The commuter crowd was pushing forward towards the gang plank to catch the six o’clock ferry to Kadikoy, shuffling a few steps at a time in the chill January air, it hadn’t started to rain yet but within the hour it would.
In the crowd just to my right and a few steps in front I caught sight of the girl’s profile, that kind of face in a crowd that draws your attention and your gaze lingers a moment longer than perhaps it should.
The photographer’s eye is always twitching, alert for incoming light, shape or form, a habit that never switches off and perhaps only other photographers understand.
I climb the steps to the upper deck and there she was again, the crowd and headed inside for the warmth but she sat alone with her thoughts, framed by the ambient glow, a canvas complete.
She didn’t seem to notice me make the picture, my discretion paramount, as a street photographer I don’t like to be sneaky, I don’t like to intrude, just to record the scene, there is always good reason and intention.
It was 6.03 pm on the 13th January 2010 and seconds later the scene had changed and the ferry was cutting through the Bosporus swell.
I was very leased with the resulting image, one of my favorite Istanbul street photographs, I am not one for clever captions so this was known simply as “The Girl on the Ferry”
Then serendipity strikes yet again, some nine years after the image was made and shared several times on my social media pages, The Girl on the Ferry sent me a message; Hey that’s me in the picture.
I read the message with trepidation, please don’t hate the picture I kept thinking, with a contented sigh of relief she loved the picture.
Then in June almost a decade later we met in an Istanbul coffee shop where I presented her with the printed image, The Girl on the Ferry is Eda and she’s an artist.
Street photography is a passion of mine, as a young whipper snapper the work of the imperial Henri Cartier Bresson’s Paris was as mesmerizing as it was inspiring, William Klein’s grainy edgy New York and the now so familiar images of Istanbul made by Ara Guller, actually it’s a long list but am not getting into a roll call of photographic superstars, occasionally I can’t help thinking that somehow 1950’s New York or Paris of the ’30’s gives any photographer an edge, Istanbul still has some incredible locations but the modern world with its mass of visual pollution in the guise of capitalistic advertising giving the impression of an explosion in a paint factory means that while Ara still sits drinking his coffee in his Istanbul cafe his city has largely disappeared.
My first real attempt at producing a body of work defined as street photography was in Cairo, ( Cairo Time & Tramlines ) in a teeming city of gazillion people it offered almost overwhelming options, I had to make some rules and limited my project to a set radius of the old Fatimid walls, for a boy who had spent more time in the meadows of the Thames than the city the excitement and exotic was a heady creative cocktail. Much later Istanbul (Istanbul Street Photography ) provided the never-ending urban landscape populated with twenty million potential subjects, some may say it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, perhaps not quite but these cities do provide an engaging backdrop in which to set the characters of endless opportunity and drama limited only by the soles wearing from your shoes.
Moving to Sofia in Bulgaria at the start of the year was an exciting new opportunity to discover a new country, a new city, using street photography as a tool to explore, discover and learn, you pay more attention, you take things slower, you pick out the details, I can’t stress the non-photographic benefits enough.
Now I need to choose my words carefully here; for those that know Sofia and those from Sofia we can agree it’s not a screaming mega city, it has the population of a neighborhood of Istanbul, its gentle, its calm, its green, its empty. For a street photographer it’s a challenge.
The challenge this time was to create a body of work that is not simply a street shot image but one that conveys a sense location, with each location a unique history and culture, I do get a little bored of random images that say very little, technology now allows us to snap with stealth but still it’s no excuse for meaningless images, and since you have asked, I have no preference when it comes to technology but a DSLR is my workhorse and despite its clumsy and noisy attributes serves me well enough.
So here we are then a selection of street shot images of Sofia, a city of undeniable charm, hopefully they will appeal to the more critical Bulgarians amongst us too.
Anyone interested in a personal Street Photography Workshop in Sofia, Cairo or Istanbul drop me an email, I am also preparing on-line mentoring classes for those interested.
Connect on my personal FACEBOOK page for recent shenanigans
Maher bent forward and poured a stream of Tamer Hindi juice into a cup for me from the antique Ottoman flask on his back. It’s very sweet and very welcome, its natural Red Bull and will give me energy Maher tells me, sounding not unlike a Red Bull commercial. Dressed in traditional garb and wearing wraparound sunglasses, he aptly represents the curious contradiction of the Middle East, ‘Don’t forget to tag me on Facebook’, he shouts as I wander off.
A tour bus pulls up and a group of septuagenarian’s shuffle towards the amphitheater, not stopping as they take snap shots of the Roman colonnade with their tablets. They don’t stop to try Mahers juice either, too much of risk perhaps; a jippy tummy or worse, getting left behind to fend for themselves. Amman is only a side show, it’s Petra they have come to Jordan for, the jewel in the Kingdoms crown.
It’s a shame that Amman doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves, agreed appearances can be deceptive and it takes time to warm to this modern Middle Eastern capital. Originally built on seven hills it now sprawls over as many as nineteen, and has swelled with refugees from Iraq and Syria. Most of its population is in fact Palestinian, reflecting the turmoil of the region. Reassuringly, Jordan has remained largely trouble free and safe for travelers.
It won’t really take long to explore the official tourist sights of Amman, the second century six thousand seat Roman amphitheater impressively squatting into the side of a downtown hill, the Citadel ruins on the hill opposite with its columns and Ummayad Palace, a museum and mosque or two. The coach parties hardly stop for breath before they speed down the Kings Highway to Wadi Rum and Petra.
But surrender to the urban madness of Downtown, and be consumed by the chaos of the Souk and you will get an altogether different experience of Amman. Take time to explore the alleyway coffeeshops, binge on street food and chat with the street side vendors. The selling point of Jordan is not its crumbling columns but its congenial and ever engaging people whose character and personality will leave a lasting impression long after the postcards have faded.
Downtown Amman lies in a wadi, a mish-mash of formal and informal commerce, the hipsters rarely venture down from their lofty cafes on the surrounding hills – a latte is a latte so why strain your calf muscles clambering up to join them. The area is a street photographers paradise to explore, discover and find moments of unexpected serendipity.
I bump into Maher again, we talk of Palestine and Syria, he asks me where I learned Arabic, I ask where he learned English. I am an engineer he tells me, I just do this for some extra cash. He pours another stream of date juice into a plastic cup for me, daylight is now fading and the plaza in front of the amphitheater is filling with families – footballs are flying around, tea is being poured from large copper kettles, it’s time for my evening prayers now Maher informs me, we shake hands and as he turns away he says one last time; ‘Don’t forget to tag my photo on Facebook, John’.
Read the full essay and more street photography images from Downtown Amman in the wonderful Roam Magazine on-line here: Roam Magazine and do follow them on Instagram at @roam.magazine
Travel writers and bloggers who want to collaborate on projects please do get in touch and lets talk about possibilities
It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.
I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.
I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.
He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.
The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?
Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.
For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;
Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.
Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.
Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.
I think we all know what a toe-rag is.
For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.
John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration
So it seems street photography is a thing now, I guess the advent of social media and digital technology has thrust the genre tagged, tweeted and trending onto our flickering screens. So that’s nice.
The emails generated from my last blog post showing more than a passing interest it seems and obviously I am very happy about this, questions that I am continuously asked are about my favorite locations and favorite images along with the usual which kind of camera is best for street photography kind of thing, also the nice people at Light kindly asked me to share some of my thoughts for their #VantagePoint project.
I think most photographers will say pretty much the same thing when it comes to their favorite photograph, that it’s a hard question to answer, I have many images that I love for various reasons but love can often be fleeting and what can start out as infatuation can soon change to something mundane.
Some images though do just continue to tickle my fancy and this image of the young Turkish lad, bored and arrogant, legs splayed wide, a typical teenage tear-away still makes me smile, not just his cocky pose but the little details, another lad was clambering through the window of the tram, a police water cannon can be seen just in the background, it’s an Istanbul image in so many ways.
Over the last few years living in Istanbul Istiklal Street has become one of my favorite locations to shoot; it’s a huge city with some wonderful neighborhoods of myriad personalities but living where I do Istiklal Street is always on my way, tourists and terrorists, shoppers and buskers, protestors and police, it has it all and never fails to deliver interesting images.
I am not a snob when it comes to the equipment I use, as a professional photographer I use whatever I need to use for whatever specific job I am doing and my street images are usually shot on whatever DSLR I am using at the time, probably this post would be way cooler if I hung sleek rangefinder or two over my shoulder, having a camera ready to hand is the important thing, I spotted the boy through the crowd of pedestrians, I wasted not a second in striding purposefully towards him, his pose and gaze could not be shot at a distance nor from the side, it had to be face to face, my mind was focused on one thing, simply the composition, having a camera to hand and not having to feck about with settings and zooms, the art is in the composition, the vantage point, I used what was in my pocket; an iPhone 4 and framed 30cm square print now hangs on my wall.
The photographer is always searching for the best vantage point, jostling for position, clambering cliff tops, being the right place at the right time is rarely an accident, as the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams says “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”
The new compact camera technology under development at Light does look very interesting and I am more than happy to give them a plug so check out what appears to be game changing camera technology here: New Light Camera Technology
Now having said that; camera manufactures, I am more than happy to shoot with whatever latest technology you throw this way so let’s work together.
If you are feeling social please drop by and say hello on Facebook where I also post more Street Photography images.
“Sometimes I felt that my happiness issued not from the possibility that Füsun was near, but from something less tangible. I felt as if I could see the very essence of life in these poor neighborhoods, with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bin, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps”
The pathetic protagonist, actually he does not deserve the title protagonist since clearly the city is the hero, Kemal is the love sick overtly obsessed character from The Museum of Innocence beautifully crafted by Orhan Pamuk, like so much else of Istanbul Kemal is of the past, pathetic he may have been but at least he pounded the pavement in pursuit of Füsun, Facebook and Chatroulette has confined the modern stalker to malodorous bedrooms filled with tobacco smoke and crumpled tissues.
Kemal my friend if only you had carried a camera instead of pilfering underwear or whatever it was you filled your grubby little pockets with, then we too could see the essence of life in those poor neighborhoods.
Street photography is somehow the vehicle and the destination, with a Nikon slung over my shoulder I set off on a journey of no particular route or terminus, exploring a city in transition, in constant flux, and often my happiness is not in the image I have digitized or burned on film but that understanding that comes from a curious eye.
For those that missed it here is a previous post on Street Photography in Istanbul;
I have been in Istanbul four years now and high time I organized my Street Photography archive, anyone interested in seeing more images or perhaps the stories behind the images, or should you want to learn more about technique and the fiddly bits do please feel free to get in touch.
If you are feeling social please drop by and say hello Facebook
You can follow my blog by dropping your email into the box on the bottom right hand side of the page, I don’t spam.
It was one of those balmy Beirut summer evenings, the smell of Nargila smoke mingling intoxicatingly with the car fumes along the corniche, I had strolled alone as I almost always do when visiting the dysfunctional Lebanese capital.
My evening amble had started in romantic enough fashion around the spot that, on Valentine’s Day 2007 the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was blown to kingdom come in a truck bomb explosion that had left little to chance.Rafic had been known as Mr. Lebanon and not because he had won a pageant like beauty contest wearing skinny gold shorts, alas, but because he pretty much owned Lebanon, and, as is very well known, Lebanon cannot be owned by a Lebanese.
As is my good fortune I had also walked this very same route that year only a couple of weeks prior to the assassination and again shortly after, debris and blast damage not looking nearly as out of place in the scarred urban landscape as it should.
This walk is always one of pondering my past visits and while I have never lived in the city I have been a frequent visitor since the early nineties, so much has changed and yet so much never seems to in Beirut. I pass the military beach club where a few hours after arriving on my first ever visit soldiers surrounded me screaming, I carefully made it clear they really needn’t get so excited I was only pointing my camera through the broken chain link fence at the privileged surrounded by the poverty, a Syrian tank barrel poked ominously from between billboards advertising Cross Fire walking boots on the other side of the street, my art and irony lost on these guys but they cleverly figured I was not much of a threat and let me go and I mosey along past the Luna tic Park where the fabulous Ferris wheel has defied all logic and survived, no doubt those rusting bucket seats can tell some stories.
As I cast a flirtatious glance at Dalieh, Beirut’s last remaining virgin, a slab of rock anxiously waiting to be violated by the money hungry property developers, a softly spoken man with neatly trimmed beard sidles up beside me and says hello, you know how much they cost he said without waiting for me to reply to his friendliness, pointing across the traffic clogged street at the empty apartment block, nope I said and so he told me, we walked and talked, chit chat as is not entirely uncommon in the Middle East, we soon tired of the Beirut property scene and seamlessly segwayed into the Beirut cruising scene.
I am Arab, Muslim and gay he announced, you cannot believe how complicated my life is. I said I can almost imagine, he lived a lie needless to say and shared some of his frustrations, we took a seat on a park bench and drank tea from disposable plastic cups, there was some pinkness now creeping into the sky above the filthy Mediterranean seascape, you’re not gay are you he said, nope I said, hmm he replied and perhaps a little disappointed I would like to believe, the trouble with you British he said, now the trouble with the British is a conversation I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine, (or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.
Hmm now this was not exactly what I expected but it did give me pause for thought, and no, not really about the gender and sexuality roles gently forced upon me by my conservative British upbringing but about a previous encounter some years earlier the sordid details of which I will go into with another post in the future.
I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.