How to Photograph Grit for Gritty Photographs
Photography was born as a method to document history. Social aspects of life were the first to find a place in photographic compositions. Gritty scenes weren’t hard to find at the beginning of the XXth century and, unfortunately, they are not hard to find nowadays. Poverty, misery, riots, wars, and refugees are just some of the subjects that you need to consider.
Documentary photography on gritty subjects is disturbing and unsettling. It isn’t easy to face people’s problems and remain unmoved. Some places can even get dangerous. But gritty photography is something any photographer should do. Showing the world as it is and making it better should be your aim.
Not all photographers go into conflict areas and make the news. But, unfortunately, gritty subjects can be near us, in our city or neighborhood. Homeless people, dirty streets, beggars, or street protests are just some of them. Remember that your intention is to document a social issue, not to judge it. Get involved only if you can help. You don’t have to be indifferent and, most of all, you need to be human. If you are witness to a car crash, first help the victims and then take time to do some pictures. Even though you could get a great snapshot, the masterpiece of your photographic career, it’s better for your spirit to think first of what you can do to help.
Sometimes, documentary photography produces a series of images following the same subject. It is common to return to the same place to take pictures in different conditions. It is also common to follow a subject among different people or to follow a person through a difficult period of life. You have to really understand your subject and you have to know exactly the story you need to tell. Setting a mood is also very important. Use different types of composition and perspective in order to establish what’s best for your approach.
If you feel that a certain place or action has to be in a photograph, take the picture. It doesn’t matter so much if you are prepared (although a photographer is always prepared). Synchronization is essential. Being in the right place at the right moment is a unique chance. Gritty snapshots can be extraordinary. Learn to act fast and don’t lose your temper. Practice! Take pictures anywhere and learn to use your camera in all sort of conditions.
Many of the gritty subjects you will come to photograph will be familiar in a way. They might be people you see every day, people living on your street. It might be your own town, paralyzed by a strike. It would be hard to manage your feelings and that’s all right. Photography is not exactly a science. It is an art and like all arts, it borrows something of the photographer’s heart. So be vulnerable and let a part of you get into your gritty pictures.
For street photography, it’s best to carry a light gear and a backpack. A compact camera or a smartphone can sometimes be enough. You need to be fast and safe. Secure the camera with its strap to be sure you don’t lose the camera. If you are in a dangerous situation, it’s best to look for a safe position. If you don’t have a press id, stay away from conflict areas. Analyze the site and decide if people want to be photographed or not. You can look like a threat to them. Gritty scenes aren’t happy ones, so a good evaluation is needed.
Photography is an instrument, use it well. Social issues must be brought in public’s attention. Some events existed only because somebody took a photograph. Some things changed because somebody took a photograph and showed the problem. Be a good observer and help as much as you can.