I get asked a lot out on the streets of Philly whether I am an "amateur" or a "professional" photographer. I'm never quite sure how to answer the question. I'm not a professional by my own reckoning. I'm not formally trained in photography and don't sell my images or make my living off of photography per se. But as a visual anthropologist, who takes photos as part of my work and publishes my photos in journal articles and books, some of which I get paid a nominal amount for, "amateur" doesn't seem like the right answer either. And this is not just my predicament. Other street style bloggers I talk to are never quite sure how to answer the question either. They shoot as a hobby or as a passion or to build a photographic portfolio. They shoot to document the looks out there on the streets at any given moment. But so many of them find themselves selling ad space or sponsored content to companies or "partnering" with brands in some promotional campaign. Where is the dividing line between amateur and professional in these instances? And does it make sense, in the digital age, when so many of us are de facto marketers, to even bother maintaining the distinction?
As for me, well the question has just gotten even thornier. This week I shot my first street style shoot (yes, for money, but not just—call it another avenue of research for the project) for Philly Racked. My good friend, and New York Fashion Week shooting companion, Driely S., is their house photographer, and she was gracious enough to recommend me, when I contacted Racked to see if they needed someone to shoot street style for them in Philly. We settled on Wawa Welcome America's Party on the Parkway/4th of July Jam as my first gig. You can see the complete gallery of "gloriously weird and wild photos" here. Below are some of my favorite images from the event that didn't make their gallery.
Some of you may be wondering: how did shooting for a third party, an online fashion magazine at that, affect how I approach shooting street style? Well, it's a good question, and I'm still figuring it out for myself. In a sense, it didn't. I still relied on photographer's intuition to pick out my subjects, never looking for anything in particular, but simply waiting until someone popped out at me. I still took the kind of "straight up" full body portraits I always take. I still included the same diverse array of people, all with a look and feel I've come to think of as "very Urban Fieldnotes." But it's possible, looking back at my images, that I was a bit less selective than usual, including certain "mainstream" and "commercial" styles I probably would ordinarily let walk right past me.
Not that Racked was necessarily looking for more mainstream or commercial. In fact, they titled the gallery of my work "34 Gloriously Weird and Wild Photos from Wawa Welcome America," playing up the fact that these were most definitely not mainstream and commercial looks. Ok. I can see why. It's probably a solid choice in terms of attracting eyes and gaming SEO. And there are a few people I featured who fall into the category of weird and wild. Others, however, I think are simply stylish, cool, or interesting. Selling my images to a magazine, in other words, I lose some creative control over how my work is presented. Fair enough. I'm not complaining. I just hope the people I shot out on the Parkway didn't think I was categorizing them as "weird" or "wild." I take peoples' pictures for one simple reason: I find them visually compelling. They trigger something in me, something precognitive and pre-articulate. That doesn't always translate neatly into the marketing concerns of commercial entities.