Introduction by the interviewer Shin Noguchi
Alison is one of my favorite photographers. In every expression, her photographs are overflowing with beauty and humanism. And above all, I think it is wonderful that the love for the subjects, and always “herself” can be seen in photographs.
1. Tell us where you are based. What are your favourite locations for shooting? Are there any specific cultural or geographical advantages or difficulties to your area and how do you respond to them?
Hello everyone! A big thank you to Shin for asking me to do this interview!
I’m happiest photographing away from home. This is mainly because I live in a little village outside Geneva that’s so quiet I’d be lucky to spot a cat. Geneva itself is not the liveliest of cities and people here aren’t exactly relaxed about street photographers. Lucky for them I’m one of a very small group! (There’s only nine, as far as I know.) Winters here are especially subdued. Still, there’s a kind of quiet, elegant melancholy here, during the cold months, which I think is quite interesting to try to capture. Our springs and summers are much more cheerful.
I try to be discreet when I photograph here. I never try to hide what I’m doing, but friendly smiles, after being noticed, don’t always smooth things over here and I’ve had to master that confusing stare into the middle distance.
2. What got you started with street photography? Who are the photographers that influence and inspire you? What motivates you to keep going?
I was a painter for almost twenty years and it wasn’t until 2007 that I realized a passion for photography had overtaken my interest in painting. The photographers whose work first influenced me were Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson and I can still feel myself pulled between a desire for Frank’s gritty spontaneity and Cartier-Bresson’s elegant, geometric order. Nowadays, I don’t feel that I’m really influenced, but so many photographers inspire me – too many to mention! Alex Webb is a current favorite. I also think that Tiago Santana’s photography is amazing. I love looking at the photographs on Flickr. There are some incredibly talented people out there.
I’m motivated by a need to express myself visually and by my curiosity in human nature.
3. What do you look for when making a good street photograph? What are you hoping to reveal through your pictures?
I try to capture my idea of beauty, in a scene. Aesthetics are very important to me. Although I enjoy looking at work that has that postmodernist anti-aesthetic feel, I think I will always seek strong composition and seductive colours or contrast.
Ultimately I also hope to reveal something interesting about human nature, but I’m not sure how often I succeed.
4. Would you say you have a specific and consistent style of street photography? What are your thoughts on personal style – does it matter? Or contrarily do you prefer not to limit yourself to a specific style?
I don’t think much about having a specific or consistent style. I really believe that the way I think or feel (in general and especially in relation to the environment I’m in) should drive the way I photograph and that worrying about how the work looks to others would be limiting and ultimately destructive.
Anyone looking through my Flickr stream could think I’m all over the place, but that’s because Flickr displays everything in the order it was uploaded – in fact I almost always work in cohesive (I think!) series – partly because the idea of a single image saying or documenting enough seems almost impossible to me.
5. What SP projects or aims are you working on? Are there any types of SP you find more challenging and are perhaps looking to improve?
I’m currently working on a group project that will end with an exhibition and possibly a publication with a small group from Regard Perdu – a collective of French speaking photographers who work in various genres. For this project, we are each exploring ideas about our concerns or hopes for the future. I’m doing this through street photography. The project is currently called “demain” (tomorrow). When we first started, I was quite dubious and thought it was all a bit contrived, but I’m really getting into it now and shooting for this series is what I’m currently most excited about.
I don’t think there’s any type of street photography that I find more challenging than others. My taste in street photography and my definition of the genre is very broad, but I also know what I’m interested in and I can be quite relentless and obsessive about pursuing my latest interest.
I can’t ever imagine not feeling the need to improve. If that ever happens, it would be time to try something completely different!
6. Share the advice you think is key to taking good street photos. If you were providing an instruction to the group which reflects your own work and would benefit others what would it be?
I wouldn’t advise an experienced street photographer, as it would just be my opinion against his or hers. My advice to a newcomer would be to take photos as often as possible. That advice about ruthless editing is good advice for more advanced photographers, but beginners shouldn’t delete too much as something that looks terrible to a newbie could actually look quite interesting to him once he has more experience, just as his proudest photographic moment could well make him cringe a year or two down the line. I would also advise him to photograph whatever interested him the most and to allow himself to follow his instincts. I’d advise a newcomer to look at every photo book he can get his hands on, pour over the images and read what the photographers say. I would advise him to read Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Szarkowski and any theory or criticism relating to photography. He should also go to as many photography and art exhibitions as possible. I think sharing and critiquing images on Flickr is also very helpful, so long as he doesn’t fall into the trap of confusing popularity with talent.
If I were to provide an instruction for a group, I would use this quote from John Szarkowski:
To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.
I would choose this because I think the best street photography is open-ended and ambiguous. By it’s very nature, photography quotes out of context in that our vision is confined to the edges of the frame and because we can never be sure what preceded the moment and what happened afterwards. The more we play with these possibilities, the more fun we can have.
7. Tell us about your preferred method(s) of shooting on the street. Do you wander aimlessly, do you sit patiently on location, do you hunt characters? How long are you prepared to camp a location or follow an individual to get the shot? Do you hip shoot, telephoto, or get in people’s faces? How much time do you spend taking photos on the street?
I wander a lot, but I also like to find an interesting setting and wait for something to happen. If I thought it was worth it and I had the time, I would spend hours in one spot, but normally unless someone’s keeping me company, I move on after half an hour or so. I don’t really hunt characters, but if I like the look of someone I will stalk him until he lets me know he’s noticed me. I have hip shot in the past, but it has never worked for me. I’m fairly sure I would never use a telephoto in the street, but I rarely get in people’s faces either. I usually like a bit of elbowroom in my images. However, I do enjoy getting really close and using a flash on a cable at parties, but in the streets I prefer not to disturb the flow. The amount of time I spend shooting in the streets is quite irregular. I tend to have intense periods interspersed with quieter times when I may only shoot once or twice a week.
8. Tell us about your photographic equipment – what cameras do you use and how it helps you.
I’ve been enjoying the Fuji X100, but mine has dodgy aperture blades, so while I wait for it to be fixed, I’m using a Canon G12 quite a bit. The G12 is a bit slow, but the nifty swivel LCD means I can spend less time on the ground getting the low angles that I like. When I feel that image quality is important, I’ll take my Nikon D700 and a 35mm lens.
9. Do you do any other forms of photography besides street? Are there any lessons to be learnt from this?
I also love documentary photography. I haven’t worked much in this genre yet, but it’s definitely something I want to do more of. Although I enjoy the fleeting nature of street photography, I also love the real exchange that can happen between the photographer and the subjects during a documentary project. I don’t think documentary work could help me to become a better street photographer, but I think it’s a wonderful complement.
10. What’s your way of preventing and/or dealing with confrontation. Tell us about an incident that happened to you?
I try to avoid confrontation, but if I’m challenged, I stand up for my rights. On a few occasions, I’ve had people here telling me that it’s illegal to take photos of people in the street. I always politely try to explain that it’s legal and then walk away, but I won’t delete the image unless there was a really good reason to do so.
I think I may have been to the most difficult country in the world in which to take street photos – Djibouti, in the horn of Africa. I was there for a documentary project and in my free time I wondered around the town with my camera. During my time there I had a camera confiscated. On another day I had to show two armed guards all of the images on my card – luckily they didn’t think anything was incriminating. I also had a couple of death threats from guys, high on the narcotic leaf Quat. These experiences were such a contrast to the positive experience I had of documenting the incredible work done, by the NGOs, helping vulnerable populations in this drought-affected part of the world.
11. Besides SPNC, what other resources do you use in the pursuit of street photography? Do you have any other favourite Flickr groups, or blogs that you read, or other ways you display your photos?
I subscribe to the British Journal of Photography and to Aperture and there are a few French magazines that I read regularly. There are so many groups on Flickr that I really like, including a little crop of promising new ones. One of my favorite groups is the wonderfully innocent and quirky “An Odd Zoo”, even though I never have much that fits. Like most street photographers, I check in to see what’s going on at HCSP. If anything’s happening in the world of SP, it will be mentioned there. In general I like the groups that curate, and have almost completely given up putting images in groups that don’t, unless I’m invited to. I also have a website, which I’m in the process of improving. I’m hoping it will be ready by mid March. Twice a year, I also add a series of images to the Regard Perdu site.
12. And finally, show us one of your favourite shots and tell us a bit about how you got it.
I took this image in response to Alex Webb’s SPNP instruction:
“When you hit that wall of utter frustration while photographing the street, when you are beyond tired and just want to give up, keep on walking – for another hour, or until the light goes entirely. Often the best photographs come when you least expect them – when you are the most exhausted, and the most emotionally vulnerable.”
I took this during a regatta and, as you can see, it was bucketing down. I spent hours balancing an umbrella, my D700 and a cloth that I had to wipe the lens with every few minutes. I spotted the guy in black and followed him around for a while, but it just wasn’t coming together and then the little girl popped up and I knew I had it. Unfortunately, that was the last time I had a moment like that!
Thank you Alison for a great interview. – here are a few of my many favourites of her work: