Fifty-two weeks on the streets

Alfred Sim captured splashes of yellow in response to an instruction from Bang Byoung-Sang: "Look for clashing colours - the more lurid the better." The Yellow Hat, Lhasa, Tibet, China, 2011 © Alfred Sim

Shooting to a brief can be a great way to improve your photography. Couple that with quality feedback and analysis and many will find their pictures become stronger and more thoughtful overnight.

That is the model many street photographers have been enjoying for the past 52 weeks as part of a project run by the Photographers' Gallery in conjunction with Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, authors of Street Photography Now, something I wrote about back in 2010.

Each week, a leading street photographer would issue an instruction and a large band of photographers would take to the streets and capture their interpretation of the theme.

The resulting pictures were then uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr where members could view and indeed comment on the work.

But time is up and the last theme, which was set by Cristóbal Hara: "If you have talent, find your own way" closes today.

(100 yds from) Ground Zero © Justin Vogel Justin Vogel: "This is not only the best picture I took for this project, it is perhaps the best picture I have ever taken. And the absolute truth is if it weren't for Martin Parr's: 'Wait For The Rain' instruction, there is no way I would have taken this shot. I would not have gone out on that rainy day to take pictures. I haven't shot anything as good since."

"It has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined," author Sophie Howarth told me. "All over the world, there's been an army of people following the assignments, and the commitment, knowledge, generosity and humour of the online community that developed blew me away.

"But most importantly, the quality of images way exceeded my expectations. We had nearly 20,000 images submitted overall including at least 300 truly outstanding street photographs, more than enough to create Street Photography Now 2!

"It's a big ask to take on every assignment, and I was amazed just how many people submitted 52 photographs. Incredible friendships were made, numerous relationships put to the test, and as one participant put it: 'lots of us lost maybe a bit of balance between photography and life, but it brought us so much knowledge, discovering and meeting so many photographers, and becoming without realising part of an amazing community'."

Untitled © Phill Jenkins

Sophie continued: "Perhaps what I'm most pleased about is the variety of instructions and people's willingness to try them all. We demanded people hang about in public toilets, talk to strangers, behave like an assassin, push through moments of extreme frustration, and of course keep going whatever the weather."

But there were occasional bumps along the way. The first week got off to a mixed start as there was confusion as to whether the pictures had to be shot that week or if participants could use images from their archives. It's the former in case you were wondering.

At this time, a number of moderators emerged from the group, including Sara T'Rula who brought a wealth of online experience to the scene, offering advice, encouragement and constructive criticism to those just starting out in the project.

There were other humps in the road, as not all the instructions from the photographers were popular.

"Many people objected passionately to Mirko Martin's call to, 'take pictures where you're not comfortable, where you feel exposed, threatened or morally on the wrong side,'" Sophie told me.

She added: "But those who were wiling to get outside their comfort zone that week produced some of the most chilling and memorable work in the project. Such as this shot by Jo Wallace."

Jo Wallace's photograph for instruction 17

Sara agreed: "Quite a few members were simply uncomfortable in doing this. The instruction got a lot of discussion, but submissions took a hit. In the following weeks, submissions returned to their average levels, and I think those instructions proved useful, even for those who didn't photograph in response to them."

There was fun too. Munem Wasif's instruction to: "Be joyful! Dance in the street", resulted in many spellbinding pictures, such as the one below by Paolo Rabuffi.

Photo by Paolo Rabuffi

Other assignments such as Martin Kollar's: "See the characters but create your own plot," produced fascinating results.

Some like Gus Powell's: "Don't ask. Shoot fast" were short and simple to interpret, while some like Raghu Rai's: "Unless the supernatural comes and plays a part and reveals itself, the picture is only as good and nice as information can be," required some interpretation, something Jo Wallace demonstrated brilliantly in this picture.

Yet, by being pushed, many of the participants found they could delve into scenes they would otherwise have left well alone.

It also led to discussions among the participants around issues such as what makes a street photograph and how to deal with problems you might encounter when taking pictures.

"What is street photography?" asked Chris JL in one of the discussions. He added: "Trivial as it may sound, I don't think this is an easy question. Seeing the weekly SPN (Street Photography Now) project submissions is a window into what people out there - people that in most of the cases had not actively focused on SP before - think SP is, should, or could be. This vision is refreshing, often surprising, and definitely makes the project worth following."

Flying Dutchman © Tommy N. Armansyah Tommy N. Armansyah's response to Michael Wolf's assignment: "Document some evidence of human ingenuity that would otherwise go unnoticed. Do it without including any humans in the picture."

Throughout the year, many found they had a voice through their pictures.

Anne Leroy found that the project pushed her to shoot pictures every week and for Phil Jenkins, it took him half-way around the world.

"Before the project, I was taking landscape pictures in Scotland, standing in a wet field with a tripod and now I am kicking around the back streets in China. I'm not quite sure how this happened," he said.

Similarly Joanna Casey wrote: "It's been fantastic! Not only have I made real and virtual friends who share my passion and interest, I love looking at all the wealth of talent on Flickr, and it's enriched my own photographic practice immeasurably (even if it doesn't show at times!) and has led me on to other private projects, opened my eyes and has been only positive. I would not have gone to Paris with Nick Turpin if not for being involved with this, and I have ideas for a photography festival in my own town now, which I never would have if not for meeting Brett..."

Untitled © Jack Simon

But what of those setting the assignments? Have the results met their expectations?

The other half of the book-writing duo is Stephen McLaren who was also given the task of coming up with one of the 52 instructions.

Stephen told me that: "In late January, it was my turn to 'instruct' the community and I decided to challenge them quite directly with the phrase 'follow the money'.

"Sometimes street photography can get a bit of a bad rap for being too concerned with visual puns and ephemera, but in this instance I was delighted that over 300 photographers went out onto the streets of their home towns and tried to interpret my instruction in a direct and concerned fashion.

"The instruction, albeit one of the harder ones from the project, brought back some memorable images reflecting concerns about how citizens live through an economic crisis and I was amazed to see how ingenious they were in using their cameras to bring back insights about wealth, poverty, and other social concerns. For me, this episode showed that the project could engage the photographers on a variety of levels and push them onto topics that were perhaps out of their comfort zones."

Photo by Tony White (Flickr username: wobblyturkey) Tony: "I soon became hooked on the project and got into a routine of posting my shot for that week, finding out the next instruction on the Thursday afternoon or Friday morning and then spending the next week trying to get my best shot to fit that instruction."

Tony (user wobblyturkey on Flickr) started the project as a participant on day one and spent the first weeks devouring the pictures, comments and work of the professionals setting the weekly tasks. But as it progressed, he began to take a more active role and towards the end was helping to moderate the work and has attended workshops by David Gibson, Nick Turpin and Mimi Mollica.

Tony said: "I think that working to a brief and having the deadline is superb practice for a non-professional. The instruction being given by a respected professional in the field certainly added to my motivation, especially when the instruction-giver got involved; I think for many, the project came alive and started buzzing the week that Mimi Mollica set the instruction, as he got really involved in the discussion threads and in leaving feedback on people's photos."

It has been a long road for many, though some plan to carry on for another year, but whereas before they would have seen themselves as working in a vacuum, now they have the support of friends and are proud to see themselves as street photographers.

Stuart Nelson's picture for instruction 30, "Close enough" Andrew Glickman remembered Robert Capa's famous phrase: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," for his instruction and Stuart Nelson obliged with this close-up portrait
Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.


    Post some of your work up then Marc...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Once again a good project seems to have been hijacked by the pc brigade who are trying to find fault with something that is legal and, in my opinion, quite inoffensive. If you don't want to be seen or photographed in public places, then walk around with a brown paper bag over your head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    "A skilled photographer will always ask permission and still get the desired shot."

    Thats just not true, a skilled photographer is one who gets the shot without being noticed, ie they blend in with the people on the street, and don't go around paping everyone. i really doubt that the great street photographers of our time ever asked a subject if they can take their picture,

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Another point, is that anyone writing here is happily consuming all the BBC's photographs of people which have been taken without asking them. For example this panormamic If you want to be private and intimate, get a room : )

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Has anyone here actually had a camera aggressively shoved in their face? I doubt it. If they have, then they have been photographed by a thug, not a photographer. You don't get a good photograph like that.

    I would also guard against describing the fairly trivial transgression of photographing someone as "rape" and "violence". You could learn something from photography. Perspective is important...

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @2. david2211
    "Did all those people in these pictures agree to be photographed? Especially those who are clearly the main subject? I doubt it."
    You can't stop people taking your picture if you're in the public domain ( i.e. on the street ). Why do people always come out with this kind of nonsense statement ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


    The fact that street photography may be legal does not always make it right. Agressively pushing a lens into someone's face or snapping what are clearly meant to be intimate or private emotions is just wrong. It's a small act of violence against strangers.

    Holding a camera to your eye does not relieve you of a duty to behave in a civilised fashion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This is a valid discussion, but I am confused by people's frame of reference. You seem perfectly happy for the police/local authority to take your picture a hundred times a day for no good reason, but get bent when someone captures you whilst trying to express what they see in the course of their day. Shouldn't you should start by directing your anger at the former? Far grater invasion of privacy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Someone can easily move, or put their hand or a magazine in front of their face. Or they can say 'no'. Or 'please delete that'. Some SPers actually still take the picture, but that's rare (see Bruce Gilden style). Legalwise you can show the pics in for art purposes but would need subjects permission for use in commercials. We are recording what our eyes have already seen and what is in public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I'm one of the people who took part in the project very actively. In terms of respect to people in the pictures, and their rights, this was something we discussed a lot. Street photography involves working close to people without upsetting them. That's part of the art and skill. There's more context in the pictures if you do NOT use a long lens. continued...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I agree. It's rude and intrusive, especially when we are so unsure of where these pictures could end up. To take a good a picture, one must have full appreciation for the subject, which includes interaction at the time of taking.

    For some truly incredible street photography, have a look here:

    Some of the best street photography I have ever seen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I do not have a problem with your final statement. My beef is that I am of no interest to the Police or other authorities and neither am I of celebrity staus yet I cannot walk or drive in any city or Mway without my image being captured, studied and anyalised. To have some donky with a camera think he also has a right to do jump out and snap me when he sees fit is just the final straw.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Have we lost trust with photography? Anyone these days can take a picture, manipulate it and send it worldwide with relative ease. When photography required training and skill, in the darkroom as well as with the lens, and pictures were for galleries and magazines, perhaps we trusted the medium a little more. A skilled photographer will always ask permission and still get the desired shot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Fantastic idea and great project. The results speak for themselves both in terms of quality of photography and the community that has grown around it. More importantly many of those who had a passion for this genre have learned a great deal and will be better photographers for it. Well done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Whilst I do like some of these photos I do find some offensive because some of these people are clearly not happy about being photographed. The photographs then become cultural rape. I note there are no photos of six foot six seventeen stone drug dealers who don't want their images taken. And these days it is becoming more possible to trace people with face recognition. I'm not happy about this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Indeed, many people are just shooting away on the streets without really any talent. But that's the same with all digital art forms, music has also suffered since the computer age and recording programs. Sadly (in photo terms) many people just take classic poses or strange looking people, but unfortunately with no story in the image.

    Anyhow, nice to see people enjoying themselves clicking away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    ..because every time someone takes your photograph, a minute is lost from the end of your life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    There are no laws governing this, thankfully. If there were, then news organisations would probably have to sack the camera crews/photographers. david2211 needs to smile more. It's just a photograph.If you should have been at work, or shouldn't have been smooching with the Blonde, don't blame the photographer :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    If someone stuck a camera 6 inches from my face and then walked off without so much as a by your leave I would feel complled to relieve them of the device and insert it where the sun don't shine. Just because you have a 'right' does not make it right and I also have a 'right' to go about my life without interference. Your statement is pure arrogance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The first photo, the one of Michael McIntyre, is brilliant :D

    But seriously, this is a great project that will inspire non-professionals to get out there taking interesting shots


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