Pedro Meyer ©1999
It used to be that up to the 80’s photographing on the street and walking around with
a camera was a safe practice. If you respected people’s privacy and were gentle in
your approach towards the subjects, more often than not, people were either glad to
participate in the ritual or at worst tolerated it.
I started to notice a gradual disappearance of what traditionally was called “street
photography”. I could not find a suitable explanation for that until I traveled exten-
sively throughout the United States in pursuit of fulfilling a Guggenheim Fellowship
that I had received; the subject of the project was to capture street life in the United
Two major issues came to my attention. One was the disappearance almost every-
where of any downtown life. Those parts of the city had become populated mostly by
parking lots and empty streets, with whatever was left of “life” taking place inside tall
buildings. What used to be a bustling environment around commerce, had now been
displaced towards the “shopping mall” located in the suburbs. “Street life” changed
from being in a public -city- space to that of a private -corporate- one, the mall. The
malls usually forbid one to walk around taking pictures. I was personally evicted
several times for doing so without permission: I was on private property, I was told.
In this latter environment, any traditional “street life” worth photographing has practi-
cally evaporated anyway. The second issue that emerged was safety. In those areas of
the city where indeed some life was worth photographing, it was not such a hot idea to
walk around with a camera hanging from your shoulder or neck. Tough neighborhoods
had lots of life, to be sure, but unless you BELONGED, you would be safer not mak-
ing yourself present with such equipment.
In Mexico, which has always been a bastion for street photography, this practice also
suffered, but here it was more safety related, than from “life” displaced to shopping
malls. Although there are a number of such commercial centers which imitate the
American shopping centers, street life is still pretty much prevalent throughout the rest
of the city. However, walking around with a camera is not something you want to do
so readily, that is, if you want to avoid being mugged and loose your equipment aside
from any physical danger which might come your way in the process of such a
holdup. Today, walking around Caracas, Rio de Janeiro or Bogota is not very different
from the experience of Mexico City. It stands to reason that if you are walking around
with a camera, amidst poverty, the provocation to be relieved of your possessions can
be understood as some confused notion of distributing wealth.
All these realities are in marked contrast to the experience I’ve had in most of western
Europe, where walking around in the street with a camera does not carry the same
security connotations as in the Americas. In most of Western Europe they have better
safety records as well as plenty of life going on in their downtown quarters. Compare
downtown London or Milan, to Houston, Pittsburgh or Los Angeles, and you will
think that life in such US cities had been extracted with a technique like liposuction.
There is little life left on those city streets.
The question is then, given that the Europeans have ampler resources to create “street
photography” images, why is it that not more Europeans have made it their tradition
than what can be observed today. One line of thinking is that this tradition has been
conceptually exhausted. Another is that such imagery does not sell very easily, it isn’t
decorative enough I would venture to guess, and therefore is discouraged as not sell-
able. A third possibility has to do with what is being published these days and there-
fore might have the possibility to generate income. In reality there is a close relation-
ship between the decline of “street photography” with the downward spiral that has
been experienced in the photographic marketplace during the late nineties by docu-
mentary photographers or photojournalists.
Today the images that sell well are those that depict stars, people that are either fa-
mous or nearly famous, the “wanabes” (want to be: famous). They come from the
world of sports, film or music, or simply because of their wealth; mind you no teach-
ers, poets, or farmers. The emphasis today IS on celebrity photographs. I believe this
is the outcome of societies whose values have become more individualistic than ever
before. The celebrity is, by definition, self-centered and narcissistic. The images of
“life on the streets” had to do more with genuine concerns for the other, a sense of the
collective, a more humanistic photography if you will. Today even those topics which
would like to express a degree of humanity at large, tend to play to the most basic
sentimentalism. Which together with “celebrity pictures” have become the other great
topic of most publications and television presentations. Hard news which are very
close to Soap Operas, that is what sells. And the distinction between them is ever
So where do we go from here? If I was forced to make some sort of prediction, I
would venture to say that the Internet will play a major role in reviving both the inter-
est and dedication to a more humanistic photography. The photographic community
has always had a very healthy dedication to such imagery, and I am sure the Internet
will provide ways and means to make such work more readily available again as the
risks -from an economical point of view- will be diminished, and the niche markets
will surely develop to give support to such work.
Digital technologies will play a major role in all of this happening. With photogra-
phers being able to spin off both video and still images from the same source, there is
going to be a redeployment of what have been the traditional destinations for such
work. Already there are film makers who are using modest camcorders to create films
that are later being upgraded to 35mm for mainstream cinemas. In the process they
can also document as would a still photographer with such images being used for
other purposes than strictly a film.
Some digital cameras are today less obtrusive and visible, therefore can be carried
around with less risk. They can be shot from angles that are usually not associated
“with taking a picture”. I have been surprised of many times I have been able to pho-
tograph in situations where the expectations of me holding a camera to my eyes would
have impeded me from taking the picture.
We can repurpose videos and pictures towards the Internet in new ways, to do so is
obviously going to be a transition that depends more on the issues of bandwidth ( the
speed at which you can access the information) than on the interest people have for
certain topics. With these potential new markets, new possibilities will emerge for
photographers, where content will be the driving force.
We have had some experiences at ZoneZero which are encouraging. The work that we
show, as you well know if you are a frequent visitor to our site, is one of photography
with content, all within a humanistic tradition. With the number of visitors continually
on the rise, we sense there is indeed an interest for such work, in spite of all the opin-
ions to the contrary.
We can imagine that at some point in the near future, we will be able to support the
site both through advertising, commerce at our site ( the sale of books for instance is
also on the rise) and contributions from sponsors. We will also be giving courses in
everything related to photography, which we hope will also generate some income. We
do not think it is too farfetched to make the operation self-sufficient, and to be able to
support the work of photographers.
Maybe the tradition of “street photography”, like all else in contemporary life, will
have to find a new way of making images even though the intentions and the gaze
might be similar. With new markets, will come new opportunities. What I am most
confident about is that the need to comment on human nature and ordinary life, will
not fade away, but rather come back with considerable strength.
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or write in our forum section at ZoneZero