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.”