The Interview (2): Street Photography and Phenomenology! What About It?

The Interview (2): Street Photography and Phenomenology! What About It?

 

Leaving the Lobby © Knut Skjærven

Leaving the Lobby © Knut Skjærven (Helmut Newton Museum, Berlin)

The Henri:
Thank you, Knut. Let me continue then.

I see you refer to phenomenology. You have done that already in your first blog: Barebones Communication (2007). You have done it plenty of times since then. You even have a site titled: Phenomenology and Photography (2010).

You suggest that phenomenology is vital for New Street Agenda and your way of dealing with street photography. Even for taking pictures.

Could I please ask you to elaborate on this? What is phenomenology to you and why do you find it so important for street photography?

Knut Skjærven:
Thank you. This is a huge question and I will do my best to answer it without writing a novel. It will give me a chance to sort things for myself too.

I used to think that phenomenology was a very difficult academic discipline only for the few. I don’t believe that anymore. Once you know what it is all about it is pretty easy. Phenomenology is a way of thinking, a way of doing. Once you have got the grip of it follows you like a shadow.

I have been a student of phenomenology since my early days at University of Bergen, Norway. I have a degree in philosophy specialising in film and aesthetics. It all started there.

In the course of my study I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark to combine film and phenomenology. The Norwegians were good at phenomenology and the Danes were good at film. From the beginning I sat on those two chairs. We are back in the last part of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies.

What is it with phenomenology that attracts me? First of all phenomenology is not an area that you study. It is an approach you apply to what you study. It is a method. It is a method of thorough observing. It is a way of seeing without bias (as far as that is possible).

For photography phenomenology in an ideal mindset, if you ask me.  Even more so for street photography, the way I define and practise it.

If I should name a few people who have had a lasting effect on phenomenology it must be Edmund Husserl (1859-1938); Martin Heidegger (1889-1976); Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980); and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).

There are lots and lots of other names I could mention but the four above is a good start. You have to look up phenomenology on the Internet to get a glimpse of how waste the area it.

Let me mentioned that, Roland Barthes (1915-1980), also links to phenomenology in his Camera Lucida but he does not make much of it. Roland Barthes is closer to photography than any of the above.

Phenomenology is often described as radical empiricism, meaning it deals with an enhanced view of our social life. All life, by the way, is social life.

Phenomenology is also described as transcendental phenomenology, which suggests that in its understanding of the world it transcends the physical expression of that world. It gives you, among many other benefits, an opportunity to see even what is not there in a specific photograph. I use that principle all the time.

In one word: Phenomenology deals with consciousness of and in the world. Not consciousness as an abstraction but your consciousness. Your world.

One of the key terms in phenomenology is intuition. Intuition should not be understood in its normal way as something that refers to a sudden good idea. It is often said that women have more of it then men. (That, however, has been refuted.)

Intuition in phenomenology means simply to open up for, to study without bias, to concentrate on what is there before you. Much like a camera does, and then again not, since a camera doesn’t come with a consciousness of its own.

Phenomenology is grounded in the lifeworld. Lifeworld is what you experience and act in on a daily basis. In am sitting here in front of a computer trying to write these words and sentences. You are occupied with other things. We are both at the mercy of our lifeworld.

There is another term you need to know. The term is bracket. To study the world, or any part of it, you need to bracket the moment. You put it in parenthesis to investigate it. Such a bracketing does not change anything  but it gives you the opportunity to look deeper. Bracket a street photograph and you learn to see not only what is there but also what is not there. I dramatically widens your horizon.

Bracketing is much like freezing a scene with your camera. You arrest a moment and make it available for you seeing and reflection. Makes it possible to study it later on.

Take a look at Leaving the Lobby. It is shot in the hall of Newton Museum in Berlin. Shot in 2016. The picture clearly contains much more than is physically revealed in the photograph. It is framed, not only in the framing you do by cropping the picture.  As important are the frames, or horizons, you bring with you to the meeting with it.

Horizon is another phenomenological term that is important for your street photography. There are two of them: an inner horizon and an outer horizon. The inner horizon it what you bring with you to the meeting with a photograph. The outer horizon is the physical context of the photograph.

Let me give you an example of how phenomenology has inspired New Street Agenda.

When you move around in the lifeworld on a day-to-day basis you do so normally without much effort. You operate in a natural attitude most of the time. When you bracket that world you adapt another attitude. It is often called a phenomenological attitude or a transcendental attitude. It is easy to move from one to the other when you get used to it. After a while you can attach to both on a permanent basis. The term for it is that you make a phenomenological reduction.

The first swing from one to the other does not come easy to all. You need something to trigger it. Like an incident in your life that suggests that you look deeper at things. Something that make you stop and ask questions.

When I talk about Itching Images, which is at the core of my understanding of what street photographs needs to achieve to be of any interest, Itching Images are such triggers. Call it an X-factor. Or that extra that stops you and wants you to questions what is there. Itching Images scratch your mental skin enough to make you want to look closer.

Itching Images is one of the important inspiration from phenomenology that relates directly to street photography. If you can’t make photos that triggers you, there is no challenge in it. At least there is not to me.

On Street Photographer’s Toolbox, I have a whole catalogue of models for making for Itching Images. You should go there.

One last thing: The name Barebones Communication, as in the blog from 2007, is inspired by Husserl’s term, the things themselves, as the proper object of study for phenomenology. The things themselves equates bare bones. Thus ‘barebones communication’ since we deal with just that: communication, which is the mother also of street photography.

This leads to an explanation of the name of this site: On Street Photography and Other Life Changing Events. Street photography can at its best moments deal with real life issues. Not only the isolated captures of it.

Thank for reading. Yes, I am ready for another question. When you feel up to it :-).

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.
Copenhagen, November 4, 2016.

Read the other posts in The Interview. You will find them in chronological order below:
The Interview (1): In the Beginning; The Interview (2): Street Photography and Phenomenology! What About It?;

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About author

Knut Skjærven

Knut Skjærven is a Norwegian photographer, writer and researcher working out of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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