Tell us about what drives your work, How did you get started?
I had a Kodak Instamatic camera as a kid, and my dad would give me a roll of film every week. I used to walk around taking pictures of neighborhood scenes when I was just 8 or 9 years old, and I was always so excited to get those prints back from the lab.
So I had always had an interest but what got me really into photography, to be honest, was a guy. I met a photojournalist who also happened to be a total hottie, and I thought to myself, ‘hmm, maybe we could talk cameras and stuff!’ I started going out on shoots with him and he would teach me about exposure and composition, we’d talk about art and photojournalism and the work he’d done. I was shooting and learning, and then one day I had one of those “aha” moments when I realized I could put together an image in a frame and tell a story. Maybe that sounds obvious, but before that, I thought you took a picture of something and it was just a picture of that thing- that’s not it at all. Have ten photographers photograph one scene, and you will end up with ten very different photographs, and each will tell just as much about the person who composed that shot as whatever is in the image. Figuring that out was kind of life-changing. I also fell in love with this guy. We’ve been married now for 8 years.
So… my husband is the greatest photographer I’ve ever met. I know everyone says things like that, but seriously- his work has been published worldwide, he’s photographed five US presidents, he’s got a Pulitzer- it’s on a shelf above his desk, tucked behind some snapshots of our son. And somehow he’s my biggest fan. Having someone believe in you is pretty inspiring. The fact that he 100% believes in me and my work kind of blows my mind sometimes and keeps me stretching myself. I do this for myself, but his encouragement is a powerful and comforting presence.
What were the challenges for you, in the beginning, was street photography at the forefront of what you wanted to capture?
I wasn’t thinking much about any particular genre. It wasn’t until I went through the exercise of putting together a portfolio for the first time that I even consciously recognized what was the common thread through my images, the ones that I cared most about. Whether I was shooting street, landscape, portraits or even still life, I was searching for overlooked beauty: not the conventional beauty, but that ‘something’ that hints at a story beneath.
Once in a critique, someone advised me to clone some old junk out of a landscape photo and I thought, “but that’s part of this story.” It’s the ‘wabi-sabi’- the beautifully flawed, the quietly enduring strength of something broken or left behind- that I find interesting. I want to know how that got there.
That image that I didn’t clone out the junk on, it was selected as a VOICE image in 2016. So for challenges- it can be challenging, especially early on, to stick to your artistic vision even if others don’t always get it. Not everyone is going to love everything you do, and that’s ok. You get to decide how you want to express yourself through your art. Whatever you are drawn to, work at that, do what makes you happy. Otherwise, what’s the point?
What is it about street photography that moves you?
“Honesty” is readily accessible on the street, because it’s real life, just hanging out there for all to see. There’s no giving direction, there’s little opportunity for controlling a scene except by where you place yourself and what you choose to put in the frame. I like that you never know what you will get, it’s always a surprise.
I also love something that Joel Meyerowitz calls the “ephemeral connections” that happen between people in street images. For an example, my image of the blue subway car- there were six people on that car, the five in the photo and me. Each one of the five spent that ride preoccupied with their phones, occasionally looking up to check the approaching stop. I don’t think they more than glanced at each other- but there is a “vibration” between them. They were random strangers, totally mirroring each other, different but the same, sharing this moment in sync- and completely unaware. And then they got off at their various stops and that fleeting “ephemeral connection” was gone.
What are the tips you would share with anyone trying street photography out for the first time?
It can be downright intimidating taking photos of strangers, but you can do it.
If you don’t feel comfortable pointing your camera at strangers, find a way to get the shot you want without raising the camera to your eye. Once I was at an outdoor cafe in Reykjavik, and there was a scene across the street I wanted to capture, centered on a man in a fedora. I was afraid the man would leave if he noticed me, so I set the camera down on the table and used the self-timer. You can also teach yourself to shoot “from the hip”- it’s an acquired skill but it’s actually kind of fun and sort of incognito.
Small cameras/lenses. I would love a mirrorless for street photography. I don’t have one so I usually use my Canon 40mm pancake lens- it is very small and makes my gearless conspicuous. Or maybe even start with your phone!
Find larger crowds, with busy people- they aren’t likely to pay much attention to you.
Act like you belong there and don’t make eye contact- like, yeah I’m just taking pictures of something else, that architecture over there perhaps, not you…
Or the opposite- ask someone if you can take their pic. When I take pictures of people without their knowledge, it’s usually because it’s not practical to stop and ask them, the moment would be gone or it’s just not doable. If you have access to your potential subject and you think they would make an interesting street portrait, ask them! Sometimes they are thrilled, sometimes they say no- but at least you know. If they say yes, offer to email them a copy of the image, and then follow through. Sometimes they are too far to talk to, but close enough that you can get their attention and signal to your camera like, “it’s ok?”
There are some laws about this sort of thing, and they can vary from place to place so check it out for yourself. Typically, you can photograph people who are in public – although it may be illegal to photograph children or vulnerable adults without explicit consent. If someone says they don’t want their picture taken, personally I would not. You won’t need model releases unless you are selling the image (i.e. stock).
If you notice a shot you want to take, don’t question yourself, take it! If you wait 5 seconds, you probably will talk yourself out of it and later you’ll say, “I should have taken that shot!” Plus the moment will be gone in 5 seconds so just do it.
Do you have any cool or bizarre anecdotes to share?
There’s a form of street photography called “urban exploring”- essentially going into abandoned places to photograph them. If you are interested in it, definitely do your research- there could be ethical, legal and safety considerations you should be well informed about. But years ago, my husband and I were driving through the Mississippi Delta toward Memphis, and we passed an old abandoned school building. I wondered aloud, “what do you think it looks like in there?” To which my intrepid husband replied, “let’s find out.”
The school was directly across the street from the town’s police headquarters and courthouse. All of the windows we could see were boarded up with plywood. I was not about to break-in, but I was up for taking a closer look. We pulled up to the front of the school and walked toward the front door. My husband touched the door and the plywood was on a hinge- it looked like it was nailed shut but it swung right open!
And so…. we may or may not have gone inside and my hands may or may not have been trembling so much the whole time that most of my photos were blurry from camera shake. Yolo?
What’s in your camera bag?
A Canon 5dMiii and lenses that huddle around normal human eye view- the Canon 40mm pancake, a Canon 17-40L, a Tamron 45mm SP, and then an older Tamron 90mm. I keep a camera raincoat (something like $7) for rainy weather because I enjoy shooting in the rain. I also have a couple filters for landscapes, a flashlight and a Canon 580EXii flash.
ABOUT THE ARTIST :
Jamie Campfield Bates is an artist photographer with a special appreciation for overlooked beauty, quiet happiness, gentle rebellion, and the surprising, subtle nuances that make everyday life interesting.
While best known for her award-winning landscape images, her photographic interests range from street/urban exploring to conceptual projects, to capturing still lifes, details and the simple daily happenings of her family.