Street photography gallery from @womeninstreet, curated by Melissa O’Shaughnessy
Guest curator Melissa O’Shaughnessy
Women in Street
social media collaborative for female street photographers
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a photographer?
I’m originally from Dorchester, England, where Thomas Hardy is from. I now live in Weymouth, a seaside town.
I had a bohemian upbringing. My mum, an amazing and free thinking person, brought us up as a single parent. In the 70’s it was tough being a single parent, so I was very lucky in that, with an absent father, my grandparents, Kathleen and James House, took on the role of “dad” and helped raise us. My sister and I spent a huge amount of time with them while my mum was working. Gran was a nurse, and my Pops was a scientist — they were amazing people. My Gran was a passionate hobby photographer, and I learned photography from her.
I lived as a traveler on the road for a long time when I was part of an underground 90’s rave scene, a collective of people who just wanted to dance. Later I got a degree in filmmaking, and I had a choice of doing the London thing, and that didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to do something in a smaller community, and settled in Weymouth because of my children in school, and those other things. Now I’m a community filmmaker.
Photography is quite a compulsion for me, as with all Street photographers, I think. I still shoot on the same camera I had when I was 13. In 2008, I got a new camera, I started shooting from the hip, on buses. I did not know what it was I was doing, that it was Street. Then you start realizing it’s a thing. I got really into it for the rest of that year, buying a lot of books.
You mentioned your time on the road, did you get a lot of pictures during this time on the rave scene?
It’s a big regret that I didn’t photograph during this period on the road. But from the ages of 17 to 22, I didn’t shoot as much. With hindsight, I see that I got distracted by not having enough money. It was very expensive to process film, and money was ridiculously tight. I didn’t make it a priority, which now sounds terrible, because it is such a priority.
Can you describe anything in particular, some of the things you would most like to have photographed, to see now?
Sometimes the thought process goes around and around. Sometimes I’m aware that I’ve lived, over the last years, a lot of my experiences down the lens. I’ve traveled, and done it all seeing it through the lens, for days on end. So part of me, when I’m thinking openly about missing out on shooting that particular point in my life, thinks that maybe it was a good thing, because then I experienced it. And would it have been different, would I have been different, if I had been an observer, rather then being immersed in what I was doing? But, saying that, being on the margins of society for a period of time, I suppose it’s of huge human interest. Many photographers have dedicated their lives to capturing people living on the fringes, which is how I was living.
There were many visual things about my home, I lived in a truck, I lived in caravans. There was no television, there was no nothing, and we were a community. So that in itself would’ve been interesting to capture. And there are some photos of us in those times, but mostly not shot by me.
Can you conjure up some of the images now using only words, like an original flâneuse could have done— without a camera?
One that sticks out in my mind is living in an old circus caravan, and my daughter was only a few months old. I didn’t have a bed for her, so we built a box bed onto the inside of the caravan. It was such a knocked together, survival kind of thing, but at the same time it was — Home. I have this vision of what it looked like, it was a very old vintage caravan with big red sofas, lots of oil lamps, big windows, then in the corner was this makeshift wooden cot thing, that’s what my daughter was in. It’s like, just trying to explain that to someone else now! Of course, I’ve talked to my daughter about it, and she laughs, she just says things like, “Oh yes, I had a bed made out of plywood!”
So those kinds of survival pictures are in my head. I remember there being storms, and one time, three of us women had to hold down one of the caravans so it wouldn’t blow off the side of this massive hill. So when I think about what that would look like as an image now! But I guess I was just consumed by the living, rather than the observing. The rave scene was incredibly visual, it was a time of freedom for a lot of people. That kind of anarchy has existed before, and this was a very special time when people rose up a little bit, it was my first experience in seeing that.
I remember the mornings being the most beautiful part of that time, the sun would be rising, everyone would be very bedraggled, and we would all be dancing in front of a massive sound system, with a thousand vehicles in one place — it was really magical. And then there were some very dark times, of being isolated — not being able to get food or water or warmth. I spent my pregnancy in a field — in a tiny caravan with holes in the roof and a missing window, with a gas bottle converted into a heater that didn’t really work. I was literally out in the field on my own, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing. I was cooking on an open fire, it was dark, everything was lit by candlelight. That sort of isolation is another image that has stayed with me over the years.
If there were one portrait of a person you could have now from those days?
Probably my best friend, Harriet. We were a couple of survivors in all this chaos. And we really looked after each other, right down to the bare bones — water and heat, everything was an effort, staying warm was an effort. She had my back and I had hers. Harriet’s face was always really, really tough, like she was always struggling to do something — like to help me, or others, or to stay safe herself. We are best friends to this day, and she is now a doctor in archaeology.
How do you find Street shooting in your hometown of Weymouth vs. abroad, or in London?
Europe’s architecture creates a nicer backdrop and framing. With British architecture, you have to work a little bit harder to put yourself into position, the light is different. There are different behaviors, although mostly people all have the same behaviors. But it’s a bit easier in Europe. I found America quite hard. Except in New York City, where with so many things to watch I was just like a kid in a candy store. But I was was with family too, and I would tend to just go off on my own, and it’s a bit hard trying to explain to people why you need to go off on your own to do this. I was a bit like a distracted child.
It’s about learning to love what’s on your doorstep, as many Street photographers have found. But also finding that space for yourself to go abroad. When I don’t take those breaks, I get cabin fever. It’s a bit of a running joke in my family, “Where is she going to go next?!”
In Weymouth, summer is heaven for candid shots, lots of color, and there’s nothing more British than a family at the seaside. The seaside has always been a big deal for my family, and for a lot of people in Britain.
The slower pace of somewhere like Weymouth is quite nice, because I have to find a narrative a little bit more. Here it’s a lot more looking, standing still, waiting — which is a good thing, because it gets you to think, to compose things with very little content, when you have very few choices. So that’s kind of meditative, it’s a real treat, it’s not isolating as some people could think.
But in a bigger city, I can kind of shut down, concentrating 100% on shooting. I can get quite a lot of adrenaline — it’s busy, there are a lot of people, the buildings are different. You are spoiled for choice in a big city like that. I just become kind of an excited child with a camera in my hand, and just like anybody who does anything with adrenaline finds, that’s quite addictive. But in London, you can also be a little overwhelmed.
You are exploring a lot of the seaside theme in your town.
Yes, it’s like everything British sort of comes together on the seaside in the summer months. There’s a certain kind of humor in it, when Brits seem to let themselves go a little bit. During the holiday season, Weymouth turns from sort of a stark place, to a very packed place, typically filled with British families on holiday, although we do get people from all over the globe too. If we look at old postcards and photographs of Weymouth in the summer from a hundred years ago, a lot of the behaviors are still the same. Packed lunches, families making sandcastles — letting themselves be the people they are at home behind closed doors, I guess.
You see generations of families interacting, and the colors are great. I was just listening to Martin Parr saying something about this today. How we are quite lucky here in Britain, where on the seaside people are like soap opera characters or actors in a play. I really feel that about sums up how it is in Weymouth, where every year it’s like the same thing again. It is like working within a known, but the shots are unknown — you do know that something is going to play out over the summer months, but you don’t know quite what you’re going to get — so it never gets boring.
In winter, locals don’t go to the beach, personally I find it very beautiful then. But there is the starkness — I think maybe winter can unveil, sort of a darker side of a seaside town, a contrast. There’s a lot of deprivation, a lot of drama in this area, and I think the beach kind of depicts that. I find a lot of loneliness, but also the people who still enjoy the beach, but in a different way. A lot of elderly people come here purely for winter, and they’ll just sit with their coats on in the bus stops, or on the promenade. There are characters with metal detectors, the beach structures are taken down, it’s just a lot more contrast than I really see in other towns. We locals see it, we know when winter is coming, there’s that change — that starkness. There are moments, and little bits of color, where people are just holding on — to summer, I guess? There are some diehards who are swimming every day that I’m there, and some people walking on the beach, which they won’t do in the summer, because in the summer locals tend to steer clear of the beach. They go other places, because it’s almost like the beach is not their turf anymore. Sometimes I feel like a tourist in my hometown.
Many of your photos are taken in the perspective from behind, is there a reason for that?
If I’m really honest, some of the behind shots have been a build up to having the confidence to shoot from the front. In some ways, the behind shots are me still learning about shooting forwards. But then, in that process, these shots started to feel okay. Something I really like about it is all the colors, and what people wear — someone can be wearing bright red shoes and a pink skirt, against that gray of the pavement it’s just brilliant. So it has become a conscious decision, to shoot those things from behind at times. But I’m still learning about shooting, and about the confidence to approach people, but not to intrude — so as not to change the image. I think there’s a fine line when you’re out there, between that candidness, and interrupting it, so that an image becomes something else. From behind can be non-intrusive, in the sense that they have their back to me. Also, sometimes there’s a lot of busyness, especially in London, where you want to find a frame, a little bit of calm, in that that busyness of the street, something with a clear background.
You talked about your grandmother, and her influence on you as a photographer. Tell us a bit more about that.
Our pasttime as kids was going through boxes and boxes of photo albums. Our routine was, Gran would send off her films during the week, and get her true print photographs of whatever she had been shooting back by the weekend. Then we would get all the albums out, and sit down and go through all the photos. Some of the albums are actually sitting next to me right now, because we still do it! She would say, “Should we get the photos out!?” And we could spend hours just going through the albums. So another kind of standing joke in my family, and even still after my grandparents have passed away, is “Everything is always about photographs.” And Gran and I would talk about photography — not in an academic way, or in a “her teaching me” way — just talk about the process of taking pictures.
My grandparents traveled a lot. Recently we looked in a couple of boxes that we hadn’t seen for a long time, we started to look at her travel images again, now with different eyes, I guess — sort of documentarian or Street photographer’s eyes. There are a couple of images there, and though she wouldn’t have known the concept of Street photography — but she was interested in humans — those images are like Street photography. She was using a very standard 35mm point and shoot.
Retrospectively, I think photography was the kind of distraction that my grandmother needed. Personally, I am a bit ADHD, and I find it difficult not to have 10 things to think about. Photography is the only one single thing that I’ve ever been able to focus on for a long period of time — it kind of quiets my brain. I’ve talked to a lot of photographers, many say the same thing, that photography is meditative, and supports positive mental health. Looking back at my Gran, I believe she had anxiety issues, and I feel the camera was a big part of her coping strategy. I think it was the kind of distraction that she needed, similar to how I use photography.
Any comments on female Street?
We have male dominated groups, then we have Women in Street. I find female Street is more supportive and nurturing, there is more room for discussion. To me, WiS doesn’t feel as segregated, I know people may be surprised, as I think it could be perceived the other way around. But I don’t know, it’s more nurturing. Other groups can have sort of blokey behavior, a lot of backslapping, more heated discussions. I’ve participated in events, taken workshops where I’ve had good experiences, no one has made me feel less because I’m a woman. While doing commercial photography work that certainly has happened. But not in Street, I have felt welcome. Still to me WiS feels, in a collective sense, more nurturing.
Jodie House | Instagram |
Growing up near a beach filled with tourists and sailors, there was an atmosphere of men checking out women, sizing up their bodies. I was aware of the male gaze from an early age. It was easy to feel “hunted”. Photography is an art that requires hunting, searching and chasing a visual moment. Culturally, this has been an action reserved for men. When a woman has a camera, it inverts the paradigm. I find men to be surprised when they catch me looking at them. As a woman, it demands a certain level of courage to photograph in public.
The access of women to some subjects, like children for example, is certainly unrivaled when compared to men. But, being a woman does not make things easier, and it is not always true that people on the streets are more compliant with us. In London, once I was asked to stop making pictures of children playing in a square. I was astonished as the place was full of photographers, and I was acting openly and not in a sneaky way. I stopped and moved on. And this was not the only time. I think that it does not really matter being a woman or a man, it depends on the culture we deal with, and on our attitude and approach, that must be always respectful.
I started the workshops a few years ago, after I attended a workshop in Varanasi, India. The main reason I had signed up for it was because I really wanted to travel to India for my photography, and was nervous about going as a woman alone. My experiences while traveling there gave me new confidence, and I had the idea of giving my own workshops before, and now I decided to pursue this.
For my first workshops in Rome, only women signed up, and they are still mostly women. I don’t mind, I actually love it. My dream is to give to women photographers, or just women in general, this freedom that I have found. Many of them are feeling how I was before I went to India, feeling they don’t have enough courage to travel because it’s dangerous, or some are afraid to get close. Women who are just starting, they are often not very confident and shy, compared with male photographers. We are less aggressive, we are different, of course we are, that’s just normal. I want to be that person who allows and encourages them to travel, or to get close to subjects. I love that when we are together, it’s different, when you are out with only women, it’s completely changed. Sometimes I can see there is one who is more shy than the others, and to this one I say “Come on let’s do it!” And step by step, we reach the subject as closely as we can, and I say “Don’t worry we’re not doing anything wrong, we are just photographing reality.” And they are so empowered and feel great, and finally say “Wow that was so great, let’s do some more!”
Mamana Foto Coletivo is a Brazilian female photo collective. It arose in 2016, precisely in the year that I began to explore more street photography. I met a friend, Renata, and we started discussing how much we, as women, are too little encouraged to be photojournalists or street photographers. From this debate came the need to get organized, to meet more women and find these photographers, so we can get together and take this space that has historically been denied us.
From the first moment we got out on the streets, we suffered from harassment. As if society said “Go back home, this is not your place!” That’s part of the sexist culture in which we’ve been raised. Woman has always been kept in private space, and man has always been given the privilege of being on streets. With photography this is no different, so much so that women do not even think about being photojournalists, covering wars, protests, or walking on the streets with a camera around their necks, photographing strangers.
This is the context that Mamana promotes. We look for, encourage, and publish the work of women photographing on the streets. We want to connect them, so that they become empowered and occupy these spaces.
I think being a woman probably brings more delicate and respectful approach towards people in the street, but generally I don’t like that division. We are men and women of course, but first of all we are human beings. There are people sensitive and heartless, compassionate and hateful, warm and mean, etc. And it is not ruled by sex.
I think that there is now more awareness of male dominance in street photography. I’m confident this awareness is encouraging a more inclusive street photography community. Blogs like Her Side of the Street are playing an important role. Personally I’ve never felt I missed out because I’m a woman, but I will always advocate for an inclusive photography community.
It’s difficult to talk about this without falling into gender stereotypes, but I do think many of my interests are traditionally feminine and the general feel of my photography could also be described as feminine. While it’s interesting to be aware of general differences between the two predominant genders, I really think a photographer’s interests and work has much more to do with his/her personality than his/her gender. I also feel uncomfortable discussing gender as though it is binary, which it obviously isn’t.
I suppose, as with most things in life, being a woman has its pros and cons. I believe that being a woman with a camera makes me appear less threatening to people, and being 5ft 2” means I don’t stand out in a crowd, which I think also helps my style of photography. Beyond that, I can’t really comment on how being a woman affects my view of the world through the viewfinder; I think it probably has more influence on how my work is perceived by others.
I don’t feel safe out on the streets shooting at night any more, which is quite annoying as I think some of my nighttime work is my best. Well, it hasn’t really stopped me, when a scene is there I press the shutter sometimes, regardless of what consequences there could be. Other than that, being a female I enjoy being able to engage with people — from young lads and girls out on the town, to elderly people.
Genuinely, this has happened a few times, we can be out and about and often bump into other photographers. Normally, if we do tend to see someone else with a camera, it’s quite easy to strike up a conversation. Normally male photographers though, and this has happened on a few occasions, tend to direct most of the conversation towards Craig. They ignore me, Craig gets embarrassed and tries to bring me back in to the conversation. It is annoying, as you want to say “Hey, I’m here,” but to be honest, I tend to just take a few steps back and wander off into the crowd. I would much rather be out there doing what I love.
I think we stand our ground as female street photographers, and certainly have a good pedigree of historic female street photographers in our collective portfolio. Vivian Maier, Shirley Baker, and Jane Bown to name but a few. I could go on, as the list is endless.
It affects me in many ways, not only in the themes I approach, but also in the moment in which I am facing an artistic discipline where only men have space. From the fact that men consider that we women have “advantages” in street, to the fact that they do not allow, or they invalidate our own ways of looking at and living the street. The challenges that exist, or exist in street photography, are just one example of all the schemes and stereotypes that we have to bring down in so many other areas. Men have always spoken for us, it’s time to shout that we can do it for ourselves.
Women are more sensitive. I think they look at reality with different eyes, more empathy, and are more involved with people and situations.
I am not really sure if being a woman affects my work. I don’t think I am doing anything differently than male street photographers. If there are differences in results, that of course is for others to judge. Because this has been more of a male dominated field, I am very glad to see that now more women’s work is coming out. But I still don’t know if women do this any differently than men.
I tend to be more inspired by female photographers. It’s very often not only about the photos, but also the circumstances or their stories. I’m inspired by early female photographers like Inge Morath or Eve Arnold, who managed to make their way as photographers in a male dominated profession. Also, for example, I recently saw an exhibition on the photography program of the Farm Security Administration during the European month of photography in Bratislava. There, the photos of Dorothea Lange inspired me most. Of course because I liked the photos, but also because I was inspired by her story.
Women are frighteningly underrepresented in the street genre — I often wonder why. Perhaps it is because women are not as good at tooting their own horns, which is certainly true in my case. Also, for me, when my children were younger, I simply didn’t have the time to go pound the pavement for hours on a Saturday afternoon. It’s worth noting that both Levitt and Maier were childless, and also worth noting that Maier was a full time nanny but still managed to produce the astonishing body of work that she did. Granted, she probably had weekends off.
It’s unfortunate to see so few women members in the numerous street collectives that can be found online, and the relatively rare appearances of women in the wonderful Hardcore Street Photography Flickr pool. Like it or not, street photography is a male dominated genre; perhaps the mostly-male gatekeepers don’t appreciate the type of images women street photographers make. I have also wondered if women are not as attracted to the genre, and how much of a role this could play in the underrepresentation.
I do feel being a woman street photographer has the advantage of societal trust in the female. Women are thought of as less threatening, whereas a man photographing strangers, especially women or children, will put people on high alert. Don’t get me wrong, I get the odd glaring stare as well, but I would wager it is much less often than I would if I were a man. It’s yet another example of how men and women are stereotyped. It just happens to go in our favor in this aspect. It allows us a bit more freedom in who or what we shoot.
A few years ago I decided to take a more professional approach to my street photography and re-brand myself. I thought about the many women authors who use initials in order to avoid judgement about being female. At first I was reluctant, but eventually I did change to RL Bellamy, rather than Regina Bellamy. It had a nicer ring to it anyway. It’s sad that in this day and age we still have to resort to such games, but I find it does go in my favor. My theory was proven soon after, when I had an exhibition in a local gallery. Another photographer saw the poster for the show and asked the gallery owner who the “guy” was.
Being a woman really helps a lot, and I am blessed to be a woman photographer. People are very easy going with women, and trust can be built easily. When there is a sensitive situation, people are much more friendly, and are calmer with women photographers in India.
I do wedding photography, and I have realised brides, and even grooms, feel much more comfortable interacting with a woman photographer. In the wedding photography industry in India, there are many more women photographers than male photographers.
Even in documentary photography, women photographers can cover any sensitive situation much more easily, because people trust them easily.
Recently, some of my street pictures were published along with some amazing street photographers from all over the world, and one of the reasons (other than my pictures) is that I am a woman street photographer in India. Gradually here, street photography is being taken up with huge interest by women photographers, and one of the reasons is social media — the different groups and handles on Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr, which inspire them to shoot street photography.
The other day I was shooting around the market in Whitechapel, and my energy was off. It was my first day out shooting in a while, and I just couldn’t get into the flow — couldn’t make any good images. I started to head home when I felt someone watching me. This dude began to follow me for about 20 minutes, smiling like a creep every time I turned around — until he finally cornered me under a bridge (I refused to NOT walk under the bridge). I sprinted into a cafe a couple minutes down the road and waited there for awhile until I calmed down. The woman working in the cafe helped me chill out and then told me that I shouldn’t be walking around with my camera around my neck.
I was angry. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me. It makes me jealous of male photographers, who don’t have to think about that kind of stuff — who can just go out and shoot and not worry about anything but the photograph. Each time this kind of shit happens, I carry a little more weight on my shoulders — and the camera strap should be enough.
On another vibe, being a woman brings sensitivity to my images. I find myself connecting more often with female subjects rather than male ones. I see myself in young women falling in love and grandmothers with a full face of make up. It’s sisterhood. It’s a powerful feeling.
Please tell us a bit about you, and how you found photography.
I started quite late – a few years ago, while already in my 40s. I never thought I had any “artistic” talent, I am much more analytical by nature. Winter is my least favorite season. A few years ago I came across a 365 day challenge, and I started it to keep me from being bored. I surprised myself by sticking to it – one of few people that lasted until the very end. My photos were pure garbage, but eventually that resulted in me finding ways to teach myself about photography (books, videos, forums, etc.). I am entirely self-taught, and still eager to learn more every day. I started doing landscape shots, and interesting signs or graffiti. After some of that, I realized that I found photos with people in them to be much more interesting. A friend introduced me to a group of local photographers who shot “street” – something I didn’t really understand was its own genre. That all resulted in me focusing on street almost exclusively ever since.
You seem to have started out with mostly black and white but have migrated to color, why?
I used to process a lot in black and white, but lately I have been into color. I still do B&W, and will likely do more in winter. Summer seems to lend itself to color. I also used to avoid color because I thought it was more difficult. I have a friend who is a great photographer and he told me to learn color and not to use black and white as a “crutch”, since you can cover up issues by converting to B&W. My LCD screens used to be in B&W, but I have switched back to color. I know that some people think B&W is more suited for street, but I really do enjoy color as well.
And lately you have been using flash?
I started using flash last year. I really like the effect on a bright summer day because it makes the colors pop and helps lift some strong shadows. It also presents new challenges – it’s much more difficult to shoot in stealth mode when using flash. I’ve recently started taking some portraits, which I never used to do. Sometimes I see somebody so fabulous and I know I can’t get off a stealthy shot with flash like I would want, so I ask now instead of missing the shot.
You have been exploring Coney Island with your recent series, can you tell us about the project?
Coney Island is truly my “happy place”. I go there all year round. It’s been nicknamed “The People’s Playground” with good reason. You find all ages, ethnicities and body types at Coney Island. A short walk will put you in Brighton Beach, home to a large Russian community that I also enjoy.
In the summer, there is so much joy with people at the beach and on the amusement rides. It makes for endless photo opportunities. I’ve been shooting at the shoreline lately – people swimming, exercising, and enjoying the beach. The boardwalk is great too – there are dance parties on weekends in the summer that are always fun to watch.
In the winter, I love the isolation and sense of loneliness. In Brighton Beach, the older Russian community congregates on the boardwalk benches all year round – often dressed to be seen (furs, pearls, etc.). I also know several members of the Coney Island Polar Bears, who swim on the winter weekends. I even went to a Polar Bear wedding this summer.
Do you feel being a woman affects your work?
I think it has advantages and disadvantages, like everything. One advantage is that I take shots that my male peers won’t even attempt – especially of children and women. With children, I make it obvious or ask the parents first, just so people don’t think I am doing something creepy. I know men that won’t even try doing that.
On the downside, I have had a few occasions where people tried to intimidate me. That probably would not have happened the same way to a man. You always have to use common sense, but I don’t scare that easily!
We often see pairs or couples, or groups of couples in your work, can you say anything about that?
I love watching the interaction between people – friends, lovers, siblings, etc. I have definitely become more attracted to shooting multiple people together and watching the dynamic between them. On the beach, I’ve been shooting a lot of families, or siblings playing together. I’m extra happy when I spot twins!