Tim Huynh's new documentary, "Fill The Frame," sparked a recent controversy about who qualifies as a professional street photographer. I suggest the answer is no one.
Controversy seems to be an inherent component of street photography. You might recall all those articles you've read on the "morality" of street photography; for example. I've been entwined in this net a few times myself. In 2015, I wrote an article for HuffPost titled, Street Photography Has No Clothes, which certainly sparked controversy. Essentially, I posed the question of whether or not all the street photography produced today has any permanent value. I mean, how many photographs of some woman holding an umbrella does the world really need in its archives? But, let's not digress into that black hole. The point I want to raise in this article is whether or not there is such a thing as a "professional street photographer" and, if there is, how we might identify her?
Tim Huynh released a street photography documentary in 2021 called "Fill The Frame." It features a host of New York City-based street photographers and tells us about their motivations, passions, vision, etc. Essentially, it is a film with a bunch of little vignettes about contemporary street photographers. It is a great film for those who seek to understand this genre in current times or to better understand why some people are simply compelled to wander the streets and make photographs. It's a great film. While I am not one of the photographers profiled, I do want to be clear in disclosing that I appear in the film as a photography critic.
When the film launched, a discussion ensued on Facebook. In that discussion, a number of people referred to the photographers portrayed in the film as "amateurs." Indeed, the director of the film himself used such wording in the film's synopsis. One person, in particular, took issue with this portrayal and said that it was not right to portray these photographers as amateurs. Although their motive may have been simply to stir up Facebook, a favorite pastime of many, they did, in fact, raise an important question: Who is a professional street photographer? And how do we know? Does 200,000 social media followers make you a professional? Likely not, as a bunch of random people and the village idiot will follow anything. What about a MoMA show? Does MoMA even show any contemporary street photographers?
Let's run with the definitions of a professional. Not much help, really. The first definition one might find is something like, "engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime." Is anyone paid for street photography? I mean, really? Okay, let's be serious here. Maybe a handful of people make a living at street photography. And, rightly, those people are likely making their money with book or workshop sales — so, they are authors and teachers more correctly. When you take the raw numbers of people who claim to be street photographers and compare that against those who make a living at something they term "street photography," you are likely under one percent. Although, honestly, I can think of maybe one person, Bruce Gilden, who makes a "living" at street photography and also is willing to call himself a street photographer. Even Bruce was likely supported by other means for most of his career (namely Magnum). Let's try another definition, "a person engaged or qualified in a profession." Okay, but a problem quickly emerges when you define "profession," as it requires one to be active in a "paid occupation." Who can say that street photography is a paid occupation and keep a straight face?
I suggest that the whole discussion that ensued around this film is a moot discussion. Amateur or professional, both are equally as out of place in the conversation. There is no street photographer that qualifies as either, rightly put. Street photographers are, I suggest, rather good or bad. Maybe bad, better, good, or great would be better qualifiers. These are the kind of labels that make sense in the street photography world. Talk about being a professional or an amateur is pure nonsense, as there is no money involved for the overwhelming majority of street photographers. Spend $8,000 on a Leica setup and then let me know when you make back the money from your "street photography"! Dream on, Dreamweaver!
Historically, street photographers were marginalized photographers — outsiders (read: not Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz). Street photography was a "scrappy" thing. There was no talk of professionalism (or even money), as this was just nonsense talk. Furthermore, those classical photographers were not seeking such an endorsement. It is only our contemporary culture that seems to seek to identify with an occupation other than their actual occupation. By this, I mean calling oneself something other than the occupation that actually pays your bills. But I guess "trustfunder" or "housewife" is an awkward title for anyone to wield these days.
What "Fill The Frame" has done is present to us a number of street photographers who are either good or bad. And I'll let you be the judge of that!
Images used with permission of Tim Huynh Productions.