Finding Your Best Photographs

“Amy Touchette is a master of street photography in the busiest of all concrete jungles,
New York City.”—BuzzFeed

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette’s workshop, “Photographing People & Life in Oaxaca, Mexico,”
takes place March 11-16, 2018.

Story and photos by Amy Touchette

 Lady B looking at polaroid outtakes from her Diana

Lady B looking at polaroid outtakes from her Diana

Even though it’s easier than ever today to operate a camera and produce a picture, it’s no easier to recognize the most compelling images among your outtakes and to make collective sense of them. In fact, it might be even harder; because digital technology lets us produce so much, there’s more to choose from—more pictures to confuse us, more pictures to get in the way of us uncovering a theme or narrative in the pictures we make. 

However, being able to find the best pictures among a group of images and understand what links them is one of the key skills that distinguishes photographers from people who take pictures.

Finding our most compelling images is an elusive task, but as my mentor, Karen Marshall, Acting Chair of the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism program at the International Center of Photography, puts it, “it is a muscle you can strengthen just like any other.” 

Exercising those muscles starts before a picture is even produced. You begin by setting an intention, having a goal, because that reveals what you care about, and maybe more importantly, why. 

Later, that intention can be abandoned or revised if it doesn’t work out, but it’s important to have a jumping off point, to make a conscious decision about where you are headed when you set out to photograph. 

From there, you let your photographs respond. Marshall, who has taught personal vision courses for over 20 years, likens it to a conversation. You say something by setting an intention, and the photographs you produce as a result of that intention say something back. You make more pictures in response, extending the conversation, and again your photos reply to you. And this conversation goes on and on.

As you look at your outtakes, put aside your intention and your backstory. It’s easy to think an image is compelling because we had a compelling experience making it, but often none of the details of our experience are evident to viewers. Likewise, we can cling so strongly to our reason for making an image that we can’t see what is really developing through the lens. 

 At home editing for my exhibition next month at Cal Poly University Art Gallery, February 22-March 16, where I’ll be debuting The Young Series, portraits of teenagers in New York City, O’ahu, and Tokyo

At home editing for my exhibition next month at Cal Poly University Art Gallery, February 22-March 16, where I’ll be debuting The Young Series, portraits of teenagers in New York City, O’ahu, and Tokyo

So, to a large extent, becoming a good editor is about holding on loosely: being open and patient—but also playful. Placing the images you like the most into categories or piles based on similarities is a great way to start listening to what your images are saying, as well as what they say about each other when they are in a certain sequence. The point is to start making associations, and casting a really wide net when you do so, so that you can jostle yourself out of your own thoughts and make room for new, novel ones to occur to you.

It’s not enough to make successful or compelling pictures. You have to be able to recognize them, or else it’s like they don’t exist. To learn more ways to sharpen your editing skills, read the article I wrote for Envato Tuts+, or better yet, join me in Oaxaca, Mexico, March 11-16 for my workshop “Photographing People & Life.” I would love to meet you!

 

 

 

 

Photographing Strangers When There Is a Language Barrier

 Arles, France, July 2017

Arles, France, July 2017

Story and photos by Amy Touchette

“Amy Touchette is a master of street photography in the busiest of all concrete jungles, New York City.”—BuzzFeed

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette’s workshop, “Photographing People & Life in Oaxaca, Mexico,” takes place March 11-16, 2018.

Last July, I had the pleasure of attending Les Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival held annually in Arles, France. While attending the festival, I took over LensCulture’s Instagram feed, posting candid pictures of people I encountered on the streets of Arles in between portfolio review meetings. 

As was the case when I photographed in Vietnam, Macao, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, I was not fluent in the country’s language (in this case, French). And as was also the case when I travelled to the aforementioned countries, I learned that photographing in a foreign land is no more difficult than photographing in a setting in which you do know the language. 

 Arles, France, July 2017 -- This was the first photo I made when I arrived in Arles, an exceptionally warm, spirited town in the south of France. I fell in love with it almost immediately. Landing during magic hour certainly didn’t hurt!

Arles, France, July 2017 -- This was the first photo I made when I arrived in Arles, an exceptionally warm, spirited town in the south of France. I fell in love with it almost immediately. Landing during magic hour certainly didn’t hurt!

The facts are, people assess you firstly and primarily on nonverbal cues anyway. People make what social psychologists call “spontaneous trait inferences” within less than a second based on your facial features, revealing language to be a comparatively minor means of communication. 

For a street photographer, then, it’s of the utmost concern to project physically, emotionally, in your stance, and in the tone of your voice, a way of being that shows you are trustworthy to people who have never met you before, so that you gain as much access as possible to street life. And the only way to really do that successfully is to actually be a trustworthy person. The main rule is to respect the space of others on the street by being gentle and communicative when interactions arise. 

Sometimes you have to ask permission to photograph beforehand; other times you can make photographs without having to be formally involved. Every situation is unique and it’s up to you to suss it out. The key is not to deny your own presence on the street, but to embrace it, to really know you belong there, too—even with your camera—because the only way to melt into the background of the street is to feel you are a genuine part of it. 

 

The Atitlan Experience, Part 3 - Lancha Life

Photos and story by Eric Mencher

Yes, the lanchas (boats) that cross Lake Atitlán exist to transport the 100,000 or so people who live in the twelve towns and villages on the water’s edge. No, the lanchas’ purpose is not to provide adventure or photo opps. But yes, when I take a lancha, not only do I (eventually) get to where I need to go, I usually end up with a picture and a story or two to tell.

On the lancha, I see life intimately from a front row seat, sitting shoulder to shoulder with locals and tourists alike, witnessing the lake’s beauty or its afternoon fury (strong winds called the Xocomil blow in around noon every day, whipping up both white caps and unease among the passengers).

I love catching the first boat of the day and watching the light of dawn playfully dance on the water. Those early morning boats seem to fly across the waveless waters, only to be slowed as students board, or the captain waits endlessly for that one extra passenger. But as we wait stories unfold, and we might see the dock boys hustling for a couple quetzales. Or a Mayan man laughing as he loses his balance and slides into the bow of the boat. Or a woman gingerly and gracefully stepping aboard with a wide-eyed baby lovingly wrapped in colorful traje. Or the captain—who is treated with reverence like the stage coaches drivers of the Old West—putting his narrow-toed boot atop the spare gasoline container. The boat becomes a multi-colored rainbow of tradition, full of people from different places speaking different languages.

But beware! When the Xocomil begins to blow, best to take a back seat near the captain or risk a soaking from the wind and waves. The boat rocks furiously and as you see the lake in all its beauty and intensity, it’s only natural to wonder, is this (as Aldous Huxley put it when writing about Lake Atitlán) too much of a good thing? Yes and no, I believe!

Everyday Astonishing: On Street Photography’s Relationship to Chance

 Flushing Ave, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2016. By Amy Touchette

Flushing Ave, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2016. By Amy Touchette

Story and photo by Amy Touchette

New York City street photographer Amy Touchette discusses the role that chance plays in photographing real life, including why certain photographers seem to be in the right place at the right time and how to persuade chance to be on your side.

Amy’s workshop, “Photographing People & Life in Oaxaca, Mexico,” takes place March 11-16, 2018.

The subject of real life is inherently unpredictable. So when photographers consistently make compelling pictures of a subject they can’t predict, was it luck or was it skill?

The answer is both—but mostly skill. There are three important ways to take action toward making good pictures more often: (1) learn to recognize opportunities when they arise, (2) cultivate sensitivity to your surroundings, and (3) make use of the law of attraction.

Learn to Recognize Opportunities

Getting lucky has to do with identifying opportunity when it comes your way, but because each sighting is unique, it requires complete, utter open-mindedness to how luck might look at any given time. When photographers do this well, it’s because they’ve learned to go with the flow, to accept what is laid before them, and to take advantage of the gifts life offers—and there are always gifts.

Cultivate Sensitivity

But there are also practical ways to get at luck. To accrue hints about how real life might unfold in the coming moments, photographers learn to be extra sensitive to and aware of their surroundings, with the intention of gleaning general patterns via time of day, weather, local habits, individual characters, and more. Having this reconnaissance in the back of their mind feeds their intuition as they photograph, instinctively compelling them to photograph in decisive moments.

Make Use of the Law of Attraction

While staying open to the many forms that luck takes is key, and watching the flow of a place is essential to help us get oriented and aware, what also unlocks our availability to make great pictures is understanding that we can achieve effects based on causes we put into place.

One way we can do that is by encouraging people to trust us by acting genuinely when we photograph. We can wordlessly put people at ease by taking fluid actions, and we can prevent ourselves from causing effects we don’t want—suspicion and apprehension—by not taking jarring, inconsistent, or skittish movements.

Maybe most importantly, if we want to gain more control of the wild west that is real life (i.e.: increase our chances of making a compelling picture), we have to be what it is we are looking for, and not be what it is we despise so much. 

Causes that, we, ourselves put into motion may not directly or quickly result in the effect we desire, and they likewise may not give the exact effect we want. But like reins on a horse, riding without them relinquishes any possibility of control and acuity.

Read Amy’s article about this topic on Envato Tuts+, which goes into further detail about chance’s role in photography.

And listen to Amy and street photographer Gus Powell discuss the role chance plays in photography in B&H Photography’s podcast “Collaborating With Chance and the Essence of Street Photography.”