Updated: May 17, 2020
How analog photography and making portraits of strangers has helped me to slow down, engage more thoughtfully with my hometown, Chattanooga, and push creative boundaries.
I stood watching, waiting. The guitarist looked up and I tripped my camera’s shutter the very moment his eyes met my lens. His beaten guitar and worn expression showed lasting commitment to a fight for racial justice.
The street performer, Yehoshua, finished his song and I approached him. He greeted me, explained the origin of his stage name, talked about his music, and said a blessing to me. Then he went back to performing for passing faces.
I’d never captured raw emotion like this, nor had I ever spoken to someone I’d photographed on a street. I felt more fulfilled having learned a piece of this stranger’s story and capturing a glimpse into his daily battle, rather than just snapping a picture and walking away.
Up to this point, I’d struggled deciding what to go out and shoot every day. I loosely called myself a street photographer, but this is the first time things really clicked.
As young artists, we often rush into defining our genre or our “style” before we’ve had enough experience to know where our eye leads us. For photographers especially, it’s so easy to become insecure with our own work. We’re bombarded with bottomless feeds of amazing photos on social media, news and entertainment platforms.
Rather than taking the time to explore what interests us about creating, what we want our audience to feel and the questions we want them to ask, we’re often tempted into imitating popular artists, emulating styles that are not our own and putting our work in a labeled box.
My advice would be to take a break from social media. A three-day Instagram cleanse can go a long way in clearing your mind and giving you the space to consider what you want your work to say. Defining how we create at the outset inherently limits what we’ll allow ourselves to try and any unifying look or “style” to our work, at that point, is contrived. Start with small ideas, focus on bringing them to life, and let yourself learn how you create.
My desire is to document Chattanooga and the cultures within it. Factoring in our city’s diversity and the sad truth that many of its subcultures are largely misrepresented, my goals have become numerous and convoluted.
The downtown streets are a great starting point to meet people, hear stories, and explore how people interact within our city. You can’t do everything at once.
Whether you’re pursuing documentary photography or more artistic work, the best thing you can do is start small. If your goal is to be a fashion or portrait photographer, for example, dress a photogenic friend with thrift store finds and shoot against an environment that matches the outfit and mood. If your goal is to tell stories, go speak with a stranger, learn about them, and try capturing their personality in a photograph. Go crazy with effects and color grades, or leave your image raw. The point is to experiment, learn, and grow, rather than imitate.
Another piece of advice—slow down.
This applies to the act of creating and your progression as an artist. Allow yourself to focus on mastering one technique at a time, be present, and don’t rush.
I often find myself hurrying. Walking the downtown streets, I sometimes forget to stop and look back for new subjects to photograph. When I’m making a portrait, I sometimes miss focus or get the exposure wrong because I’m nervous and excited.
Learning how to shoot analog photography has forced me to be more patient and intentional with each moment. Each roll of film holds a finite number of frames, so I’m forced to execute the perfect composition and exposure while still engaging with my subject. There’s little room for error.
Shooting analog also reminds me to spend more time with the camera by my side.
One great photo is more valuable than ten good ones. Not only that, but the more time I spend speaking with someone face to face, the more meaningful the exchange, the more I learn and the stronger my photographic representation of them. We should give more than we take, and we simply can’t do someone justice without getting to know them.
Film has its flaws, but no photograph—or person—is perfect. Sometimes a little softness or color shift lends itself well to a moment.
I’ve been doing this for a relatively short time, and I’ve already met lots of really great people because of it. I’ve made portraits of skaters, doctors, underground boxers, veterans, dislocated workers and homeless folks—people I’ve crossed paths with many times since, and who I call my friends.
Allowing myself to slow down and engage with the unique faces around Chattanooga without worrying endlessly about my photographic “style” has helped me grow tremendously as an artist and a person. I have many unique individuals to thank for deepening my empathy and furthering my growth as a visual storyteller. The journey’s only beginning.
Dewayne Bingham is a student at UTC where he is majoring in Communications. He hopes to use his photography to preserve the world's endangered ecosystems and cultures. Follow him on Instagram, @binghamsnaps.