Over the last few years I’ve come to admire a style of photography dubbed ‘street photography’. Being introduced to some of the great exponents of the genre (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank etc.) was inspiring for me and in fact helped solidify my will to become a photographer. At the heart of it is to approach total strangers for permission to photograph them, or to unobstrusively capture candid moments. Both are much easier said than done.
Over the past 2 weeks I’ve started to practice here in Nouméa (capital of New Caledonia, a far flung French territory in the South Pacific and last vestment of France’s former colonial empire), spending a few afternoons in centre ville with my new canon. Being completely unschooled in street photography meant that at first I ended up walking around for an hour or two without getting any shots. It wasn’t that I didn’t see any opportunities for great shots, it was that they were either fleeting moments I wasn’t ready for, or of people I didn’t feel confident approaching for permission to photograph.
As a former tutor of mine (Glenn Guy) once said, ‘having a camera in your hand announces your intentions to the world’, which was something that replayed over in my mind several times that first afternoon. I felt very self conscious, but it was also the first thing I realised I had to get over. Even just walking around for a few hours in the centre ville of Nouméa helped me, I stopped tucking the camera away in the case and began keeping it openly slung over one shoulder. I started to notice possibilities in all sorts of places and began to come up with strategies for getting shots. In my first attempt I casually observed some old melanesian women in bright ‘mother hubbard dresses’ waiting for the bus. I then went up the street to a place with the same lighting conditions and primed the camera for a correct exposure. I returned and asked for permission (with as much charm and politeness as I could muster in French) to take a portrait. Two of the ladies were agreeable but the the third met me with flat refusal. Perhaps it was the language barrier, perhaps it’s the weekly load of Australian tourists who step off the P&O cruise ship for a day in the city that have made people wary of white foreigners with cameras. Either way it was rejection that was the next thing I realised I had to get over.
One of the next places I tried was the famous ‘Place des Cocotiers’ where I’d previously noticed some locals breakdancing. I’d bet that they would be cool with having shots taken of them because they essentially engage in a performing art that is meant to be appreciated visually. Still, I was a little nervous asking. But I soon found they are a really friendly bunch of people, as equally curious about what the hell an Australian is doing living in Nouméa as I am about an American ghetto genre of dance cropping up in the middle of the pacific. I have since been back a few times, made some friends, emailed them copies of the shots and learned that making connections with people allows you a freedom to go for the shots you might otherwise miss out on.
I was also given a window into the world of international breakdancing. These guys are all in distinct ‘crews’ (teams) that compete in local official and underground competitions. Coming up in early February is the New Caledonian qualifier for the Breakdance World Championship. The best breakdancers from New Caledonia will be trained for a month with a choreographer to put together a 15 minute routine, they will then be flown to France to compete for the chance to represent that nation in the world championship held in Germany later in the year. For many, being flown to Europe would be their first time leaving New Caledonia so the qualifier will be hotly contested.