As a street photographer I often find myself needing to explain, or defend, this sometimes misunderstood genre of photography. On rare occasions, you come across a subject on the street that is either confused or angry when you take their photo and they want an explanation. I get it, it’s odd for some people to understand why I would want to take a picture of a complete stranger who I don’t even know and call it art. I’m still trying to explain it to my wife after almost four years.
I unapologetically take candid photos of people on the street to try and capture a slice of life that can’t be made if I were to ask for permission first. I truly believe in what I do and think that it is important to capture these moments of time, but I will always make the effort to try and explain and defend the art of street and documentary photography to anyone that asks. If someone is uncomfortable with me taking their picture, I won’t use it and I will always hand out my business card and offer to send them a copy if they want it. I don’t want to piss anyone off, but in order to capture a candid moment that is a true documentation of everyday life on the street, I have to press the shutter button without asking. As the saying goes: It is easier to ask for forgiveness then it is to ask for permission. But, for the few times I have needed to “defend” street photography to people, there are those great experiences where a photograph can bring happiness and joy to a someones life, and this post is about one of those times.
The photograph above was taken during one of my typical days on the street. I stopped at a spot in the Union Square neighborhood in San Francisco because I saw this beautiful shaft of light. The background was decent with a reflective window and now all I needed was a great subject to walk through. I watched a few people walk by to see where the light was hitting them on the face and I positioned myself and the camera where I wanted it and then bam! the subject entered the frame and I snapped one shot. It wasn’t the greatest photo I’ve ever taken, but a good shot and worthy of an Instagram post. It had great light, a great subject, and a decent background, so when I got home I did a light edit, turned into a monochrome picture, and then I posted it.
An Instagram follower recognized the person in the post as a friends father and tagged them in a comment. He responded and said that it was indeed his father and asked, “how can I get a copy of this photo?”. I responded to him that I would be happy to send him a copy if he sent me his contact info. He sent me his address just as I was setting up and testing out my new Canon Pro-100 printer, so I printed out the picture and sent him a real physical photograph. He was stoked when he got it, and since it arrived right before father’s day, he framed it and gave it to his dad as a Father’s Day gift. Up until this point I was happy that I made someone happy with a photograph, but still a little nervous how the subject would respond to having his picture taken on the street from a complete stranger. After he give the framed picture to his dad on father’s day he tagged me in a post on his Instagram feed with the picture and I think his comment explains it much better then I can (I removed the names): “Happy Father’s Day to my Dad. He has walked the streets of San Francisco’s financial district since the mid Sixties when he started practicing law as a young man. This photo taken by @neilgeller, candidly captures my Dad moving through his day in a way that I think is quite powerful. Thank you Neil for sending me a copy of this photo which I framed and gave to my Dad today. This will be a legacy photo for us, and the future generation of our family to enjoy. Cheers.”
It feels good to bring happiness to people with a photograph. I apologize to all of the subjects I have pissed off in the past and all of the subjects I will piss off in the future, but it is experiences like this that keep me going and reassure my love for street photography.