Jens Krauer is the tallest guy on the street, but nobody seems to notice him. He’s maybe a foot away from a woman’s face with his camera as she chats with a friend in front of a shop in Siena, Italy, hands flying around in animated conversation, oblivious that a camera lens is literally within touching distance.
I had the opportunity to watch the Swiss photographer fearlessly work the streets of Italy a couple of years ago and was so awestruck by his prowess, his dedication to making truly candid images and his street ninja powers that I hardly cared about documenting the scene myself. It was more satisfying to just watch him in action, moving like a cat through the crowd, inexplicably blending in without even trying to hide himself or his gear. At one point, I asked him where he stowed his invisibility cloak.
In some environments, blending in isn’t so easy, even for Krauer. An out-of-the way place, for example, perhaps in a rough part of town. People in these places are on the lookout for those who don’t belong, wary of newcomers. In these places, in the heavily surveilled urban societies we now live in, Krauer points out that it’s important to approach photography with a documentation rather than observation mindset.
“Documentation is love,” he says. “Observation is control.” In these more challenging settings, Jens takes a different tack. He’ll stop at a café, chat with locals and introduce himself and his purpose respectfully and honestly before making images. In his view, building trust is critical.
“It’s a mix of acting and psychology,” Krauer says of his general approach to street photography. “And it takes experience and fearlessness. It requires life experience and street smarts.”
For him, the most exciting aspect of documenting street scenes is the opportunity to freeze moments in time, just as they are, without interference. A purist, he is careful to immerse himself in a place without causing ripples in the sea of humanity around him.
“I believe that for a shot to be truly candid, you can’t play an active role in the environment around you. As soon as you interact, it kills the candid image.” Krauer says he aims for a similar goal with documentary, but long-term project work requires a photographer to be in a place for a duration. “With documentary, you’re just around for long enough that you blend in and get back to the same point of blending in.” He also doesn’t treat every situation or subject the same. “If I see a subject I’m interested in, I adapt my shooting strategy to that person.”
Art has blended in with Krauer’s life. Based in Zurich, his approach to photography grew out of his background in urban life, art, music and hip-hop culture. He first immersed himself fully into photography in 2012 as a creative outlet that gave him the kind of opportunity for creative expression and personal satisfaction that his then corporate job couldn’t provide.
By 2016, he’d become a pro Fujifilm-X photographer, podcaster and instructor. He works in a variety of genres, but the streets, with their rhythms, energy and challenge always call him back. “My background in hip-hop taught me how much the streets have to offer,” he says, also drawn to the genre by its purity and simplicity. One camera, one lens, a pair of good shoes and an open mind does the trick.”
It’s on the street that the photographer found the key themes that drive his work. Krauer is fascinated by aspects of time, transformation and ever-shifting built environments, as well as the power of the image to inform and teach across languages and cultures, as well as transcend mortality. “As a photographer, it’s just incredible. Think about it. Let’s say you take an iconic shot. You’re potentially giving that person eternity in that moment.”
Krauer is currently working on a long-term project to document an older area of Zurich once known for its red light district, street characters, subculture and nightlife, that is shrinking and changing due to gentrification. “I know now that it could be gone in the next five years. I want to capture the essence of this place before that happens,” he says.
Becoming a part of the street takes skill and experience. A motto Krauer works by is: walk fearlessly, tread carefully. “Every city has places that most of us would rather not go to,” he says. “I personally like to go to those places but this takes a completely different, more photojournalistic or documentary approach.” He prepares by looking at maps, raising his awareness and making sure he knows where he’s going before setting off.
“I have been surrounded by members of a very famous motorcycle club, confronted with a very unpleasant line of questioning in my own town, but I knew the area and had common friends that could resolve this situation quickly by stepping in.” While traveling in a shady area of Istanbul, Krauer says he was prepared with an escape route and an understanding of the specific culture of that part of town. “Last year, I contacted a large security company in my area to explain myself, as I was getting tired of being constantly shadowed in a shopping area of my city, due to them thinking I was scouting the area with my camera to rob a store.”
In the case of an interaction, Krauer advises that photographers maintain a positive mindset while being clear about their mission and ethics. “Let your ‘why’ guide you. And remember we shoot for the people—we don’t observe, we document and our motives are, therefore, positive. This line of thought will become the starting point of the discussion you are about to have. Then, have business cards and a website you can show on your mobile phone or tablet, and offer to send a print or a digital copy of the image. Make it clear that your motivation is positive, and that you are legit and serious as a photographer.”
It’s all worth it in the end. Street photography has taken Krauer around the world, from New York City to Bucharest. Along the way, he’s made good friends who understand the greatest gift of the craft is not money, but connection and mutual understanding. In fact, he’s now an honorary member (officially International Fellows Honoris Causa) of the BULB Collective (Bucharest Urban League of photographers for the Balkans). The group is dedicated to inclusivity and mutual support.
Krauer said these friendships are also bound by a common understanding that the true joy of photography is not in collecting gear or making technically perfect images but through challenging oneself to achieve higher forms of expression and continuously stretch the boundaries of creativity. “I wish we could all live like this,” he says. “You don’t have to get rich because making art is enriching in general.”