Writing a Photography Manifesto

Immigrant Hand Shake at the Mercato di Ballarò, Palermo Italy

The Mercato di Ballarò is a large street market in the Albergheria district of Palermo. The Albergheria is one of the four districts of old-Palermo and dates back to the 8th century Phoenician conquest. The market is loud and busy throughout the day offering every type of produce, fish, meat, cheese, olives, dry-goods, spices, and street-food. The immigrant crisis of the last 10 years has had a particularly large impact on Palermo owing to its liberal immigrant policies led by the current center-left (Democratic) mayor – Leoluca Orlando. Due to urban flight, it is estimated that 29,000 Palermitani (Palermo natives) have left the town over the past 10 years. They have largely been replaced by 30,000 immigrant citizens who have fled poverty-stricken and war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East. Many have settled into the older low-rent area of the Albergheria. Even with only a faint knowledge of this current sociopolitical situation in Palermo, this scene caught my eye as a symbolic hand-shake between the old Sicilian traditions and the new immigrant culture.

In the Spring of 2017, my thoughts about what and why I photograph haunted me like the looping ding-ding-ding melody of an ice-cream truck melody circling the neighborhood. Flipping through my social-media streams left me feeling frustrated and bored. There were so many images that felt like I had seen them before, providing no new information. I wondered if my photographs were just as banal and flavorless. I wondered if I was adding yet one more soulless voice to the cacophony of technically perfect, but emotionally empty, images around me.

It was a call to action. I needed to take time to reflect on the importance of photography for me. Did I photograph to create visual pleasure or to change the world? Where along this spectrum did my passion lie?

In pursuit of this understanding, I gave myself an assignment to write down my beliefs in photography. I tried to analyze why I photograph and why I look at photographs. I thought about images that make me pause and think, and I thought about scenes that thrill me to observe. I questioned if I was attracted to content presented in an interesting way, or interesting content.

It was a messy process. My beliefs were slow to emerge. At first I wrote whole sentences; too many of them and with overlapping ideas. To pare them down, I took a minimalist approach, evaluating and ranking the value of each idea: “Is it truthful? Is it authentic? Is it essential?” My ideas evolved, advancing one day, regressing the next, but finally settling into a short list of unique concepts which I ordered based on their importance to me.

Tentatively, I put the list to the test. I chose some of my favorite images to see how many of my core concepts were present. I applied the same test to images for which I received some form of external validation. I found both confirming and disconfirming evidence that my newly-expressed principles were truly honest with myself. I discovered that some of my ideals were compatible with what others found interesting and worthy, and others were not. I could not decide if my aspiration was achievable, or if I had set the bar too high. I would need to determine if I could I use this list to guide the creation of new work in addition to the evaluation of existing work. I continued to refine my list and strengthen my affirmations to it.

The next step was to explore how to express these ideas to the world now that I was prepared to profess them as my core defining principles. Could I explain them to others and would they care? I took a two-step process. The first step was to identify a couple of representative examples for each principle. Writing in the first person, I set to describe each image: where I was, why I was there, what I saw, what I tried to capture, what I decided to include or exclude, and generally how the image represented the core principle. The second step was to write a general overview of the principle explaining what it meant, why it was important, and how to determine if it had been achieved. I was able to describe some concepts easily, others came with some difficulties, and still others left me feeling communicatively inept.

The final result was my photography manifesto – my mission statement, proclamation, pronouncement – about how, what, and why I photograph. It was tested and explained in a 98-page book and even included a chapter street photography technique. Even though some of the principles were mature and others embryonic, I was ready to share it with the world. But I still wondered if I was capable to live up to its ideals.

Shortly after I completed my manifesto, I embarked on a two-week journey to Italy, spending time in Palermo and Venice. This was my first full-blown test to determine if I could live up to my own expectations. I walked the streets of Palermo for hours exploring churches, street markets, and historic landmarks. I met locals and talked with other tourists. I experienced surprise, joy, awe, loneliness, and discomfort. In Venice I wandered the twisty alleyways, often times getting lost and never quite finding my desired destination. Tired and disoriented, I rode the vaporetto (waterbus) along the Grand Canal back to my hotel to get my bearings. Through all these mini-adventures, I photographed. Hesitantly at first, asking myself too many times: “Is this image worthy? Does it meet my new standards?” But when I settled down, I found more confidence and conviction than ever. I discovered anew my joy, creativity, and satisfaction in my photography. I returned home with a handsome set of images that I am proudly adding to my portfolio.

A Street Photography Manifesto by Nancy Lehrer

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

Life Happens in COLOR –
A Street Photography Manifesto is available from my Blurb bookstore.

In this book I explain my manifesto, provide examples, and include a chapter on street photography technique.

Gondola Repair, Venice Italy

It was my last day in Venice, a beautiful sunny Friday. The day’s agenda was to make one final exploratory excursion to four of Venice’s six districts visiting one cicchetti bar every two hours between noon and dinner. (Cicchetti are small plates of food severed at bars often consisting of tasty pates, fish, or cured meats and garnish on a small slice of bread.) Even though gondola travel seems to be exclusively for tourists, it is obviously an important part of the Venetian tradition. I had yet to take a meaningful image. I had passed this gondola repair facility twice already during my week visit, but in neither case was I able to find my image. After finishing my cicchetti about a block away, I decided to go back for one more try. I returned to find this scene – a picture within a picture.

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