Just What Kind of Photographer Are You?

I’m a street photographer.  I’ve shot portraits, but I’m not a portrait photographer.  I’ve shot events, but I’m not an event shooter.  Yah, I’ve shot weddings too, but I’m not a wedding photographer.  I’m a street photographer.  To know me and to understand me is to know and understand what a street photographer is.

A street photographer is a different breed than a portrait photographer, an events photographer or a wedding photographer.

Street photography, as the term is now used, means a genre – an attitude – that the New York street photographers of the 60s and 70s created and molded.  I can understand that.

When I’m shooting on the street, I see life as it is.  That’s what I work with.  I don’t have pictures in my head.  I don’t worry about how the photo is going to look when I take it.  I let all of that stuff take care of itself.  For me, it’s not about making a “nice” photograph.  Anyone can do that.  When things move, I get interested.  I want to capture in a split-second Asheville’s unending, always changing momentum and energy in all of its weirdness.

When I walk out into the city, I chase after the eternal “now-ness” of city life itself in all it’s raw, undiluted energy.

To be a good street shooter today, you need, as Martin Parr recently put it, “obsession, dedication and balls”. Despite that, more people than ever seem to being attracted to street photography.  On Flickr, for instance, there’s a site called Hardcore Street Photography and it’s got about 36,000 members.

The idea of worrying about correct lighting and conceptually driven art which the galleries are looking for bores me to tears.  I could give a damn about F-stops or composition.  I try to take what I see through the lens and capture it so that you can feel the same emotions evoked when I lowered the glass on it.

Paul Graham, one of the few whose work has made it from the street into the gallery, recently responded to a critic who dismissed street photographers who specialized in “just snapping their surroundings”.  Graham said, “…there remains a sizeable part of the art world that simply does not get street photography. They get artists who use photography to illustrate their ideas, installations, performances and concepts, who deploy the medium as one of a range of artistic strategies to complete their work. But street photography for and of itself – photographs taken of the world as it is – are misunderstood as a collection of random observations and lucky moments, or muddled up with photojournalism, or tarred with a semi-derogatory ‘documentary’ tag.”

For me, street photography is basically a way of shooting where you have to be totally open to what happens on the street.  When you give up props and models.  When you don’t use anything other than available lighting, it’s down to a mixture of chance and skill.

When I step out of the door into the street to see what happens, there’s no agenda.  With “art” photography, there’s always an agenda.  The pull for me of street photography is that it’s something everyone tries to do and yet with the – usually mistaken – belief that anyone can do it.

As the tag-line on my website says,


Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has traveled the world documenting the tears, joys, laughter and lives of people everywhere. He currently focuses his camera on the same topics in America. His work has appeared in such diverse publications as USAToday, CNN, Upsurge, Dream Row and others. A portion of his income from each photo shoot is donated to organizations that help the homeless in the communities in which he works. You can see more of his photography by clicking here.

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