How To Photograph A ‘Grumpy Couple’

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Reality TV has it’s roots in Street Photography. Dublin Photographer Paul Freeney is bringing back the art-form

PHOTOGRILL: Tell us about making the photo of the couple.

PHOTOGRAPHER: My image of the ‘Grumpy Couple’ as I like to call them was a real find. It was taken two days before Saint Patricks Day, our National Holiday. Dublin was full of tourists and they were all just waiting for things to happen. The spot is at the foot of a large monument in the centre of Dublin, I guess it is the nearest place to the centre where people can actually sit down. Sitting is good from my perspective, because people are slightly disarmed and more at ease when they are sitting.

I remember as I arrived that they stood out as being a great subject, they were genuinely grumpy with each other & not communicating at all. I got in to position about 15 feet away pretended to be looking up and down the street as I allegedly waited for a friend. This works well as a ploy because I can plausibly look down at my wristwatch, while actually checking the way the camera is sitting. I got off one shot, two, this was great they were still not moving, I think I took up to a dozen shots and they never blinked, but of course when I saw them first I thought I might be lucky to get one or two. So with my two statues, I had to have a companion to give some conflict, some ying for their yang and the third member of the trio provided that, he was an integral part of the shot from the outset and although he was not grumpy I had to catch him make some gesture that would create the decisive moment. The result is this shot where he made a gesture of rubbing his jaw and it fitted perfectly, his dress suggests he was an ‘old rocker’ an opposite to their conservative dress and his gesture although it was only a scratch seems to be dismissive of the ‘Grumps’. I suspected I had a great image but as always I was afraid to get too excited until I saw it on my PC.

I have learned over time to control all functions of the camera with my right hand, a hand that I am pretending is only steadying the camera that is around my neck, I’ve tried hanging it over a shoulder and shooting sideways but my reaching for the shutter is ungainly and suspicious. When I left the scene the Grumps were still there unmoving and I laughed to myself at the thought that I might have missed the shot. I got the feeling as I walked away that I could have gone for coffee and returned to try again if needed.

PHOTOGRILL: Can you tell us about street photography in general?

PHOTOGRAPHER: There is nothing that I can say about Street Photography that has not already been said by Henri Cartier-Bresson, my street hero and the one credited with the ‘invention’ of Street. He said “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture.” “you must know, with intuition, when to click the camera.” “Once you miss it, it is gone forever..” Bresson’s book “The Decisive Moment” is a milestone in photography apart from the fact that those three words “The Decisive Moment” sum up Street Photography for me. Street Photography is as much an art form as any other branch of photography although it is not recognised as such in Ireland, yet. I am in on the ground floor of an art form before it becomes established, overdone and passe 🙂 I believe in the not too distant future good Street Photographers will find their deserved place on the stage of accepted art.

PHOTOGRILL: What about your work in particular.

PHOTOGRAPHER: My Street Photography is, for me at least, a solitary experience. I’ve tried doing it with others but I fail miserably as I can’t concentrate as I need to on the job at hand. Predominantly I do my Street work in Dublin City, or any city I visit. Any place that people expect to see cameras is good, I find therefore that it does not work in suburbs or business districts. I don’t target any particular groups of people, although couples of all ages give good results and are unpredictable, their interactions can be funny in one second & poignant the next, just like the proverbial ‘box of chocolates’. I shoot 95% of my Street work from the hip, because I strongly believe in the ethos that I do not want to influence the outcome of what I am shooting in any way. Most photographers are familiar with the street photography style of pushing a lens in somebodies face and getting a shot, but to me that is portraiture and worse than that they are photographing the reaction to the camera. My Street work is based on the premise that life goes on as normal and the moment (the decisive moment) would happen regardless of whether the camera is there or not.

I have had several exhibitions of my photography work, been interviewed on National Radio and in the Press but my Street Photography is yet to be recognised in that way although the interest is growing. So my Street work is only to viewed on at the moment and as I say day by day the interest is growing and of late I have been in demand from Camera Clubs
to give talks & workshops on the subject.

PHOTOGRILL: What cameras & equipment do you use?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I use a bog standard DSLR with an 18-55mm lens attached for my Street. I do not tell people what brand of camera I use because I don’t think that part of my art is important, not because I am embarrassed by my camera (although I am), but because the photographer makes the picture, the camera does not. Suffice to say the more compact a camera is the better for the purposes of Street for obvious reasons, the better a camera is in low light brings big advantages, and faster shutter speeds. It is surprising how a small movement of a subject can blur and ruin an otherwise great image.

PHOTOGRILL: Do you work with themes or story lines?

PHOTOGRAPHER: There are no themes or stories in my mind as I take the images, I am always looking for complimentary and compositional shapes that help to tell a story for me and in their absence the human story has to be in every picture, something that people can identify with. Usually I take as many shots as I possibly can, because although I try to capture reactions and gestures, you never can really tell what is going to happen next. Better to have a nothing moment taking space on a memory card than miss my best image ever.

PHOTOGRILL: Do you find there are dilemmas when photographing people candidly?

PHOTOGRAPHER: A couple of years ago I went to Temple Bar with a nephew of mine who happens to be a professional Photographer, to try and get some lively street shots at night. Temple Bar is an area like most tourist towns & cities have, often called Bar Street, where young people celebrate and drink too much. While there we observed a male European Student being helped out of a bar by his friends. He could not stand on his own he was so drunk and several people went over to take his picture and then several girls stood beside him to be in the pictures, laughing. I got a great shot of him looking straight at the camera and holding up his middle finger.

I processed it the next day and I was happy with it as an image but something stopped me from posting it on Flickr and it took me a while to rationalise why I just could not post it. That guy who I’m sure had a three day hangover was only a student and had his whole future ahead of him. He would have relationships and job interviews etc etc, he really didn’t need this image from Dublin haunting him. And that brings me to my ethical point about Street Photography, if an image only serves to demean the subject it is best left unpublished. I believe even the grumpy couple if they saw their image now, would be able to laugh along with the rest of us and have an empathy for that couple way back then.

See more of Paul Feeney’s images at Paul’s Website and Paul’s Flickr

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3 Responses to “How To Photograph A ‘Grumpy Couple’”

  1. Sarrisa says:

    Very spontaneous looking work. Street photography is all about not being afraid to shoot and getting in the middle of things.

  2. Paul Freeney says:

    Thanks to for a thorough ‘grilling’ and to all those who have voiced support through Facebook & Flickr, the encouragement helps the creative process.
    Come and press ‘like’ on our Facebook page to be kept up to date with all the latest news on our photography & events:

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