On the Mundane, and Self-Exploration through Street Photography

One thing I’ve noticed about myself over the years since I’ve become an adult is that I have developed somewhat of a distaste for the mundane (everyday life things, commonly seen things, and widely loved things). Whether this is a good or bad thing is, of course, a matter of interpretation. Some may say that a focus on more esoteric or deeper subjects is a sign of growth or refinement, while others may think it shows that I’ve become pretentious and unable to connect with others as I once could. I’m undecided about which side I lean toward; maybe I agree with both of these interpretations.

When I was younger, I suppose I didn’t have these same tendencies, or at least not to the same extent, due to being constantly around and influenced by peers. After finishing my army training and returning to the ‘regular world’, I found myself without many friends (in stark contrast to my life in the army and in school). During this time and several other later periods (due to moving to new places), I found myself spending considerable time alone (not by choice) and was forced to confront myself and the reason for my dissatisfaction with this lifestyle. This drove me to spend considerable time and energy self-reflecting, reading self-help/philosophy/spirituality books, and conducting experiments in my life to unravel the mystery of my dissatisfaction.

Funnily enough, this process of trying to figure out why being alone made me dissatisfied would change my views and priorities to such an extent that I would later start having difficulties finding people that I really wanted to spend time around. It’s also a bit ironic that I spent so much time thinking and reading about philosophies embracing the mundane and everyday aspects of life (mindfulness, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), since this process of studying and reflecting could be seen, in some way, to be doing the exact opposite of what these teachings encourage. Some people can embrace simplicity and everyday life naturally, while others can spend countless hours reading and studying how to do this, and still fail. Although I am jealous, I find myself disinterested in people who can naturally live simply and happily, and am drawn to people who have had to overcome personal issues before arriving at the same destination (or are still in the process of trying), perhaps because this is the type of person I can relate to.

My preference for street photography over other types of photography has confused me for a while. After all, street photography often involves taking photos of everyday people or things encountered while wandering around on the street. What is more mundane than that? I can only make sense of this in two ways so far: 1) I am attracted to finding meaning or interesting things in the mundane through photography because it’s something I have not been able to do in my own life; and 2) Taking photos of beautiful, exciting, and important things is the norm in photography, essentially making it mundane.

In many types of photography, the subject being photographed is often something that we all consider to be beautiful or interesting: an attractive man/woman, a noteworthy event, a sunset, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, animals, etc. I also like to take photos of these things; if I see something nice and interesting, I’ll take a photo. However, in some way I don’t value these photos that I take because the external beauty is already there, I’m just capturing it. In some way, it feels like the quality of the photo is often directly reliant upon the beauty of the thing in the photo. If I ask a random person on the street to pose for a portrait versus a professional model, I assume that most people would prefer the photos of the professional model in terms of aesthetics, despite whatever personal feelings I may have toward the photos and subjects. In order for a photograph of something less-than-beautiful to be considered a good photograph, it seems to me that it must be part of a larger project, contain some sort of deeper meaning, or be taken in pursuit of some deeper meaning.

Street photography may seem easy to do – just go out on the street and take photos of random stuff and people without discrimination. Of course, everything is subjective and some viewers may find profound meaning in some of those photos. However, I think this takes away the most important aspect of street photography: self-exploration. I find that the practice of wandering around and taking photos of things that attract my attention can, in some way, help me to better understand myself. Taking photos on the street, we often don’t have time to think or else we may miss the shot, so we may take a photo before we’re even able to think (likely also resulting in a lot of bad photos). However, over time we will start to accumulate a body of work consisting of these subconsciously captured moments and find previously unknown patterns within ourselves. This doesn’t guarantee that other people will understand or see the same meaning that we do, and it doesn’t matter. After all, who gets into street photography hoping to get famous?

It’s hard to visualize 2-dimensional images in a 3-dimensional and constantly changing world, it’s hard to find and recognize meaningful moments in the constantly unfolding chaos encountered while wandering the streets, and even more difficult is trying to skillfully operate a camera while doing the previous two. This requires a lot of time, practice, and failure to learn how to do well, and is still something I have trouble with after years of doing this. Add in the facts that most people don’t know about or understand street photography and it is probably the least likely type of photography to make you any money, and many people may not understand what the point is. It really comes down to you. Why are you taking photos?

As a language learner, I tend to study languages because I’m interested in some aspect of the language or people who speak that language; I’ve never really considered the ‘practical’ aspects of learning a language (getting a job, passing a test, etc.). I guess that’s just how I am; if I was more pragmatically focused I probably wouldn’t learn languages like Vietnamese or Tagalog (over Japanese, Korean, or Arabic), and I also probably wouldn’t be a street photographer!

Sometimes I think what I think makes sense, and sometimes I think I’m a self-centered hipster who overanalyzes everything. Feel free to tell me what you think.

2 replies to “On the Mundane, and Self-Exploration through Street Photography

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