Photo finish

Published: Oct 26, 2012, 07:39 IST | Ruchika Kher |

Photojournalist Jonathan Taylor, who is known for his haunting black-and-white images of the streets of Thailand, is on his second visit to India to share insights into the world of images. In an interaction with Ruchika Kher, the British artiste recalls how his fascination with Asia began two decades ago, leading him to make Bangkok his second home, and what aspiring street photographers should keep in mind.

Is this your first visit to India?
I visited India for the first time over 20 years ago. It was actually a working holiday, including travelling and photographing stock imagery, and a few story ideas. It was my first trip to Asia. It was supposed to be a year of travelling, then returning to the UK to live. Twenty years later, I am still living in Asia (in Thailand).

Jonathan Taylor

How did you get interested in street photography?
I am a social documentary photographer. I wouldn’t classify myself as only a street photographer. Covering issues in depth interests me more than single images do. But as a social documentary photographer, many of the issues that interest me involve street photography. Of course, when studying photography, I was also influenced by Cartier Bresson. I use his work extensively when teaching people to photograph on the streets.

What are the challenges or obstacles that one faces with street photography?
Street photography, like all good photography, is about being able to get close to your subject. This may not only be in terms of distance from the people you photograph but also when it comes to getting an inside view of their lives. Once you get that ‘in’, then the viewer feels he is participating in the photograph. I have two quotes that I use a lot, one is from the war photographer Robert Capa — ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough’; the other is from Magnum Photos’ street photographer Bruce Gilden — ‘If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph’.

A fight breaks out in a slum
Slug it out: A fight breaks out in a slum. Pics courtesy/Jonathan Taylor 

What are you planning to focus on during your Mumbai workshop?
I want to cover the different types and methods of street photography. It is essentially people photography, so things that will be covered include —Candid Portraits: how to get close to your subjects, keep them relaxed and keep yourself calm and confident as only with confidence can you capture good images;

Not so charming: A man shows off his good luck charms

Compositional photography: how to get in position to create a compositionally correct frame, then allow for life to happen inside that frame;
Environmental portrait photography: how to frame the subject creating an image that shows something about the lives of the subject, inside the single image. No caption should be needed to know something about the lives of the people in the picture; Character study photography: here, more than one image is used, a sort of day-in-the-life approach to photography. A documentation of a person’s life, with a narrative that runs from an establishing photograph through to the action pictures, with details and ends at what I call a stop shot. These tend to be from five to ten pictures long.

What are the main things that a street photographer should possess?
Empathy and a camera.

While on a photography assignment, have you ever encountered anything that had a deep impact on you?
Some of the things I have encountered have had a huge impact on me. As I have said earlier, a photographer needs to have empathy. Without it, his or her work is cold and meaningless. I don’t want to go deeply into the things that have affected me. To be honest, the photographer should never be the issue. I choose to be in those places and cover the things that I have, and with those choices, there are consequences. The subjects are the important ones. The photography game has too many egos involved. Photographers sipping champagne at exhibitions, while images of human suffering hang on the walls… it has never sat right with me.

How do you feel the field of street photography has evolved in the 20 years you have been working in this area? What is its future?
I think the question applies to all the different photojournalist styles there are. Photography is more immediate and easy to do than ever; as a hobby it has never been more popular. As a career, it has never been harder to make a living from solely taking pictures. The print media has all but died, there is just no budget for commissions anymore. Stock agencies sell images to editors for USD 5 a time. Internet magazines don’t pay for photography on the whole, or if they do, it is very little. But ironically, there are more images out there than ever. As a lad, I always used to enjoy the Sunday weekend magazines and well-known photographers’ picture features. But if you look at the pictures these publications use now, you just get a selection of generic wire service images. I know the photographers who work for the wire services. Some of them are very good photographers but their editors want them to take more generic, easily understood photographs, nothing with their individual voice involved.

Also, the media is scared of losing their advertisers and no longer feel they can run hard-hitting stories like they used to. These photographers often win World Press awards, but ironically enough, with pictures that have never been published. Images too strong, supposedly, for the public to cope with next to the adverts of hotel resorts, high-end cars and the like. There is obviously a place for advertising and the world has changed since when I started as a photographer, but the saying about the ‘tail wagging the dog’ has never been more true than it is today with respect to the photography industry.

Jonathan Taylor will conduct his workshop on October 27 and 28. To sign up, email

Street smart in Mumbai
Street photography is an art form that focuses on capturing people in candid situations at public places. In India, street photography was mainly popularised by photojournalists Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh in the 1960s and 1970s. With digital cameras bringing the cost of photography down and improving picture quality, several Mumbai youngsters have quit well-paying jobs to take up street photography. The city’s vibrant atmosphere and stark contrasts between the rich and the poor, heritage and modernity, make it a perfect setting for aficionados of this art form. Last year, the Mumbai Art Room hosted an exhibition of street photography in the city. It featured images by street photographers such as Ravi Agarwal, Pablo Bartholomew, Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Shahid Datawala, Dhruv Malhotra, Anne Maniglier, Zubin Pastakia, Ram Rahman, Riddhi Shah, Ketaki Sheth and Sooni Taraporevala.  

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