There are so many factors to potentially juggle for any given street/documentary situation that eye contact for me tends to fall a bit to chance — if it happens it happens and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It is rarely something I feel makes or breaks an image, but more frequently I’ve been thinking about what specific function working to achieve (or deliberately avoid) eye contact could offer to my photographs.
For many street photography purists, I think that eye contact implies that in some way the photographer was “caught” or “noticed,” though the convention for stealth in street photography is not one I subscribe to. I can see how people who worry about being perceived to be doing something wrong can be put off by being actively noticed, but I think that confrontation is more down to the attitude and body language than the act of photography itself.
Just because a photograph shows a subject making eye contact with the lens does not necessarily mean that there was a conflict at all, but I think the kind of street photographer who focuses on this aspect more than any other needs to be working more on things like de-escalation and sociology than on working to utilize any deeper nuances this kind of photography is capable of.
I don’t think that street photography conventions are the most useful way to assess the potential value of eye contact in a photograph, as it is something worth taking into account for many other genres that involve photographing living things.
Forming a useful framework around what eye contact offers means that I can use it to inform other aspects of the image, and invoke other connotations. As my street work is almost entirely candid, with the exception of certain portraits made with permission, it is easier to photograph without eye contact than with. If I want to include it, then it can be as simple as waiting a second longer or doing something to make myself seem a little more obvious so that they notice the camera as I click the shutter.
For me, eye contact like any other element in an image ought to fulfill a function rather than simply represent an aesthetic, or something that makes you think about the genre rather than the image itself.
I think that the function of eye contact in photography, much like eye contact in real life, is to create a direct connection — between the subject and the audience. I think that this offers a few things that a lack of eye contact may not.
With eye contact, the photographer often becomes a grounded entity; present and involved in the scene. The eye connects with the lens and extends outwards to the audience, which can lead to an immediate human connection with that subject, and by extension the message the photographer is trying to convey.
The function of a lack of eye contact does not necessarily imply the opposite of a connection — instead, I think it can offer something entirely distinct. I think that if the subject is looking at something within the frame then that can draw a relationship between those two things, but if they are looking off frame – which I think is my preference – then it implies an entire world outside of the photograph; that the scene exists despite and regardless of the role of the photographer.
The existence of a world beyond the frame can allow for so many things, and it maintains an ambiguity and intrigue that stay with the viewer. Equally, eye contact can be powerful enough to create an emotion that stays with the viewer too but makes the restrictions of the frame more apparent.
Eye contact can offer a little more agency to the subject, as it implies that they were somewhat aware of the image being made. This isn’t necessarily always the case, but if they are aware of the photographer they are aware of the potential for an image being made.
In a photograph where no one seems to be aware, we as the audience know something the subject(s) don’t — almost a one-up on them in some way. We see what the photographer saw at the time, from a perspective that the subjects themselves don’t have access to in that moment.
This kind of knowledge imbalance can be especially useful when it comes to photographs with comedic elements.
Eye contact can invoke a sense of permanence, or something temporary depending on the way it’s seen. A fixed gaze can be haunting or emotional; a quick glance can seem to have layers of meaning. Of course in a still image, it can be difficult to tell which of these are which but with the right intention it can be possible to emphasize one or the other. With temporary or absent eye contact we can imagine the moment quickly moving onto the next, whereas a held gaze can feel more suspended in time.
Instead of grounding the photographer a lack of eye contact can mean a more omniscient perspective, where the photographer is removed entirely from the context. I prefer this as it can often allow for scenes where the audience is left not only thinking about the topic of the image but also about how I managed to shoot it.
This allows for especially prescient documentary photography, where scenes unfold in front of me and I am able to react without becoming a part of the situation myself.
In scenes involving multiple subjects, it can be very interesting to have some characters making eye contact and others breaking it. You can often read a lot into these situations, and in my recent work I have been specifically waiting for these moments in order to see how many different kinds of connotations such an image can contain.
These perspectives allow me to disassociate the connection between any kind of negative connotations of being noticed/caught (not that those are inherently negative) and instead allow the harnessing of a dramatic effect, and it informs the amount of meaning those images are able to possess.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.