Flesh and pavement
From the paper to the street, this documentary photographer finds herself captivated by people and scenes that represent an emotional challenge, forcing her to adapt her photographies to the exact moment that would truly describe every subject. She lives to tell their stories.
When did you first know you wanted to be a photographer? How did you start in photography?
I was on a trip to Europe with my son, exactly two years ago on June 26th, 2015, when I realized that I wanted to buy a camera. I had no idea of what I was doing; chasing gypsies as they panhandled in Bologna... I googled it and realized I was practicing street photography. I became obsessed and began to notice that every little thought, feeling, emotion I had ever felt and would feel could be expressed through the proper use of my camera, in synchrony with my thoughts and observations of the world.
How and when were you drawn into street photography?
From the very first moment I was a street photographer. I have never been interested in anything else, although I feel that I am kind of a hybrid street/documentary photographer.
How would you define “Street photography” for yourself? What are you trying to express?
Street photography for me is some kind of bizarrely instinctual thing that is just in me. I never knew it was there until two years ago! I just get a feeling and it’s usually a particular person, an energy that draws me. Often I will gravitate towards contrasts, situational or social, but hopefully both.
I like narrative photographs, even if it’s a pigeon and a woman’s foot. At least, a narrative that I can understand, if no one else! I like small, infinitely nondescript moments as well as big social statements. I use photography regularly as a way to express how I feel and have felt about my own life. I use my negative experiences quite often, I think... Usually, I am not terribly interested in ordinary complacency; I don’t notice those people too much.
You are documenting social inequality, people with really difficult lives... How do they usually react to being photographed?
In many situations of “social inequality”, I need permission as I will be very close to the person, trying to build an image around them and the space they occupy. In situations I run across on the street, if permission is given, the moments are lost. If I ask, sometimes I get in trouble. Recently in Paris, I got a big kick in the head/hand/camera by a homeless and mentally ill guy. I was not photographing him, but facing the opposite direction! You should state that the X-T2 is a very well built camera, as it survived this kick beautifully!
Two weeks later, I was attempting a wide street picture on a street near Rue St. Denis, one that is known for prostitution... I had some ladies that freaked completely, even though I shot wide and further back in this instance! Not a great method for me, being far away! But one started hitting me pretty hard. It was okay, I didn’t get mad at her because that’s the life she is in. It was a scene out of a movie. I did lose my temper by the end, though. So, in answer to your question, sometimes people get really mad when I take pictures!
Can you tell us the story behind this image?
The picture above has been published a few times. It’s one of my absolute favorites. It is not one for everyone and it’s been misused, misrepresented and misunderstood.
I was taking pictures of a woman in Skid Row that I ran into, someone I had photographed before. I like daily life, everyday situations... and I don’t stop taking pictures. She took a break, went off to buy some crack. I am being honest here, she was gone for a while. I’m sitting on Towne Avenue with her friend, a nice guy. We are witnessing some very bizarre stuff in her absence: a woman being intentionally shot with heroin to keep her insensible, as she was being used for extremely abusive purposes. In the neck, against a wall deep in Skid Row. She had been there for hours, between her tent and the sunlit wall, out of it completely. She was very dark skinned.
Two white men came and, very nonchalantly, began to stick a needle in her neck and shoot her into a state of even worse oblivion. I was later told that they do this to women who are being held in tents, women who are often mentally ill. The women are used as prostitutes. I didn’t think that photography was in my best interests in these moments. When the woman in my pictures returned, she laid on her stomach and began smoking in the late afternoon sun; the light, her eyes and hair. She had to ask me to continue because I had already photographed a young woman shooting heroin and I was not sure I wanted to continue along these lines, only because I don’t want to seem totally exploitative.
But I am sometimes, as I think most photographers are capturing unfortunate circumstances no matter what they say. How else can you tell true stories that are brutally difficult? Although she looked amazing. The situation was incredible all around so I took a few pictures that I will never forget.
What are your favorite pieces of gear for street photography?
The only cameras I have ever used are Fujifilm. My first camera was the X-T1 with the XF18-55mm lens.
Now, I use the X-T2 and the X-Pro2 as a backup. My favorite lens –indispensable, is the XF16mm F1.4. I also have the XF50mm F2 and XF10-24mm F4. Those are my only lenses. I had to sell my XF14mm F2.8 to acquire the wide zoom and I deeply regret that decision. I will replace it as soon as I can find a good used copy.
What advice could you give to aspiring street photographers?
My advice is -unless safety concerns are overwhelming- take the picture. If you don’t, you could regret it for a long time. Don’t fall victim to Instagram of other prevalent/popular/mainstream tastes on social media. Follow your own instincts. Take a step back, literally. I don’t crop; I do so in my camera, rarely cropping in the posts. If you remember to take a step back you won’t destroy your composition because you cut something off inadvertently.
Another advice: never, ever intentionally copy the work or compositional style of another person. Similar style is normal, but outright plagiarism is anti-art and reduces you in the eyes of those who notice it.
Where can we see more of your work?
You can find my portfolio on my website suzannesteinphoto.com, follow me on Instagram @suzanne_stein and on Tumblr.
︎ Article by Fujifeed