In case you don’t know, I love Leonard Cohen, and I do mean love. He is not only one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our times, he is one of the greatest of all time. His music has guided me, inspired me, enabled me to connect with my emotions and uplifted me in many troubled times of my own.
Recently I read a post from a site I subscribe to called Brain Pickings. Their posts I get from them are always stimulating, thought provoking and often enable insights and revelations that I value. Please visit the site and you will see what I mean.
Anyway, the post I was reading was a description and review of a wonderful book, Songwriters on Songwriting. The book is a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo with some of the huge names in songwriting.
In his 1992 conversation with Zollo, Cohen was asked to consider the purpose of music in human life. This was Leonard’s answer:
There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.
As soon as I read this I knew that what Cohen was saying applied just as much to street and social documentary photography as it does to songwriting. In fact, you could say that what he is talking about is the foundation, or one of the foundations, upon which humanist photography stands:
Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.
This idea resonated deeply within me. Ever since I have been photographing people, and even before I realized I was practicing documentary or street photography, I had the sense that the act of me photographing a person does not make that person special; it is their presence in my photographs that makes the photographs special. In other words, human activity dignifies my photographs. Or, to put it another way: photographing humans and their activities (whether they are mundane or “ordinary”, or what we might call unusual or extraordinary) is not a way for me to “make them seem worthy or impressive” (one definition of dignify). Rather, the humans I photograph as they go about their so-called ordinary lives offer me the opportunity to produce worthy or impressive photographs. Of course, as I've said, the photographs are already worthy and impressive simply by virtue of the presence of humans and their activities in them.
This is not to say that my (or anyone’s) photographs are automatically “good” and that I can ignore the notion of applying skill, care and control in their production. In fact the contrary is true: in order to fulfill my responsibility to depict the people and their activities I photograph in a way that does justice to their presence in the photographs, I am obligated to do all I can to make the photo as good as it can be.
Many of you will have read or heard that I believe that there are no ordinary moments. This is, of course what Leonard is saying in the quote above. As I wander the streets and other public places in openness to receive images from my fellow humans, I see couples kissing or hugging, and couples fighting or looking glum; I see people working and people who are unemployed; I see people shopping or daydreaming at shop windows; I see parents caring lovingly for their children, and I see parents unhappy with their children for some reason or another; I see people smiling, crying, chatting, walking, talking. I see people with friends and I see people alone-and sometime people who are lonely. I see people slowly strolling and others rushing to or from somewhere. I've seen people being arrested, and I've seen others “resisting” arrest. I have seen joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. As well, I have experienced all kinds of emotions as I witness life on the streets.
Most of the human activities cited above would seem to the vast majority of us as ordinary, perhaps not noticed or worthy of note, as we go about our ordinary, and often busy, everyday lives. This is where I and others like me come in. It is the role of the humanist street photographer to, firstly, be open to seeing these fleeting moments that are quickly lost and gone forever for most of the people who experience them. Secondly, it is our job to bear witness. We do this by making photographs that are, not only of high technical and aesthetic quality, but that reflect an empathetic, compassionate and loving approach to the people photographed and to the moment itself.
For the humanist street photographer this has nothing to do with “taking” photos, or “stealing souls” or “capturing great shots” or any of the other junk and rubbish spouted noisily in the so–called street photography forums and blogs as well as on the websites of savvy social media marketing “togs” all over the internet. For the Humanist street or social documentary photographer it is about being open to a connection and a sharing between ourselves and our fellow humans with whom we are fortunate enough to be experiencing those fleeting and so-called ordinary moments.