Small Town Street Photography Guide

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  • Street Photographyin a small town

    Joakim K E Johansson

    - a guide of sorts

    (Translated by Mns Hagberg)

  • IF YOU WANT TO SEE more of my street photography you are welcome to visit my web page at:

    Joakim K E Johansson

    CHRISTMAS 2010 WAS COMING UP. Right then I decided to take my street photography to a new level. I had done street photography on and off for years, but never done anything worthwhile of it. Certainly not in my own town. But now the time was ripe.

    To find inspiration i spent several evenings digging through blogs and You Tube-clips on street photography. Not without envy I saw photographers work their way along the streets of the most exciting cities in the world. But there was one problem. I lived in a Swedish pro-vincial town. You could walk up and down its centre in twenty minutes or so. This was not Paris.

    I FOUND OUT THAT NEXT TO NOBODY had written about street photography from the perspective of a small town. This fact quickly translated into a real challenge. Can I take pho-tos according to the rules of street photography in my town? Can I discover a feeling of city life in an environment that every so often must be described as rather desolate? I made up my mind to make a serious attempt.

    This guide is about these ruminations and about what I found out. But before we start out, let me make one thing very clear. This guide offers no universal truths hewn in stone. There are disparities not only between places, but also between photographers. Even so I do hope to give to you who are interested in street photography both inspiration and issues to consider.

    Let your smalltown be your challenge!


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  • LET ME TO INTRODUCE KARLSKRONA. You will find this coastal town, built on a number of islands, at the southeastern corner of Sweden. Here resides a county governor, some 30 000 more or less happy inhabitants in the central parts and just 65 000 in the municipality as a whole. Here I live and here I do street photography.

    How do you describe this town? Well, the tourist pam-phlets usually state that Karlskrona was founded in 1680 as a naval base and military town, that the older parts are built on a number of islands right in the middle of the archipelago, that there is a very fine Naval Museum and that large parts have been designated a World Cultural Heritage thanks to the well-preserved naval harbour of the 18th century. These pamphlets seldom mention that a Soviet submarine stranded here in 1981, even if that might be what makes Karlskrona most well known nowa-days.

    When you walk along the streets of Karlskrona you see many things typical for a Swedish town. In the outskirts cosy wooden houses, cottages and mansions are preva-lent. In the centre you encounter substantial masonry buildings dating from around 1900 and occasional older buildings. The great demolition craze that hit so many Swedish towns after the Second World War did some damage here.

    AS A FIRST-TIME VISITOR you are easily led to believe that Karlskrona is a lot larger than what really is the case. In the beginning the planners had grandiose plans. They designed the place after Italian models with broad main streets in a grid layout. At the top of the main island they laid out a monumental town square with two churches and the Town Hall. But do not let this fool you. Karlskrona is no more than a small town, albeit one of great beauty. At least in my eyes.

    This is my town


  • IF YOU DO STREET PHOTOGRAPHY in Tokyo or Karl-skrona some basic principles always apply. The first and most important one is that street photography is about to describe life as it is lived in the public space and to do that in a documentary way. Thus, a street photographer is an observer who mirrors reality with a camera.

    The public space need not be urban. It can be a park, a beach, an amusement park, a market place or a shopping centre. The place does need to be one where people gather and interact with each other and with the environ-ment they are in.

    SINCE STREET PHOTOGRAPHY ASPIRES to be docu-mentary the photos cannot be arranged. That is as true in a great city as in a small town. As soon as you try to control what is happening by giving directions or inter-vening in any other way you are no longer doing street photography.

    The decisive moment is another important principle. In essence it says that street photos as a rule capture a spe-cial occasion, a human condition or a story of sorts in just one exposure. Street photography hardly ever uses series of pictures to show a course of events or follows certain people during a certain time. That type of photography is rather to be considered as traditional documentary photography or photo reportage.

    These basic principles apply in a small town as well as in a large city. Now let us look at the differences.

    Elements of Street Photography

    The decisive moment is another important prin-ciple.


  • READING ABOUT STREET PHOTOGRAPHY you will come across tips that seem a bit comical if you try to ap-ply them to this noble art in a small town. For example: Take your picture quickly and then disappear right away into the crowd. I think that anyone who says such a thing never has done street photography outside a major city. You better forget a manoeuvre of this kind immediately.

    In a small town you will rather have to use substantial dis-tances and realize that there are no thick crowds. A per-son you just photographed may well reappear just around the block five minutes later. Doing street photography in a small town simply means that you are much more visible, whether you like it or not. That is the fundamental difference between small town and big city.

    The best method is to act openly and naturally with your camera. No hiding or stealth - that just seems creepy. Instead, put into practice to radiate confidence. What you are doing is nothing strange. A photographer who is just standing there with his or her camera in the open will quickly be uninteresting. When people have noticed you they generally tend to continue with their business and you can take your photos with ease.

    To shoot photos in the streets of a small town

    TIP: Always be available if someone wants to ask what you are up to. Especially a person you just photographed. To sneak away does not work in a small town. Sooner or later you will be recognized. Then the confrontation might take place in a less pleasant way.


  • SOMETIMES EVEN THE MOST confident of photogra-phers is likely to have a problem when photographing strangers. For the beginner the very thought might be frightening. In particular in a small town where, as I said, you cannot hide in the crowds as you can in a bustling metropolis. The risk for embarrassing situations to occur is simply huge. At least it is felt that way.

    A pretty good way to get around this is to practice when there are more people in motion than usual. Look for town celebrations, fairs, events, Saturdays when shops are open extra long hours, and so on. As a rule people do not care about someone who walks around with a camera under those circumstances. This means that you feel more comfortable.

    ANOTHER METHOD is to turn the camera towards peo-ple who make shows or deliberately present themselves in the public space. For example musicians, street theatre groups, entertainers or skateboarding youth. Again, more often than not it is wholly possible to keep snapping without appearing too strange.

    So if you are a beginner or feel uncomfortable, it is a good idea to start in these situations. Often enough you will find it easier to get the images that you feel happy with, too. This in turn will be a spur to move forward with street photography in other contexts.

    TIP: If you are looking for portrait-like images of people that look naturally laid back it is a use-ful trick to stay where many people pass by. Most people do not mind moving past someone who just stands there with a camera.

    For the beginner the very thought might be frightening


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  • THE SMALL TOWN might have a limited wealth of people and vibrant environments. That means that you as a street photographer will have to find places with a lot of people around. By and large that is in front of the downtown shopping centre, at a crossing or at meeting places such as the town square, parks or the travel centre.

    There you can stroll around at a leisurely pace and find your subjects without attracting too much at-tention. Or simply stay in a good spot and wait for something to happen. Just be careful not to overuse a few chosen environments. That is easily done when you know that these give great picture opportunities. Do remember to find different views and new angles.

    Locate your watering holes


  • ABOUT THREE OCLOCK in the afternoon on a typical Saturday shop owners shut their doors for the weekend. Within minutes, the streets are emptied of people. With luck, one can see a lonely soul rush across the square carrying a liquor bag. Thats what you see in many Swedish towns a normal weekend afternoon. Even the restaurants and cafes are empty.

    In a big city, you can go outdoors almost any time and still be served a multitude of people. Not so in a small town. Therefore it is important to learn the towns rhythm and know when its time to head out with the camera. Often its on Saturdays until the the shops close. Weekday mornings can be good, and weekdays from lunchtime onwards. Thats when most things happen in a small town.

    THE SAME THING IS TRUE with the seasons. In a big city you must push your way through the masses even in November. At that time a small township looks like an aban-done