An Ode to Street Photography and How it Has Made Me a Better Traveler

My mother gave me perhaps the best photography advice I’ve ever received: “When you see everyone taking a photo in one direction, turn around and shoot in the opposite direction.”  She gave me that advice for a wedding I was about to photograph.  But my mother had become my photography teacher long before when we first started wandering the streets of Mexicali, Mexico together in the 1980s.

Peggy in the backyard in Bloomington, Indiana
My mom took this photo of me in our backyard in Bloomington, Indiana, when she was pursuing her master’s in photography.

We had fairly recently relocated to El Centro, California by way of Bloomington, Indiana, where my mother had gotten her master’s in photography. She was eager to keep practicing her craft, and the urban capital of Baja California, Mexico, just a few miles away across the border, was the perfect opportunity. It was an ideal setting for her to work on her hip shot photography, a technique in street photography where you “shoot from the hip” instead of putting the camera to your eye and alerting your subjects that you are taking a photo. Many of the famous street photographers at the time were known for their work in urban areas of the United States and Europe, but not so much in Mexico.

el-centro-yellow-cab
El Centro, California and neighboring Mexicali, Mexico may be neighbors, but are very different places. Mexicali has a population of 690,000 and El Centro has a population around 44,000.

I was very young at the time, around six, and neither my mother nor I spoke any Spanish. We would wander the streets of Mexicali in the daytime, me eying the many window displays we passed, hoping my mom would buy me a little gift in exchange for cooperating with our long walks, and my mother busily focusing on the often chaotic environment around us as she took her photos covertly. We crossed back and forth over the border on foot, lucky to have the privilege of our United States citizenship to cross with relative ease, and the assumed lack of threat or culpability of a young white American mother and her child were also on our side.

Mexicali, Mexico hip shots
This is one of my mother’s hip shots that she took in Mexicali. Click the photo to view the album.

It was meant to be that we were able to cross so easily into this city that was so close yet so different, because the work my mother did was very unusual at the time – and is now unusual again for different reasons – telling stories of the lives of citizens of Mexicali that had not often been told to a U.S. audience. Some days she’d also lug her large format camera across the border and wander into neighborhoods where my mother would charm her way into people’s homes and take their portraits. I would wait for her outside, and the children would try to talk to me, and then tease me when they realized I didn’t speak Spanish.

Simultaneous Moments
These are my mother’s large format photos. Click the photo to view the album.

When I look back on our mother-daughter adventures with ten years of solo travel under my belt, it dawns on me that those formative trips to Mexicali have probably affected my approach and passion for travel and photography more than I ever realized. Following in the spirit of my mother and her hip shot photography, my camera amplifies my curiosity about my environment, encouraging me to be content wandering a city instead of checking off a bucket list, and being drawn in not only by the buildings, art, and views that I pass, but also by the people around them and how they are interacting with each other in these spaces. I am so grateful to have had this rare opportunity as an American to acclimate to being comfortable outside of the U.S. at a young age, a gift that has supported me time and time again.

peg-and-mom-mexicali
My mom and I just a few years ago on a trip to Mexicali just for dinner – no long walks this time.

A great benefit of these uncertain times, where travel and exploration are indefinitely on hold, is the opportunity for artists to work on their craft and organize previous works.  My mother has happily embraced new technologies, and you can view her work on Flickr by clicking here or on the images above.  I’ve embraced a platform that is photographer-friendly called Steller, and have recently put together a collection of some of my favorite street photos in Italy.

Couple on the beach in Cervia, Italy
This is a photo I took on the beach in Cervia, Italy. Click on the photo to see the rest of the collection in my Steller story.

But my love of street photography isn’t just limited to my own work – I take great joy in taking in an exhibit or a book of street photography. Unlike other forms of art where composition can be a dominant element of the work, street photography’s dominant element is often storytelling. I love seeing a street photographer’s photo for the first time that appears, at first glance, forgettable, which is an alert for me that there’s a really good story there for the finding. And then I take the time to figure out what story the photographer found in this photo, and what story it is telling me. They often aren’t the same story, which is beautiful. Some of the most memorable street photography exhibitions I’ve seen have been at Fotografiska (The Swedish Museum of Photography), in Stockholm. But there is also a wonderful photography museum in my home base, the Museum of Photographic Arts, in San Diego, that exhibits incredible work.

One of my favorite street captures: A pair of girls on their way home from school, sharing gossip in front of the Ferragamo headquarters in Florence.

I wrote this article this week because the art of street photography is partially supported by the belief that everyone has a story to tell, so there are infinite quantities of stories to be found in every person we see when we are walking on the street. In this period of tumultuousness and disconnectedness, embracing an art like street photography and the idea that strangers, friends, and perceived enemies alike have an important story to tell, is a way that art can help bring us back together. I hope you’ll take some time to give some street photos a longer look. And maybe even give it a try yourself, when the time is right. Sometimes, shooting from the hip can be a good thing!

10 comments

    • I’m just realizing I didn’t reply before, Stacy, I’m so sorry. Thank you for reading. I so appreciate it. I’m so glad it resonated with you. Hoping you and your family have a safe and relaxing holiday weekend. 🙂

  1. This is a great post Peggy. How fabulous to have a mother to show you the way. I am lucky enough to have 2 sisters who did the same thing for me. I think street photography is my favourite. Of course I take photos of all aspects of our travels, but by far my favourite is capturing the ordinary people in their daily life in the places we visit. I’ve been shooting form the hip for many years now – using my LCD screen instead of the view finder, and often hiding behind my husband so people are completely unaware. That’s the most important thing for me. I don’t like posed photos, though I will take them occasionally. My latest blog post is about a morning on a busy street in Rishikesh, India, waiting for a clinic to open and watching (and photographing) the people beginning their day.
    Alison

    • I just read through a couple of your Rishikesh posts and your photos are wonderful! They really paint a picture of your experience and the humanity of India. I thank you for that. It is a real treat to read your posts. Thank you for your kind comment – it was a total oversight not realizing I hadn’t replied. Street photography is an important art, and it is so nice to commiserate with fellow practitioners like yourself. 🙂

  2. Linda K says:

    Street photography is something that I’m interested in, but often don’t look to do when travelling. I mainly have focused on landscapes. I think close ups are another often overlooked area when it comes to photography. Loved your article and will try more to “shoot in the opposite direction” 🙂

    • Thank you for taking the time to make your kind and thoughtful comment, Linda! I agree, close-ups are also very compelling. It can take a lot of guts to get in close and announce yourself, but it is almost always worth it. I hope you’ve had a chance to shoot in the opposite direction! 🙂

  3. Eliza Waters says:

    Now I know why your photos are so well composed… it is an art that runs in the family. 🙂
    If I tried shooting from the hip, I expect everything would be blurry and out of focus, ha!

    • I just realized I never responded! Yes, you’re right, it isn’t easy to shoot from the hip. It is a skill, like anything. But one you could definitely learn! My mom used to do it with film, so there was a cost to her learning curve. At least now with digital there isn’t really a cost to the learning process. Thank you for your compliments, Eliza, I appreciate it. 🙂

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