Shane Gray: “There Have Been Times When I’ve Felt Guilty Photographing People”

Shane Gray from Britain who works in New York on how you can make money from street photography, of why using film is only a romantic notion and why he prints his photographs.

Shane Gray, 42

Born in the UK, lives in New York. Graduated from the Newport School of Documentary Photography.

Initially I was keen on drawing but being gifted with a small inexpensive camera provided a means to start the exploration.

Not needing specific permissions was attractive at a certain time in my life because I wasn’t professionally affiliated – I could just be within the public domain with my camera, no questions asked. The democratic nature of being free to photograph most things in public makes the process appealing in it’s own right I think.

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A busy Manhattan street can be an amazing place to photograph in general, but there are times when I’ve walked around the city for days with little to show. Instead, going to a local store for bread or milk can magically transform an otherwise mundane experience by encountering something eye-catching or unusual.

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What can appear interesting to the outsider can actually be very commonplace, cliched or even offensive to the culture concerned. At the same time over researching or losing some of that naivety can hinder the photographer. I personally welcome the opportunity to photograph both home and abroad.

When I first started photographing in Manhattan I was trying to acclimatize into my new surroundings. Out of nowhere I saw a man’s lower legs, then quickly beside him a woman’s – both wearing red sports socks pulled high. My reflex thought was that it’s a sports team. I was bent over my camera facing the ground ready to shoot, but just before I could the guy says, ”If you you’re going to do your thing – I’ll slash your face with a razor blade.” Once all the signs were there I felt stupid (I worked closely with inner city youth for a number of years and should have recognized the gang insignia). Both myself and the guy overstepped the mark – in very different ways.

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Often when I’m photographing (for example in Manhattan) the process of composing is usually done very quickly. This is obviously when the need to capture something ephemeral like an expression, gesture or even juxtaposition becomes the main inspiration. Other times, the need to construct a photograph becomes either an option (you have more time) or is maybe central to the initial idea behind it.

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A street photograph can come from nowhere – being totally serendipitous and unexpected! Therefore the notion of a story or background as you say may become an afterthought, part of reading into the photograph. To consciously work within the context of telling a story or using a background idea with street photography, either as a singular photograph or for a series of photographs, can be difficult to accomplish.

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One time a woman gently took hold of my arm – she was out of breath (I walk fairly quickly sometimes). A couple of minutes previously I had photographed her walking her dog across a pedestrian crossing. She wasn’t happy that I had photographed her dog without permission and asked, ”Would you have photographed my child if I’d been walking along like that?” Really I was quite taken aback by her overreaction, though I acknowledge that it was her right to complain. At the time I remember thinking of course I would have photographed you if you had your child on a dog eash. Of course, I held back the sarcasm and instead explained what I was doing and that it’s not my aim to cause any offense.

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The romantic notion of using film is understandable for newcomers and “old-timers” alike, but rarely do I see the treatment strongly connected to the idea or subject photographed.

There have been times when I’ve felt guilty about photographing people, but I live with it and deal with it. Really I remind myself that what I’m doing is essentially harmless despite occasionally mildly upsetting someone.

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Making money from street photography is not easy. Print sales are great when they happen but are not usually a reliable source of income. Tutoring can be an effective source of income, there are a number of contemporary street photographers that appear to be succeeding with that; I done a little personal tutoring in the past.

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Paranoia is a definite concern for me when it involves gremlins disrupting my hard drives and losing anything worthwhile for good, so apart from “backing up” printing more photographs is a definite goal!

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