By Pietro Spadafora
this morning I was wondering if my first “Street Wisdom” experience can improve me as a street photographer. The two activities resemble in many ways. They both put me into a state of meditation but the day spent with David Pearl (doing Street Wisdom) has additionally been constructive and has helped me to shed light on some of the problems that I usually encounter when I take photographs, such as having a mechanical (or electronic) device standing between myself and the external world, sometimes a limit or an obstacle.
The path that we followed in the Street Wisdom session was divided into four stages. During the first three, I was helped by my photography experience. When I take pictures I never follow a standard path, I am attracted by what I like and pulled away from what I do not care about. The first stage, that of the quick reconnaissance, reminded me of when I visit a new city with a non-photographer friend, where I do not have time to dwell on and examine everything around me, so I have to make a rough analysis and quickly select what I like or not. The third stage, the slower one, looked instead like when I decide to go out alone with my camera and try to apply Cartier Bresson’s theories, examine every inch around me and do not care of the time I need to make the perfect shot.
When I bring the camera to the eye, the world I see through the lens is completely different, it is as if my vision improves exponentially and I am able to see everything in a different way: I am also much braver and confident in myself! When I have my trusted camera in my hand, I can easily photograph an unknown person at few inches from the lens without feeling uncomfortable. I have always been more attracted to photographing people because I love the moment in which people perceive my presence and react in a different and unpredictable way. I find the moment when you stare at someone and he or she realizes it both fascinating and at the same time incomprehensible.
When there is something between myself and the subject, a tool that puts a distance between us (the camera), I feel in some way protected. On the contrary, finding myself “naked (to the naked eye)” at the beginning of Street Wisdom was overwhelming for me: I felt like someone who has not seen the sunlight for years and had to readjust his sight. In this case, it was more about readjusting all the senses.
In addition to using smell, hearing, and touch, it was strangely hard to use the view in the first phase of Street Wisdom. I was not looking at the people, not crossing gazes, I tried instead to focus on what was easier to understand and appreciate: nature, signs, objects, shapes, perfect or imperfect, and their colors. Thanks to this exercise, I have realized the inability of all these things to react to my presence while watching them.
In the second phase I made an effort and tried to take the narrowest street in the Brixton market, full of shops so small that, in addition to the owner, there can be only a single customer. Many craftsmen in a few meters: barbers, shoemakers, tailors, workers etc. It was a rather surreal sight, locked in a time past. If I had had my camera I would have done a lot of photos; instead, without it, “naked (to the naked eye)”, I have been struggling to stare at people. Clearly, when we crossed glances, I felt a little fear but soon realized that I was receiving a pleasant shock, stronger than anything I had observed in the first phase.
A small digression: it took me relatively less than I was expecting to get used to all the other senses. Although it is true that when you make a photo you limit yourself to using the sense of sight (David called it the Fascist sense -we are used to believing only in what we see), when it comes to your own photos, especially if you took them on a film and you printed them by yourself, you find yourself listening to the sounds and smells that were surrounding you at the time of shooting the photo.
What did I see? In the first phase, when I observed the inanimate, I focused on the old signs under a bridge, the reflections in the puddles, the imperfect lines and the relief of the road, an imaginary grid combining palaces, the colors and smells of fruit, the stinging smell of fish that however were attracting me… By the way, how beautiful is the roof and structure of our Pub on Friday? I had never realized it.
In the last stage, when I was looking at people and trying to answer my question (which I will keep secret for the moment), I noticed a homeless rasta watching a person across the street, busy covering with the glue a huge billboard of a McDonald’s burger. I will not explain here why that moment represented a crazy coincidence for me and why I interpreted it as a metaphor for my life.
David Pearl told us that if you indulge the world and if you have a positive reading of what you see and feel “the roads will reply you”. Probably when I take a photo I should be more open to the world and find the way the road wants me to follow.