a blog by knut skjærven

The Interview: Question Two.

Blind Date. © Knut Skjærven

Q: I just want to use a minute to quote you on what you said to your new Facebook Group: On Every Street. That might be a bit unusual in an interview like this, but the interview will be extensive, so I need to fill in all readers from the start. Would that be ok with you? Can we perhaps do that now?

I have read the text and found it rather illumination on what you understand with street shooting. It’s rather good, in fact.

A: Sure, why not. I’ll just get a cup of coffee from the kitchen while you do that. Want a refill?

Q: Sure, thanks. This will not take long. Let me just set the stage: A group member asked a question of what images that should be loaded to the group. Here is your answer. We will have to dig into that at a later stage. At this moment, just for the record.

Start of Quote:

Many thanks. Mats, for raising this issue. It is a good theme and it had to be brought up sooner or later.

When defining an area one has to recognize that this can be done in many ways. You could differentiate between a descriptive and a normative definition.

What are the differences?

A descriptive definition is a definition that tries to honor the way a word, or a concept, is used in daily speech. A normative definition, however, will try to set a standard for a concept when used in a specific context, e.g. in a Facebook Group like On Every Street.

The rules we have in this group try to honor a bit of both: The definition, as articulated in the rules, is obviously normative. Photographs posted should: a) have people in them, b) be shot in a public areas, and c) basically be un-staged.

On the other hand, it is also stressed that street shooting is to be understood mainly as an approach. It should also be said, however, that this is an approach to be executed within the norms, that are worded in a, b, and c above.

This is the way it (normatively) is, and that is the type of shots that should go into this group site.

If your start discussing this, which is very good, that some do, you challenge a normative definition with a descriptive definition. That can lead to complications of understanding.

You could say, for instance, that this is not the way Burri, Bresson or Fischer would have defined the area. That is obviously true, but of no value here, since the definition is set normatively, not historically, or from other criteria.

That said, the normative definition used on this site is formulated to honor the larger part of what might be expected to go into a descriptive definition. It is not at all uncommon to describe street photography as just: “a) have to contain people, b) should be shot in a public area, and c) should basically be un-staged”.

I have, as you can see, tried to honor both, and by running polls regularly we can adjust that along the way. If that is needed and wanted.

Why have definitions at all? Why not just open the gates and take all in (what we de facto do at the moment, anyway)? There are very important reasons why we should not continue doing this. Let me point to 4 of them:

1) I really don’t think that having a normative definition, as an overall guideline, degrades an area at all. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. The more precise an area is defined the better the chances are for getting outstanding work.

2) A normatively defined group will have a tendency to go deep (same type of shooting), while a descriptively defined group will have a tendency to go wide (lots for different approaches and areas).

3) A normative defined group will gain respect and recognition. A descriptive set group will not. You will never attract high prolific photographers to this group unless you keep strict definitions and high standard. And what was the group ambitions again? “The ambition for the group On Every Street is simply to make the best group for street photography on Facebook. Or for that matter: On the Internet.”

4) The best people will, over time louse interest in a loosely defined group since they all tend to specialize, and therefore will only stay with specialized forums.

This comment is getting long, so I will end soon. One last thing though: Do there have to be people in street shooting?

Descriptively “no”, but normatively “yes” .

This group, as it is defined at present, asks that there are people in the pictures. You may decide to honor this, and you may decide to neglect it. Neglect it enough times, and you should find another group. If you prefer to shoot e.g. street architecture you should find a group that honors that.

Why this stress on people?

This is personal: I cannot find any area within photography that is so rewarding, so extremely difficult, so funny, so interactive, so scary, so beautiful, so entertaining, as the photography of people interacting.

Add to that an ambition of fixing a few decisive moments (in your lifetime), and you have a tall order that will take the rest of your life to accomplish.

Eventually you will succeed :-). I am absolutely sure about that.

Listen to one of my favorite quotes:


 The first thing a photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual; he had not only to accept this fact, but to treasure it: unless he did, photography would defeat him. He learned that the world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness, and to recognize its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supply.

John Szarkowski: The Photographers Eye, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2009.’

Have a good day :-).

End of Quote.

NB! If you want to be a member of On Every Street you need to have a Facebook account and become a member of the group.


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