11 Lessons Jacob Aue Sobol Has Taught Me About Street Photography
“The most difficult thing for me is to take pictures from far away.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Jacob Aue Sobol is one of my favorite contemporary photographers. Not only are his images visually powerful and stirring– but they exude a sense of emotion that pours from the seams. His emotions have depth and soul to them– something that we all as street photographers can learn from him.
While Sobol wouldn’t call himself a “street photographer”–his way of wandering the streets and photographing strangers is something street photographers can all relate to.
I recently received a copy of “Veins”
a book he co-authored by Anders Petersen and have been thinking more about Sobol’s work. Therefore I wanted to write this article to better get inside the mind of Sobol and share his inspirational images and thoughts about photography to you.
Warning: Some of the photos in this article may not be safe for work.
1. Channel your emotions
I know many artists and photographers who use negative experiences in their life
and channel it to create beautiful work. With the death of Sobol’s own father, he channeled this painful experience to express himself through his photography:
Sobol: “My father was killed in a car accident in 1996. At the time I was in my last year of high school and was about to take my final exams and decide on my further education. Of course it was a shock to my mother, brother, sister and I. It was a traumatized period which was filled with darkness and fear. I think it added another layer to my life which I had to do something about. Not only as something painful but more as a place with a certain depth that was different from that of normal life.
The year after I started at the European Film College, I started writing short stories and, later, taking pictures. Once I realized that I was able to isolate my emotions and communicate them through my pictures, I felt like I had found an ability which was unique and which I wanted to explore further. Now, a lot of experiences in life and the people I have shared my time with have added to my memories, my fear and my love, and through this they have inspired me to continue photographing.”
Very few of us experience something as traumatic as losing a parent at a young age. However I think what we can learn from Sobol is how we could channel our emotions (positive and negative)– and show them through our work.
So if you find yourself in a dark and negative space in your life– channel that energy to express yourself through your photography. Explore your emotions and feelings through picture taking– and see where it leads you.
2. Make your photography a social gesture
Sobol: “Though I am a shy and inhibited person among strangers, I do not wish to be an outsider. I am a social human being and my photography is a social gesture; I am reaching my hand out to the surrounding world and the people I meet. So I started bringing my pocket cameras with me so that I could meet the people, get involved in the city and make Tokyo mine. I don’t know if I succeeded in breaking the isolation but I started to communicate. I started meeting people on a one-to- one basis, which, I feel, gave me a better understanding of what it means to be part of a city like Tokyo.”
When Sobol first went to Tokyo and started to shoot for his “I, Tokyo” book, he was overwhelmed by the city and the inhabitants. It was a city where he was constantly surrounded by people, yet nobody even made eye contact with him. It was overwhelming but isolating at the same time.
Surprisingly, even though Sobol considers himself a shy and inhibited person– he uses photography as a way to get out of his shell and connect with the outside world. His photography is a “social gesture” and a way for him to reach out to others.
I feel one of the problems in street photography is how disconnected it could be. While I do believe you can create beautiful candid images without asking for permission– we can also create much more meaningful connections with strangers when we interact with them.
I don’t think you should always feel obliged to only take candid photographs in the streets. Reach out to others, and make your street photography a “social gesture” as well.
3. Photograph a place you are personally connected to
When it comes to photography, all of us want to be “inspired” by a place. Sobol has done two of his most prominent bodies of work in two totally opposite places: Greenland and Tokyo. However what brought him to those places (and helped him create incredible bodies of work) was how he was emotionally connected to both places through women and love:
Interviewer: “It appears that your work is inextricably linked to your love life and relationships. You stay in East Greenland because of falling in love with Sabine and live in Tokyo because of your current girlfriend Sara getting a job there. Is your personal work always an exploration of your personal life?”
Sobol: “I do find it difficult to work in places I am not connected to in some way. I simply lose interest in the place, because I don’t have a close relation, which allows me to approach the place in a more personal way. In Greenland, I started photographing Sabine because I was in love with her, but in Tokyo the situation was different because Sara worked long hours and I was left on my own to explore the city. In this way, my love for Sara and the emotions we shared in our relationship mostly appeared in my images from the streets and in my meetings with strangers.”
It is easy to get bored and uninspired when it comes to photographing. Therefore I think it is important to photograph a place that you have a personal affinity towards. It doesn’t need to be somewhere exotic or overseas. It could even be in your own neighborhood– or even photographs of your family.
So if you plan on pursuing a photographic project, make sure it is a place that you are passionate about– and have a deeper personal connection to (not just photographically).
4. Marry images and text together
Generally most of us photographers aren’t as articulate in words and text as we are in images. However Sobol shares that he still finds it important to share a personal text in his book to accompany his images:
Interviewer: “In both Sabine and I, Tokyo you have written personal texts. How important is it to have your ‘voice’ in the texts and why?”
Sobol: “It is important for me to write text when I feel I have something to say that the pictures do not show. I started writing text for the Sabine book because I felt the pictures could not say everything. My pictures are very emotional and never deal with something tangible. Writing the text was a way for me to pay more attention to the details of everyday life, those small things that illustrate the huge impact Sabine and Tiniteqilaaq had on me.
Also, I wanted people to feel that Sabine was not just an object in front of the camera but that we also shared many things, apart from our emotional life. It was a tribute to her. When she first read the text she cried because there were too many memories. I wanted to tell her how much all these experiences had meant to me, therefore I also made sure that the book was published in Greenlandic (also known as Kalaallisut). With the Tokyo work I felt different. I did not feel the daily stories of me wandering around the streets and meeting people were interesting. The pictures appeared stronger and told how I felt that day – my experience of the city. So I decided to only write a short text about my motivations in photography and the way I work.”
Two photographers whose work I admire is Josh White and Sean Lotman, both who create beautiful images and marry text with their images. Josh White has a very expressive type of photography, which he writes short and often emotional text which expresses his feelings and experiences in life. Sean Lotman writes haikus and other poems, and creates a fusion with his images.
I think we should all use our personal life experiences and combine it with our photography (it doesn’t just have to be writing). For example, at the end of the day– I am more interested in sociology and studying people and society than photography. I feel that street photography is just “applied sociology”
where I can be a sociologist using the camera as my research tool. I feel it helps me create more tangible “evidence” of how I see the world.
So think about your own personal interests
and combine that with your photography. And also know that sometimes photography can’t say everything by itself– and sometimes using text can help better communicate your message. After all, isn’t photography all about communication?
5. On shooting in black and white
Jacob Aue Sobol is most famous for his gritty high-contrast, black and white aesthetic. When asked about shooting in black and white versus color– he shared in an interview:
Interviewer: “Both projects are shot in black and white. Do you produce any work in colour or do you have any plans to work in colour?”
Sobol: “Every time I start a new project, I use colour film because I think it is time to renew myself but I always end up returning to black and white. My colour pictures can be beautiful, ugly and interesting, perhaps, but I can’t feel them. I can’t find myself, and they become completely meaningless to me. They are like decorations. In the end, I don’t really think there is any choice for me.“
Sobol brings up an interesting point of color being like “decorations.” Personally I have been shooting color film more or less exclusively the last 2 years, and sometimes shooting color can be a distraction. Color photography could just be about “pretty colors”
rather than the meaning behind the photographs.
However what I have been trying to do with my work is thinking of how color can add value
and an extra dimension to my images. I constantly ask myself when shooting and editing: how does color better try to portray what I want to say, and how I feel?
I think at the end of the day whether you shoot black and white or color (or perhaps both) is a personal choice. But at the end of the day, your work should be meaningful to you. If it isn’t meaningful to you
who cares what other people think or feel?
6. Be curious
One of the best characteristics a street photographer can have is curiosity. Curiosity is one of the best characteristics of children as well– as it makes them fearless and open to the rest of the outside world.
Curiosity in photography will drive us to explore new grounds, and create great work– rather than just feeling forced to do so. Sobol share shares how curiosity helps him in his work:
Interviewer: “Is photography cathartic for you as it offers a way of working through your emotions and experiences? Has it always?”
Sobol: “Yes, every image I create is a picture of how I feel that day – my experience of a place. It has become my ability to isolate my emotions and communicate them through the camera and into the mind of the viewer. I think the way my documentary project in Greenland turned into an autobiography has had a lot of influence on how I work today. From the beginning, I got used to this close connection between my emotional life and my pictures. In this way, my aim has always been to reach layers in people, which are not immediately visible, but nonetheless shape who we are and add substance to our lives.
I also photograph because I am curious. I am curious about what the person on the other side of the street is thinking, how he or she lives, and how he or she feels. I am always looking for someone to share a moment with.”
In photography, we communicate a certain emotion, message, or feeling with our viewers. This is one of the big points that Sobol hits on in this excerpt.
Furthermore, photography is a way for us to connect with our subjects– to better understand their own motivations, their feelings, and their thoughts. If we are curious about other human beings– our images can be much more intimate and connect on a deeper level with our viewers.
7. On “snapshot” photography
One thing I also am intrigued by Sobol’s work is how he embraces the “snapshot” aesthetic. For a lot of his work, he used a simple point-and-shoot film camera, and still was able to create powerful images. I think sometimes we are suckered into thinking by camera manufacturer companies that we need expensive bodies and exotic lenses to create unique images. We can see through Sobol that is not the case.
Sobol shares more about the idea of “snapshot photography”
soothing that Daido Moriyama andAnders Petersen shares:
Sobol: “The line I discovered between my inner life and the images I created fascinated me – I was able to isolate an emotion and communicate this emotion to other people. I found it much more instinctual than making films, especially ‘snapshot photography’ which is a form of expression that is closely related to our emotions – pictures we take of people we care about and moments we want to keep. That’s why I try to use my pocket cameras as much as possible; they support the feeling of something unpredictable and playful.“
As a street photographer, don’t feel only constrained to photographing strangers in public places. Know that photography is a great form of self-expression and self-exploration. Photograph your daily life– the people you know– your significant other, your family, or things you experience in your everyday life. Channel your creativity into capturing moments of your everyday life– which can be very emotional and powerful.
I also am a huge advocate for small and compact cameras
as they are easy to carry around with you on a daily basis. For those of you who have big cameras that are bulky– you know how much of a pain in the ass it can be to carry them around. And of course, the more you carry around your camera, the more photos you will end up taking.
And it doesn’t even have to be a fancy compact camera either– simply using your smartphone can be one of the best solutions.
8. Make yourself vulnerable to others
One of the most difficult things in street photography is to connect with strangers– people we don’t know. But how can we get other people to open up to us– and make themselves vulnerable? Sobol shares the idea that we need to first make ourselves vulnerable and open to others:
Interviewer: “Does one need to put in effort and have a certain attitude in order to get people to open up and allow themselves to be photographed?”
Sobol: “You have to be completely open and demonstrate that you are also vulnerable. You can’t be just a photographer – you have to discover who you are yourself. If you don’t, people won’t open up to you. That means that you mustn’t avoid being vulnerable. For me, it’s a kind of exchange. Even though I’m the one taking the pictures, my ambition is to achieve an equal exchange between myself and the person I’m photographing.“
In photography there is generally a power dynamic between the photographer and the subject. The photographer is the one generally in power, as he/she controls the camera– and the act of photo-taking. The subject is simply there to be photographed
or are they?
Sobol brings forth the idea of making the act of photography an “equal exchange” between the photographer and the subject. This is a beautiful way of seeing photography– because photography shouldn’t be just about you “taking” something away from the subject. It should also be about a contribution you can make with your subject as well.
Generally when it comes to my photography, I take about 60% of my shots candidly and around 40% of my photos with permission. While I think it is important to do both
I generally prefer to communicate and interact with my subjects. This way I can interact with them, get to know who they are as human beings, and tell them why I want to take a photo of them. I make them involved, which actually brings a lot of joy and excitement to their day.
I am not saying you have to take all of your photos with permission and you don’t always have to communicate with your subjects. However I think it is still important for us to be conscious about the power-dynamic at work– and try to be humanistic when photographing.
9. On creating new work
I think one of the worst pieces of advice a more experienced photographer can give an aspiring photographer is: “don’t do that project– it has already been done before.”
But then again, what hasn’t been done before? I think in photography (and art) there is so much of an emphasis on doing what hasn’t been done before– than doing work that is personally enriching and fulfilling.
One of my favorite points brought forth by Sobol is how he doesn’t really care to create original work– but how he wants to simply create experience the world in an intimate way:
Sobol: “It is not my ambition to come up with something that hasn’t already been thought of. That doesn’t concern me. Yes, of course I come from some direction of photography, and maybe it is from the 70s and 80s. I don’t know. In any sense, when I look at my work and that of many others, I see very contemporary photography. And, of course, one can always hear these sorts of comparisons to history, but that really doesn’t concern me. My ambition is not to invent something new, but to live and experience the world and the people I love, and to tell this story by using photography as a diary.
“I think it would be hard to find a photographer today who has come up with something that hasn’t been seen before. Can you name anyone? I, personally, don’t know of any. Yes, you can find superficial similarities – you can compare contemporary, contrasting black and white photography with post-war photography – for example, with Japanese or 1970s photography – but I think that contemporary photography is much more personal and subjective.”
Everything has been done before– don’t let that deter you in your photographic ambitions and projects. Remind yourself: you haven’t done it before.
But at the same time, educate yourself in terms of the work that has been done before– which will also help inspire you and push you to create work that is personally fulfilling.
For example, I am currently working a long-term project on “Suits”
based on my feelings of disillusionment and cynicism of the corporate world. The project has been done to death– but I haven’t let that deter me. After all, I haven’t done it before.
Yet I still educated myself by looking at all the great projects which involve “Suits” that has come before me. So this gives me a benchmark in terms of what has been done before– so I am trying to add some variety to what has already been done before. Work that has been done before is also great inspiration, for me to hunt out similar looking scenes (yet being different at the same time).
So pursue your photographic projects with full zest, knowing that you probably won’t innovate and pave any truly radical ground. But work on your projects because they are personally fulfilling– and set your own standards and bar to what makes you happy.
10. On traveling
I think that traveling is a great way for us to experience new cultures and become inspired in our photography. I still think that we can create amazing work in our own backyard– but traveling does help us break up the monotony of everyday life, and see the world in a fresh and new way.
Sobol shares what he gets from traveling:
Sobol: “I must be truthful and admit that I do it because I find traveling exciting. I’d never be able to spend my whole life in one neighborhood or one country. I’m inspired by people from other cultures. Meeting people from other cultures is a part of life, in my opinion. For example, I just completed a photo-project for which I took the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. That was a project that I wanted to do ever since I was a teenager; and of course, discovering a land that you’ve never seen before is an adventure. But you are right – it certainly is possible to go on an adventure in your own country, in your own neighborhood, or in your own yard. And I do that, too – I go on adventures with my girlfriend and my mother.
Not all of us have the luxury, finances, or the time to travel. But know, that traveling doesn’t mean you have to buy a $1000+ ticket to fly somewhere half-way across the world. To travel can simply involve jumping in a car, a train, or a subway to somewhere a little bit further from where you generally are, to explore something new. Just taking a trip just an hour away from your home can be refreshing and new.
But if you do have the resources to travel– I highly recommend you to do so. One of the greatest regrets of the dying is that most people wish they traveled more when they were still alive. I can personally say that every time I travel and come back home, I do feel like a transformed person in many ways. By experiencing other cultures
I bring back the things I like to my home. Not only that, but it also makes me appreciate more what I have home.
I write about this a lot– the idea that happiness can only be bought with experiences, not material possessions. So rather than buying gear, buy experiences. Buy travel. Instead of using that $1500 for a new camera, lens, laptop, whatever– use it to travel. Go somewhere you have always wished, and that experience will live with you forever and transform you. Having a new camera or lens won’t. It will just get outdated in 2 years (like any smartphone out there).
11. Work hard
The last point that Sobol brings forth which is crucial is the idea of working hard. I know a lot of photographers who talk about how long they have been shooting. Rarely do photographers talk about how hard they work when shooting. I know some phenomenal photographers who have only been shooting for 3 years
who work incredibly hard. Other photographers I have met who shot “20 years” but photographing once a month in the mountains doesn’t count.
So realize that at the end of the day, the amount of hard work you put into your photography will show. Sobol shares his work ethic:
Sobol: “I work a lot, so every day I spend in the street from early morning to late evening. I don’t know exactly when the image is there. There is a snapshot I took of a young woman’s leg walking up a stairway, and I don’t know where that picture will work until I start editing. It’s just a feeling I have, but working like this, in a very intimate situation, is always very difficult. They are inviting you inside; they are trusting you. To me, it’s a very volatile situation that I have to be careful in, but I can immediately feel both the subject’s limit and my own limit, informing what I want to photograph or not photograph. I always listen to that.”
I don’t think there is such thing as “talent” in street photography. And if there was such thing as “talent” in photography or any sort of art– it is certainly overrated.
At the end of the day, all great work is determined by the hard work you put in. There are really no shortcuts around this. By having a burning passion, dedication, and one-minded pursuit of your goal is the most important thing.
So when it comes to your street photography– figure out what drives you. Then put in the hard work and hustle to create beautiful art.
I think we could learn a ton from Sobol. Not only is he an extremely intimate photographer with his subjects, but his images have to deal with society and connecting with others. He doesn’t care so much what work has already been done before– he just goes out and does it. He puts in the hard work necessary for his work, and channels his emotions to create powerful images.
Let us all gain inspiration from him to create images that are more meaningful, emotional, and personal.
- Interview with Jacob Aue Sobol for I, Tokyo
- An emotionally naked photograph. An interview with Jakob Aue Sobol
Videos on Jacob Aue Sobol
ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES Behind the scenes with Magnum Photographer Jacob Aue Sobol
Follow Sobol along his journey shooting the trans-siberian railway:
Jacob Aue Sobol Lecuture at the Nordic Light Festival
A superb 1.5 hour long lecture by Sobol on his work:
Books by Jacob Aue Sobol
Sobol’s books are highly sought after– and his two main bodies of work: “I, Tokyo” and: “Sabine” are both rare and extremely expensive.
But his new book: “Veins” (which is co-authored with Anders Petersen) is available and very affordable at around ~$30 USD. I just got my copy in the mail a few days ago, and love the print quality and pairing of images. Highly recommended– pick it up before it gets sold out!
To see more work by Jacob Aue Sobol, check out his portfolio on Magnum.