“Originally I shot with long lenses because I was nervous, then I shot wide because I thought it looked cool. More and more I find myself settling on focal lengths that are closest to what my eyes see. Hopefully this means I’ve become braver and am moving away from gimmicks!”
Tom Young (born in 1979) is a street photographer currently based in Edmonton, Canada. He’s self-taught through practice and the work of others. Tom is a member of Observe Collective.
“I take pleasure in sharing with others, and in helping myself remember, the beauty that I see around me.”
Interview with Tom Young
Tom, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I spent five days in New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 2011. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable photographic experiences I’ve ever had; odd and interesting people were everywhere doing odd and interesting things. There was a challenge, though, in finding truly candid moments in the middle of so much spectacle.
On Fat Tuesday I was in the Marigny neighbourhood and turned a corner to discover a woman in a costume completely absorbed by fixing her hair in the window of a parked van. For me, capturing this was my best moment, uncovering the quiet moment that Mardi Gras tried hard to conceal.
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I work as an urban planner by day. My choice of profession was rooted in an interest in human behaviour and how people use urban spaces. My photography is a visual exploration of the same theme.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
Photography allows me to share with others the things I see and find interesting, things that aren’t usually subjects of conversation because they are ephemeral and often overlooked.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I’m not sure if “inspiration” is the right word, but I admire Alex Webb for his visual style. He harnesses light in his images to create beauty where you might not normally expect to find it. I also admire Edward Burtynsky. The sheer scale of human endeavour that he depicts in his images is awesome and awful at the same time.
What’s your favorite quote about photography?
My friend Greg Allikas introduced me to this one by Lee Friedlander:
I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.
Street photography is as much about the space around us as it is about ourselves. And there’s delight to be found in that world and the way we relate to it. This is what I love about photography, what keeps me taking my camera everywhere.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I don’t even know how to describe my own work. I shoot what I see. I’m sure that’s unique in some way, but to me it just looks like things I’ve seen.
Regarding creative process, there’s nothing terribly consistent about this. Sometimes I shoot and shoot and shoot and can’t seem to show anything in a way that seems interesting. But sometimes I manage to find a focus that allows me to see the same things a little differently, my eyes sort of open to let more in and then interesting images flow. That flow is relatively rare, but it’s exciting and keeps me hopeful through the slow periods.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
Well, I don’t even know whether I have one. But I think shooting for yourself is the most important thing, not for others, not for recognition. Shoot images that please you, and shoot lots of them, and I’m sure a photographic voice develops naturally on its own.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Originally I shot with long lenses because I was nervous, then I shot wide because I thought it looked cool. More and more I find myself settling on focal lengths that are closest to what my eyes see. Hopefully this means I’ve become braver and am moving away from gimmicks!
Conceptually, I don’t know how to answer. I shoot what I see that seems interesting. This is more about what feels right than what I imagine to be right in my head.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
An intense interest in people, skills of observation, patience, persistence, and a confidence that there is value in what they are doing, whether they perceive that value to be sociological, artistic, or both.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
That’s a million dollar question. Some combination of human vitality and visual strength. But the details are ineffable. They can’t be predetermined.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
I don’t usually shoot to a project, but themes sometimes seem to emerge by themselves over time. People sleeping in public fascinate me, views from hotel windows, landscapes punctuated by human figures that somehow soften everything. And other things I haven’t pieced together yet.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
Being ready for what unfolds in front of you. Things can happen quickly and it’s easy to miss them. Though sometimes it’s really satisfying to just observe and not shoot.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
My main camera is a Canon 5D. I shoot most often with my 40mm lens, or my 16-35mm zoom, usually at the longer end of its range. I have been working with flash a fair bit lately as well, but I feel I have a lot to learn before I can call myself a competent flash shooter. Sometimes I shoot with a number of different film cameras, most of which were inherited from my dad.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t have one favourite, unless it’s Flickr. Burn Magazine is great, American Suburb X as well.
What book about photography would you recommend?
I have an old set of my dad’s LIFE Library of Photography from the 1970s. The photographs are dated, but the principles are more or less the same. But there’s no one book. I graze.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
I’m not a professional photographer and I only make a small amount of money from it.
The photographers I know who make it work have at least a bit of talent, a lot of drive, and subsidize what they really love to shoot with some other subject that helps pay the bills, wedding photography or commercial work.
For me, I take street photographs as part of my daily journey, because I love to do it and find it exciting to, on rare occasions, create something really good. I think this is the best reason to do it.
Tom is a member of the street photography collective “Observe Collective”.
His colleague Christos Kapatos has also been featured on this site: “Something Like A Movie”.