Street Photography and Public Transport

Street photography is related to the space where this style of photography is done, although it is mainly a concept referring to a photographic attitude. A street photographer is urban and seeks encounters with daily activity, capturing scenes that are lost within the context of daily life and singling them out by emphasising some of their significant aspects. By doing this, the routine acquires an unrepeatable value and this is the paradox of street photography.

This photographic attitude possesses different fields of action and in this book we have decided to focus on such modes of public transport as buses, the subway and trains. These modes of collective travel mark the dynamics of days, while for us they have become mobile and improvised photographic sets. The content of these captured images goes beyond that of aesthetics and also exudes a profound charge of socio-anthropological information. The restricted spaces of public transport help to observe the spatial relationships between bodies and the reactions of certain people, discovering a shared code in the way they look and/or hear each other, but above all revealing the codes whereby passengers brush or maintain a distance from the other bodies surrounding them.

This theme of corporeality demonstrates what Richard Sennett claimed was a major contemporary problem, with sensory deprivation acting as a curse that reinforces the tactile sterility that ends up afflicting the urban environment. The cold feeling of alienation that we feel on boarding a railway car or bus seems to be rooted in this fear of brushing against the other. When we travel crushed between the bodies of strangers, we feel that we are in the midst of chaos and grumpily reject this. Our aim is to re-establish a code of order by seeking distance with other passengers and voluntary, desirable non-communication. This lack of contact provides comfort to travellers because it results in order and control over the environment, although it involves the high price of isolation.

In line with this discourse, images taken on public transport often show moods of ostracism and circumspection, a vivid expression of a language that represses through exclusion. Urban experience is documented through the synthesis of difference, complexity and strangeness. Thus, the scenes that we have captured on public transport prove to be reality bites that are difficult to digest, because they illustrate unkind truths, such as the fact of discerning that diversity, per se, does not encourage human beings to interact. Straightforward individuation has led to urban individualism and the silence of a city. We therefore intensely experience this discursive absence on public transport, with the gaze having replaced the word. The public aspect of transport, that shared territory, is a purely visual space with only an exchange of looks, but no words of dialogue. Moreover, when someone does talk to another passenger, he or she is judged by the silent and silencing gazes of other passengers.

Roland Barthes already warned us of image-repertoires, in which people meet other people and categorise them as strange. We automatically associate any unusual scenes to generalised categories, limiting ourselves to pigeonholing them within social stereotypes and thus creating a sense of security by reducing any diversity to that of identicalness. If something escapes this homogeneous categorisation it creates disorder and is labelled as strange, chaotic and even dangerous. A protocol of security is activated in the face of the different and we usually resort to in-difference, the reassuring distance of “I in my place and you in yours”. The extreme practice of this activity ends up placing us within the passivity of not lifting a finger for anyone other than ourselves.

The street photographer battles with these disquisitions every day, attempting to discover difference between the apparent cloak of sameness, which is why our photographs on public transport try to break with this fear of touching, looking, and moving closer to the other. We want to experience the environment and are drawn to the unusual and tangential. We take a stand against speed, evasion and passivity, taking sides by visual documenting routine events. For us, the public is marked by an interweaving with others, so that our images can rescue the circumstantial interchange of chance against the conservative discourse of eternal sameness.

The photographs in this book are a way of problematising these aspects by making use of a shared aesthetic position, without this depriving us of expressing our particular poetic lines.

Godo Chillida