It is often said that the hardest place for a street photographer to shoot is the place they are from. I’ve lived in London my whole life and fortunately haven’t found that to be true. The city is a bit of a blessing for a photographer like me, as there is so much to play with: iconic backdrops, architecture from many different centuries, a wide variety of cultures and demographics, four distinct seasons and generally nice light.
I titled this shot The Four Giacomettis. I had just been to an exhibition of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s work at Tate Modern and was feeling quite inspired. I went out on to Tate Modern’s balcony and set about trying to make use of the reflections made possible by the wet asphalt.
I was out there for quite a while, a friend of mine kindly holding an umbrella over my camera. I shoot with Leica M camera bodies and, as wonderful as they are, they don’t like the rain too much. I can’t remember how many images I took, but with this one everything aligned. I was concentrating on the distance and timing of the two subjects in the foreground in relation to the advert, and got the third subject in the background for free.
The frame feels balanced, but what makes this shot for me is how the people, all mid-stride, echo the figure in the banner. There’s a humour in how we flock to galleries and museums to see humanity reflected back at us in interesting ways, when often such opportunities are all around us.
Street photography requires intuition, technique, foresight and luck. A good environment also helps. There is something to be said for returning to a scene and working it repeatedly, trying to see new things, locating something special amid the seemingly mundane.
When the right elements coalesce and you manage to trigger the shutter at the exact right time, it’s an intensely satisfying and absorbing moment. In much the same way as an athlete is during competitions, street photography forces you to be present and fully engaged. You can’t be thinking about work, or a dispute at home, or future engagements that day. I tend to have a bit of a busy brain, so this is the closest thing to a meditative state I’m likely to feel.
I used to write music for television and film, and had no real interest in photography until five years ago. I picked up a camera for no reason other than to try to impress a woman who was an amateur photographer. But I ended up finding a passion for photography and started working obsessively on a street series. It was these that got me noticed, and when more opportunities came in I was eventually fortunate enough to be able to make the jump to full-time photography.
I’m sure you can learn a few things from a professor, but there is nothing you cannot learn yourself, especially these days with Google and YouTube at your disposal. You have to just get out there and experiment, fail, reflect, succeed, perhaps fail again, and develop the ability to self-critique objectively. We now live amid an avalanche of content, so it’s never been so important to produce something that stands out and that gives people a reason to engage with your work.
I’ve travelled a lot through my work, but London holds a special magic for me. You can hang out in one part of the city like Chinatown, and then quickly get to somewhere with a totally different aesthetic, like Hyde Park or Soho. In the words of Samuel Johnson: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I might add that if a person is tired of London, they haven’t explored it fully. Despite living here my entire life, I haven’t seen anywhere close to the whole thing yet.
Alan Schaller’s CV
Born: London, 1988.
High point: “Having four exhibitions running simultaneously on three continents, and managing to make it to all of the launch nights.”
Low point: “Admin.”
Top tip: “Put in the hours, think for yourself, and keep a camera on you at all times.”