Compelling People

People fascinate me. I did not realize how much until I started photographing them. At first I photographed people at random, and while kind of interesting, I found I ended up with a lot of banal pictures of random people.

Yet sometimes I would happen upon a photo that is in some way compelling. Sometimes it is a look or the light, or sometimes it is how there seems to be a story behind the person. Occasionally, I interact with my subjects so I might learn about them, but mostly I take photos candidly. I can only speculate about the stories of my subjects.

A photo that drives you to speculate is one that is compelling. I have taken a lot of photos of attractive women in Ginza and Aoyama, dapper men, and groups of people who are happy, excited, sad, lost in thought, or often engrossed in their iPhones. I have taken photos of people using good composition and capturing amazingly contrasty light and shadow. However none of these are enough make a photo compelling. A compelling photo drives you to ask what the story is.


For example, the photo above compels. It is not just the composition, the light and contrast. The photo compels you to ask who is this woman. She is elegantly dressed and pays attention to here clothing, but still she appears harsh and almost inelegant. Her fashion says refinement, yet her skin appears sunbaked fro working outdoors. Her frown betrays some sort of harsh experience or outlook. Her jacket hangs off of her. Has she seen better days? How does she view herself? Where is she going all dressed up like this, or is this just how she dresses to go out no matter what the occasion?

I photographed this woman in Asakusa with a tiny Olympus XA2. I tried to capture the essence of the photo in the drawing below.



The next photo, also taken in Asakusa. I love the composition, the shadows and the light. Yet it is the big glasses and big surgical mask that make you ask about how this person is. It is almost as if she is deliberately in disguise, wearing those Groucho Marx glasses with the plastic nose and mustache. Who is she hiding from? What is she trying to protect herself against?


The next photo I think is good simply because I think the woman in it is lovely. I think I caught her at just the right movement. I only wish the man in the background had not been there. But is this photo compelling? No. Just a lovely photo of a woman.


The woman in the photo below has a face that must have stories tell. It is weathered and sculpted. If you look carefully, you will see she is missing her right eye. There is only any empty socket. I believe this photo is compelling because it makes you ask questions about the subject.


The photo below is kind of interesting in that there is an impression looking at the face that the subject is driven in some way by something. If the photo makes you ask or want to know, that makes the photo compelling. If it does not, then it is merely an interesting looking person on the street.


Similarly here. The hair blown by the wind makes the photo kind of interesting. Compelling? Probably not.


When I shot this photo, I thought I had a sure-fire compelling photo of a person on the street. It looked that way from my vantage point. I shot this from the hip. While the composition and light are interesting, it still just looks like a photo of a woman looking to orient herself in Ginza using her iPhone. Not compelling in the end, at least for me. I was kind of disappointed.


The photo below I just like, because of how the woman is completely covered with the coat and hood, hiding her face with her hand. Actually, she is not covering her face because she sees me with a camera. She was merely brushing her hair from her eyes. She just happened to do that gesture as I shot. I had wanted to capture her face in the hood. Compelling? Nah.


In the next photo, I like the boys in the makes, and the perspective shooting them from their level. Interesting? Sure. Fun? Yes. Compelling? Probably not.


In this final photo, in this frame, I wanted to capture this girl’s world from her perspective. I love the way she exists in a forest of legs. She sees something in the opposite direction from where all the adults are facing. She sees something in her world, while they are all distracted by something else. She is almost about to drag her mother by the hand. What does she see? What don’t the adults see and why? What are the adults focused on? Will they take notice of what the girls sees? Will they listen to her? Or will they never know what they missed? This photo is compelling.



Taking random photos in street photography is, but you will become bored rapidly. Taking interesting photos is harder, but still not enough. Compelling street photos of people make you ask what the story is. They make you want to know something beyond the photo. That is compelling art.

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