Olivier Laurent has worked with photography on both sides of the Atlantic—raised in France, beginning his career in London and continuing at TIME Lightbox in New York and the Washington Post in Washington, D.C. Throughout, Laurent has remained passionate about discovering how great photographs are made, while consistently drawing attention to inspiring projects and groundbreaking work by established masters and new pioneers.
Below, he talks about the special qualities of street photography as well as the one question he always asks photographers who he meets—
LC: You have broad and eclectic tastes when it comes to photography—but what’s special about street photography for you? I know you’re always interested in cutting-edge/innovative work—have you seen any street photography lately that falls in that category?
OL: There’s something poetic about street photography. It’s not just about being there, it’s about imagination, it’s about seeing the future, and by that I mean being able to anticipate where different elements of a photograph—the street, the signs, the people—will align to make the perfect picture. There are a lot of street photographers out there, but the great ones are poets and, like in any other field of photography, there are just a few of them.
In recent years, some have tried to innovate—for example, there was a craze a few years ago for Google Street View photographers. Their projects were interesting but they can’t replace the magical serendipity of a frame coming into place right in front of a street photographer’s lens.
LC: Some say that street photography is dead, its Golden Age has passed; others proclaim it is more vibrant than ever, especially thanks to new platforms for dissemination (Instagram principally, but also Flickr and Facebook as well). Where do you fall on this spectrum?
OL: The “street photography is dead” refrain calls to mind the “photojournalism is dead” debate that has been raging since the 1950s. It’s ridiculous. Yes, there were giants of street photography who left us—from Garry Winogrand to Henry Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Berenice Abbott, Robert Doisneau and Robert Frank. And there are the established names like Joel Meyerowitz and Lee Friedlander who are still working. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t new street photographers out there who are making amazing work.
I was at The New York Times portfolio review a few years ago and saw the promising work of the young Andre D. Wagner. He has the eye. He’s the future.
Street photography is like everything else. Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, mobile phones help create new ecosystems where new voices are emerging. Of course, there are now thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who think they are street photographers, but if we know where to look and, more importantly, if we take the time to look, we’ll find the new masters of street photography.
LC: I know you were particularly interested in mobile photography a few years ago. Is this still a meaningful category or has the distinction between mobile and “real” photography been erased?
OL: I wish I could say it’s been completely erased, but I still hear so many of my colleagues ask the question: “What camera did you use?” This is irrelevant. Photography has always been about the eye. I guess you could say that a mobile phone allows for a certain anonymity in the street, but I don’t ask myself that question when I look at the work of a street photographer. As I said, I look for traces of poetry and magic in their photos.
LC: What are a few traits you recognize in all of the photographers you’ve published? Passion, communication—other qualities? Are there certain commonalities among the (most) successful ones?
OL: In photojournalism, street photography or any other genre of photography, I look for commitment and passion. I want to know that they chose to photograph something because they felt strongly about it, that, in a sense, it was personal to them.
Too many photographers embark on projects because they think that’s what the industry in general, and photo editors in particular, want to see. Maybe they’re right sometimes, but the best projects I’ve seen always came from photographers who were deeply affected by and committed to their subjects. It’s the one question I always ask photographers who I meet: “Why are you doing this? Why you over every other photographer?”
LC: Sometimes it seems like the same set of photographers get passed around magazines and newspapers. Do you think this limits the type of visual material that readers are presented? How do you combat the “fishbowl” of contemporary photography?
OL: I think that’s unfortunately the case in many industries: a few established voices tend to get most of the work. In our case, photo editors, often under pressure from their superiors and from shrinking budgets, will go for the most reliable photographers. By that, I mean the photographers they know, have worked with in the past or have seen published elsewhere. The end result is a group of photographers who regularly shoot for all the biggest titles. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get the work, but it’s a shame when we, as photo editors, are not taking chances on new, diverse voices.
The same goes for awards as well—when one photographer wins a grant or prize, you can bet they’ll win other awards that same year. It seems that some judges, consciously or unconsciously, seek to affirm their own tastes against the tastes of their peers.
Thankfully, this is starting to change as some take a more active role in pointing out these deficiencies. I’m in awe of people like Daniella Zalcman, who’s made it her mission to raise the profile of women photographers in our industry. It forces us (and I include myself in that) to think about our choices, our biases. That’s sorely needed.
LC: If you could offer one line of advice to photographers presenting/pitching their work to you, what would it be?
OL: As I said before, I want to know why you’re doing it. Most photographers I meet struggle to answer that question, especially since I’m not interested in the canned answer: “Because I want to give a voice to my subjects.” I want to know what drives you, as a photographer, to pick a particular subject and to spend weeks, months, years on it. This has to be about something deeper than “giving a voice,” the answer has to come from you.
—Olivier Laurent, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ note: You can find inspiration from the winners, finalists and jurors’ picks from last year’s LensCulture Street Photography Awards, and you can enter your own work right now in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2020.