The Social Power of Street Photography!

This article discusses how urban shots can open our minds about human justice.

“The decisive moment,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson calls it, one the earliest practitioners of street photography; the moment when everything seems to line up in front of your lens, practically begging to be photographed. This moment is crucial in the art of street photography, or the capturing of chance encounters and novel features of public places.

Street photography has also been coined “social photography,” and for a valid reason. The specialized art form has been known to draw attention to social issues, from racism to materialism. The capturing of street graffiti has also made for some evocative works, namely the graffiti of anonymous art legend, Banksy.

Street photography is important because it combines artistic beauty and messages about social justice.

Diane Arbus, American photographer of the mid 1900’s, was known for her photographs of marginalized people.

Whether dwarfs, giants, nudists, transgender individuals, or circus performers, Arbus captured them in the streets for everybody to see.

And boy, do people see them; her work can be found across the world. Look out for Arbus at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Fine Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other locations.

Her work above depicts two drag queens seated beside two elderly women. The message in this work is clear; despite our differences, we cohabitant in the same world and should respect one another.

Considering the status of this minority group during the nineteen hundreds, Arbus’s depiction of transgender people was groundbreaking and powerful. Her popularity helped to destroy taboos and open the minds of humans around the world.

Switzerland street photographer Robert Frank was alive during the same time. His work in American cities helped people initiate important conversations about racial issues and poverty.

Known for his photo book The Americans, Frank is an important name in the world of photography as a whole.

The following two pieces are examples of street photography that portrays subtle-yet-meaningful interactions between people.

In particular, these works by Robert Frank illustrate messages about racial equality and unification despite perceived differences.

To the left, the women wear similar facial expressions and appear to be performing the same motion with their right hands.This symmetry helps to strengthen the social theme of the image.

A similar story can be told from the African American woman caring for the white baby below. Both Arbus and Frank were unafraid to depict social minorities through beautiful photos.

In addition to human subjects, a popular subject of street photography is graffiti. Street photography that depicts graffiti is especially unique because it depicts art from two different people—the photographer and the graffiti artist.

The graffiti artist is usually anonymous and the photographer has to capture the graffiti in interesting ways to create a piece that could hold its own without the spray paint.

Graffiti art in itself can be a highly social craft. Banksy in particular, an anonymous street artist from England, is well known for his political paintings.

He painted several pieces on the West Bank barrier that separates Palestine and Israel, namely Flying Balloons Girl, a painting that portrays a child using balloons to float over the wall.

His message to remove the border and reunify the region radiated around the world— but how? Graffiti paint can only last for a short while before it gets washed away or naturally ruined.

The answer should be obvious here: street photography. Graffiti art can only be preserved through photographs, unless you plan to cut out sections of walls and place them in your house. Banksy also spray paints messages about peace, anti- consumerism, nihilism, greed, poverty, hypocrisy, alienation, and more.

Whether street photography depicts human interaction or street graffiti, the craft plays an important role in combining art and social justice. Whether or not we admit it, humans respond to beautiful things.

When we view breath-taking photos with messages about peace and justice, it causes us to be more mindful about social issues. Street photography also tests our empathy as individuals.

Can we put ourselves in the heels of the drag queens portrayed in Arbus’s work? Do we have the capacity to feel their alienation—to learn from it?

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