Look straight down the camera lens, the street will do the rest: Street photography and branded advertising
Image credit – Nick Turpin
A series of photographs in fleeting microseconds of the present, and just as suddenly, the past? An electric ribbon of speeding life amid the headlong rush of a fast world? Humans of the everywhere.
Street photography is not new, nor is its use for commercial ends, but in the contemporary era it is probably the most exciting and rapidly growing photographic genre around.
Tapping into contemporary trends, Apple produced one of the most adventurous advertising projects of all time in 2015 : its ‘Shot On iPhone’ campaign. The company licensed 52 iPhone generated images from 41 photographers, which they then displayed on billboards in 85 cities across 26 nations around the world. Images also appeared in magazines.
“It all started with a shot I took in Superkillen Park, a suburb of Copenhagen,” Award winning Irish photographer Brendan Ó Sé explained his role in the project. “I knew how I wanted to frame the image. I wanted to accentuate the curvy, white lines and to get a human element in the composition. Patience met luck and four people entered the frame and I snapped. I posted it to Flickr, where it got a lot of attention, and then a few weeks later I was contacted by representatives of Apple.”
From comparative obscurity, Ó Sé was taken on an epic journey as his image went global.
“My photo appeared on billboards and posters…and in print in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Financial Times,” he told me enthusiastically. “It was the most magical experience ; something I could never have imagined. Being sent images of the photograph on billboards around the world from strangers and friends was amazing. To think that millions of people in cities as diverse as Bogota, Los Angeles, New York… Shanghai and Sydney saw my photograph is truly an experience of a lifetime. I was fortunate to see the image for myself on Billboards in Milan and Tokyo.”
Image credit – Brendan O Se
The object of the campaign was, interestingly, to sell what is, essentially, a smartphone, as – in part – a pretty, decent, camera. Apple had obviously carried out its own analytical research and knew that one of the fastest growing trends of the 21st century was the alignment of the smartphone with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr.
The immediacy of being able to snap at will and then post on social media in seconds has led to a huge proliferation of photographs and what Richard Koci Hernandez has dubbed ‘social photography’. Snaps taken on smartphones to be shared with friends and family, as opposed to mobile photography – Street Photography using a smartphone, usually an iPhone – for aesthetic reasons.
But Street Photography in a more conventional sense can and does lend itself to being reinterpreted for commercial purposes. Something that does not always sit well with some.
“The goal (of street photography) is to catch a human condition photograph but at the right instant,” photographer, artist, curator and lecturer Evangelo Costadimis explains. “A few seconds too soon or too late would completely change the meaning of the photograph or what is being conveyed. Timing is everything, not the subjects. So, in essence, as soon as you start using Street Photography for commercial purposes it stops being candid.”
Candidness, for Costadimis, is an essential element in any image that wants to be understood as street photography. So, when taken out of context and employed for advertising, the lines of where street photography ends and other forms start become blurred and confused.
If it isn’t candid and the photographer has colluded with their subject(s) – ‘look straight down the camera lens and seem slightly surprised while you pout’ – does it matter if only a few people know? The trick, I suppose, is to simply make it appear as if the shot is candid, then you might get away with the fact that it is, in a street photographic sense, faked?
“Street Photography is spontaneous and real,” Street Photographer and founder of the In-Public street photography group, Nick Turpin, reminds us. “It is often witty, clever and engaging so how can you commission the seemingly uncommissionable?”
‘Uncommissionable’ is certainly Turpinesque, but it somehow, and maybe miraculously, fits neatly into the quote. The word ‘seemingly’ is massively significant.
Image credit – Nick Turpin
Turpin, an accomplished street photographer and writer on the subject, has also used his well honed skills for corporate ends. Working with ad companies around the world on various projects.
“I have worked with assistants on real life shoots for clients like Barclays where I made candid street photographs before approaching the subjects to sign a release,” he explains. “I have recreated street scenes with models and locations for clients such as IBM, Jaguar, Toyota and Transport for London. I have travelled around the world with a Samsung smartphone shooting candid street images for social media use that promoted the product whilst avoiding any endorsement by those pictured. I have worked with a theatre director on location to direct the scene, leaving me free to be a candid observer of a staged scenario with my little handheld camera.”
As a commercial enterprise, Street Photography can be used as a set up, that seeks to mimic the techniques of the genre. The scene is often scripted, the models or subjects directed and artificial light strategically placed to employ shadow and highlight features, while all the time trying to make the shoot look and feel candid, like a ‘real’ street photograph. But, it is not always completely faked, or is it?
We find ourselves in a cyberpunk adventure where street photography, and Street Photographers, slip quietly between one parallel universe and another. Framed within the matrix world of corporate advertising, and what is and what is not ‘real’.
In the world of branded promotion there is a mix of ways street photography can be used, though the key to this is always the law. As Turpin explains candid photographs can be used as long as a release is secured from those whose image is used, and the subjects never misrepresented.
“So the end use of the photographs determines your working method,” Nick Turpin clarifies. “You can publish and exhibit street photographs without a problem but if you want to use them in advertising you need either to get real people to sign release forms after photographing them candidly or carefully recreate street scenes with models.”
But even when legitimate and candid photographs are shot, does the act of having a release signed and then using the image for advertising invalidate its existence as a street photograph?
Street photography will always fit perfectly into any reflection of corporate products because it is very soul is life. The very ethos of the genre is to show everyday existence as it happens in the moment. This is more than useful for advertising trying to strategically bend the everyday reality of the humdrum, the mundane and the have-to-to-survive culture, that is, for most of us, the existential norm.
Slip that perceived ‘ordinariness’ into a fantasised and extraordinarily surreal world and you have an advertising executive’s dream. In this respect, street photography is more than a gift.
Image credit – Nick Turpin