Have You Got the Brain for Street Photography?
It might sound like a provocation, but it’s not. Notice the little difference: I am not asking if you have got the brains for street photography, I am asking if you have got the brain for it. The single “s” in brain(s) is the difference. A huge difference.
Asking if you have got the brains for it is the same as asking if you have the overall capacity to do photography. Asking if you have got the brain for it is simply asking if you possess that particular type of brain connectivity you need to be a good street photographer.
Some have both… other have neither.
What we’re talking about is basic neuroscience, the science of the brain. It’s something I’ve taken an interest in, if for no other reason than to understand visuals better.
So back to my question: Have you got the brain for street photography?
It is not enough to have access to a camera, eyes in your head, and the ability to see in a natural attitude kind of way (phenomenology). You need to transcend that and acquire a special set of eyes for seeing decisive moments, or creating them.
That special type of knowledge belongs to what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “domain” in his book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. To master a domain, he says, there must be surplus of attention available.
The critical question is what belongs to the domain street photography?
Here are my best guesses: the basics of the visual language; knowledge of other artistic areas e.g painting and drawing; the history and development of photography and street photography; knowledge of the masters of the game; and a general and updated knowledge of world and art affairs.
If you don’t have a pretty fair portion of this type of knowledge and use it regularly, you have simply not developed that part of your brain that is necessary for capturing proper street photography. You need to develop this part, and you need to nurse it on a regular basis. Use it or lose it.
This constant activity creates measurable changes in your brain; certain neurons will get more active and those connections will swell until certain pairings become fully automated.
If you think that this is fantasy on my part, and it has nothing to do with your proficiency at street photography—both as a photographer and a critic—you are welcome to have and hold such beliefs. The good thing might be that you cannot loose something you never had… but then again, you will never take a decent street photograph.
Think about it. And good luck either way you go.
About the author: Knut Skjaerven is a Norwegian photographer, researcher and educator living in Copenhagen, Denmark. The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, head over to his website. A version of this article first appeared here.