Sontag
Self-Portrait in Street Photography
In my mid 20s I was a sports tourist entertainer in several islands of the Balearic and Canary Islands. I have to say that I think they cheated with my salary, but with the work, I had a great time entertaining people, doing shows, sports, the clown ... I learned English, I met a lot of people, a job as worthy as any another but with that plus of joy that offers to share moments with people who come to you because of their vacations. One of the best jobs I've ever had, no doubt, but not without sad times, which even the best families and richest athletes get sometimes, then I thought, who entertains the entertainer?
A few years later, living in Hong Kong, I thought of buying a camera one day, and documenting the streets of this great city. I started accumulating photographs of strangers in the street and when I returned to Madrid to visit my parents, I showed them the pictures I’d taken. It was my mother who exclaimed to me -But you’re not in any of them, son! My mother didn't care how much of a good or bad photographer her son was, she wanted to see him in the pictures, maybe not in all of them, but in some, she told me. I realized that, just like when I was an entertainer, nobody entertained me, and being a photographer, nobody photographed me either. She was kind of right, I’d have to be in some of the pictures and that’s when I started caring a bit more about self-portraying.
People like self-portraits in the streets, it makes you participate in the scene blatantly as Velázquez and El Greco already did in their works "Las Meninas" and "The Burial of Count Orgaz" respectively, or how Alfred Hitchcock did in his films, without a word to anybody but realizing everything. You can also participate in the scene, be number one witness of what happens in your photography, self-portray yourself, like Velazquez in Las Meninas.
From this lesson we’ll give more importance to our shadow, to the reflection on puddles, shop windows, windows and
vehicles’ mirrors... and you’ll make more creative self-portraits combining the previous elements with the past lessons. www.schoolofphotographers.com
The photo which open this post is perhaps the self-portrait that I like most of all the ones I’ve done, almost all the lessons of this course are in it, division of the frame, shadows, geometric figures, contrast and self-portrait. It wasn’t easy to get it, but, when I saw a beam of light coming from the small window in front of me, I knew I could use it - I put my head in the path of the light and saw that it was projected on the wall, now the most difficult part was to get the picture, stretching my arm and shooting without knowing if what I wanted would fit into the frame, as well as myself.
Was this photo the result I got on the first try? Absolutely not.
If I hadn’t reframed on the computer, I would never have gotten this picture - That’s why I’ve put this photo first on this topic, because we’re also going to talk about the reframing thing that, in my opinion, is more than essential to save a photography many times, even knowing that there are people who are offended when you tell them you reframe some images.
If you don’t want to reframe it’s fine, and if you want to save some images by framing then... it’s better, why not?
Below I show you the original photo and to your right the final result, you’ll see that without framing or editing, the photo wouldn't have been the same, and we have to take that into account before, during and after photographing
1. Belonging to the scene
I have a very nice and funny student, his name is Kelvin, he’s 25 years old, and he has a self-portrait project that is super-funny: he portrays himself by putting on a serious face while someone appears in his photograph taking selfies. What began as an exercise to observe has become a personal project with more than 100 self-portraits, funny, creative and documenting the reality of some families where each member has a mobile phone and take their selfies at the same time.
We’ll talk about projects in the next lesson, but I’ll tell you what a photographer friend told me one day: - A bad photo is a bad photo, more than 30 bad photos can be good enough for a project.
My student Kelvin’s project began with this picture below, it’s a self-portrait I took when we were looking for sleeping people and photographing them for a month. The exercise was at least 5 photos of people sleeping, applying shutter speed in one, juxtaposition (some sleeping and others not) in another, self-portrait in another and the other two free ones. There was only one rule: Don’t photograph beggars. He was so struck by this that he began with his self-portraits while others were taking selfies.
2. The mirrors
We saw this photo above in the previous lesson where we talked about creativity. It’s from a project I’ve called Gag Law where I photograph the Police force from different countries. I obviously didn’t go out that day to take this photo, but I always have photos I must take in mind. Remember that if you know what you are looking for it will be much easier to find it and when I see the police I always think of photographing them, just like when I see a mirror I think of portraying myself and the combination of these two things gave rise to this photograph, where it gave more value to the title of the series/project putting my hand so that the camera couldn’t be seen.
Do not fear, photographing the police in certain countries of Asia, it’s as legal as photographing flowers, they smile at you and sometimes they even pose.
Looking at mirrors makes me think of my mother's words when she didn’t find me in any of the pictures I showed her and makes me stop before them, look and greet at myself - I take it as practice and saying good morning to myself makes me smile, then I look around and see what I can photograph, how I can participate in the scene.
In the photo above, I'm taking the photo and making the figure of a gun with my hand, in no case do I pretend to disrespect anyone. I took it as a challenge when a photography magazine asked me in an interview what differences there were between shooting with a camera or doing it with a gun. Question that I didn’t understand right away, since it’s very evident that my camera doesn’t look like a Kalashnicov, but it’s true, the camera, although it doesn’t kill, it also shoots, violating the privacy of people, although for many others (especially photographers) it means to document what Susan Sontag wrote in her book On Photography, the author says ̈Photographs are indeed captured experience and the camera is the ideal weapon of consciousness in its greedy mood ̈
Mirrors and Geometric Shapes
After having shown you the first photo of this lesson, where I speak of reframing, I must tell you that it’s reframed, rather cropped. The mirror where we are reflected wasn’t too close and I shot with a 27 mm, but like framing, trimming is also valid, why not?
As you can see, I’m going down an escalator reflecting myself in the windows of the adjacent building. Perhaps it’s the self-portrait that I repeat the most, I think I’ve been doing it at least three times a week for years, I have many friends who come to visit, friends from Hong Kong...
Although I’m showing you the first one I made, the day I realized I could take this picture. Look at the geometric figures, how many do you see? We have the frame divided by two rectangles in half vertically and by two diagonal triangles. In the left division, at the top, the photographer photographing; in the right section and the photographed ones below. A creative self-portrait that I wouldn’t have achieved if I hadn’t cropped the image. It’s true that in many of the ones I’ve done, I shot in the same place with an 80mm, everything being sharper and without the need to crop, although I preferred to show you this to also tell you that in addition to framing, cropping on the computer enhances many pictures.
You already know this photo above, from the Square Format lesson. In that lesson I told you that if you put the camera on the ground, the horizon line between the floor and the wall stays in the center of the frame, getting perfect squares, a very good trick to make more striking compositions. In this self-portrait, the photographer doesn’t have his camera on him, but he’s set a 3 euro self-timer ready to be pressed when someone comes out of that door, where the lady’s at. A very creative way to self-portrait.
Seeing a round mirror is like finding a 4 leaf clover. Circles are great for framing people, self-portray oneself. They give a very attractive geometric figure to the eyes and that will contrast with any other. Say hello while you reflect yourself when you see one on the street, look around and think about what elements can it bring to your picture. So, any mirror you find anywhere will be valid for your photographs, you just have to look around, see and think about what photography you can create; using geometric shapes, your hands, dividing the frame or using a somewhat slower shutter speed, to make sense of what does not move.
Self-portraits and shadows
This is not going to seem like a new exercise, and not because we have gone through the shadows lesson recently, but because we have all played with our own shadows when we were little; either projected by sunlight or playing at home with a flashlight or similar, trying to make Chinese shadows or even be much faster than them. Well, we still keep that children's game and it comes out very often when we have a camera in hand. Projecting your shadow, your hands or even a posture, can become very addictive and that will give us a lot of play in our self-portraits.
Like my student Kelvin’s series/project, where he portrays himself while other subjects in his images take selfies. Thanks to a joke from another student, I also have a game/project that’s only good to keep photographing, creating and learning to observe, even knowing that the result isn’t worth showing. But this exercise makes me creative, it makes me think and smile, since it’s a game between two photographers.
The game is called The Eye, which is how this student calls me affectionately and challenged me to weekly portray ourselves by putting in an eye shape. It may seem like a stupid exercise, but I love it, because many times the result is great. It makes us be in contact with each other, it’s like playing chess by correspondence, having to move a token when the other sends their eye to you via message. Trust me, this is going to make you observe the shadows and exploit your creativity a lot.
Not only can you use your shadow to tell the viewer that you were also there and that you belonged to the scene, but, as in the previous lesson, where we talked about creativity in street photography, you can also use your shadow to balance the image, as in the pictures below.
As we have seen, people like self-portraits in the street, it makes you belong to the scene, as good old Alfred Hitchcock did in his movies, without saying ‘this mouth is mine’, but realizing everything, or as Velázquez and El Greco did in their works, very brave, all of them.
From now on when you see yourself reflected in a shop window, mirror, you see your shadow cast on the floor, or a wall... you’ll notice what’s around and you’ll surely think about how to self-portray. Look in the mirror, say good morning, smile, look around and photograph. Appearing in our images occasionally is more than an art, a lot of the time it’s a game.
Use your shadow to balance an image, raise, lower your hand, move your hat like when you played with Chinese shadows and tried to make any animal object with your hands.