Carl Anthony Bull
Carl tells us what it takes to make a great street portrait….and as it turns out, manners and a genuine interest in humanity can get you a long way! Take a tip on how he strikes up a conversation and find out what kind of camera he uses below.
How old are you? How old do you feel?
As of May I’m 39. I definitely think I feel younger. Saying that though, I’ve got kidney stones and digestive problems so sometimes I feel about 89.
You take street portraits rather than candids. This means you interact with your subjects...so I want to know what you say to people to make them comfortable? Do you have any go to things you talk about or ask before taking their photo? Are you charming? Sincere? Talkative? Insistent?
The first thing I do when I see somebody I want to photograph is simply smile, give a nod and say “hey, hows it going?”. With that you can gauge whether someone is open for interaction or just wants to be left the hell alone.
I always like to talk to someone for a little while before asking for their portrait. Generally this would be about whatever it was that drew me to them in the first place…an item of clothing, a tattoo, their location or simply how they carry themselves as a person. I like to think I see the good in everybody, so with that in mind, I think I’m both sincere and talkative, but I prefer to listen as I have a genuine interest in the lives of people I meet.
Your knack for street photography/portraiture was influenced by a trip to San Francisco in 2003 right? I've lived in SF for a long time so I would personally love to know more about your thoughts on this city! Did you like it here? How was San Francisco different from Derby?
My first trip to San Fran blew my mind. We were staying in the Tenderloin area and I don’t know how it is these days but back then I was witnessing a lot of poverty and people suffering from mental health issues and addictions. I remember being struck by the contrast within the city - within a short distance you could go from crazy amounts of wealth and prosperity to poverty and people in need of help.
I absolutely love San Francisco! One of my favourite cities, it feels strangely European and it’s on my list of places to visit again. As for how it differs from Derby, God, they’re not even comparable. If I was to write about the differences then this would turn into a 20,000 word essay!
The one big difference, thinking about it, is that you probably wouldn’t see somebody with the same level of mental health problems on the streets in the UK as you do in the US (based on my experience). The UK has free healthcare so they’d probably be sectioned and their needs hopefully met. Saying that however, due to massive cuts to healthcare and rising mental health problems, along with drug use, things are definitely changing for the worse here.
What kind of camera do you use? Do you recommend something special for street photography in particular? Any tips for others who would like to try their hand?
I use a Sony A7ii. I can’t rate it highly enough. I’ve only been using Sony for a couple of years and I can’t see myself changing that. Now that everyone has a phone camera, pretty much anyone can be a street photographer….But the whole candid street photo thing doesn’t particularly sit well with me, personally. It’s just way too voyeuristic. As for Street Portraits, I’d just tell people that if they see a stranger they want to photograph then just be polite when asking and be honest about why you want to take their photo in the first place. You’ll either get a yes or a no, simple as that. Basically……just don’t be an asshole.
Has anyone ever tried to charge you for taking their portrait?
This is where I have had to develop my way of doing things over the years. I have taken portraits of lots of people who have had addiction problems so I’ve had a lot of people ask me to help them out with some money. What I don’t like is the idea that somebody may not want their photo taken but will do so for the money I may give. That’s why In that instance I’ll always tell someone that I’ll help them out with some money regardless of them letting me take their photo or not, and let them know they don’t have to have a portrait taken. I’d do that if I had my camera or not. Generally though, after chatting for a bit, people are open to have their portrait taken.
What are things that you have learned about humanity after taking pictures of strangers for so long?
I used to be a complete misanthrope. I hated people, I really did. But over the years, after having taken so many portraits, I’ve completely changed my view of the world. I’ve learnt that whilst I grew up in a very loving family on a rough housing estate, friends and loved ones who came from wealthy families had to deal with mental health issues, alcoholism and abuse. Those issues don’t care about class, or wealth/poverty. They can affect anyone. So as a result, I don’t judge people based on class, race, sexuality or anything…I don’t know what anyone is going through or has been through so who am I to judge them?
I’ve learnt is that your position in life is so fragile. I’ve spoken to engineers and other skilled, intelligent people that through one bad event in their life (i.e. a divorce or the death of a loved one) have hit rock bottom. Without a good support network (something most of us have), they couldn’t get back out of that slump.
In general though I’ve learnt that people are just funny and decent. Everyone is struggling to get through life, but very few people are out to hurt anyone or cause problems - they’re just trying to live. I love people these days. It’s such a shitty thing that as a wealthy country we can’t take care of our citizens.
images courtesy of CARL ANTHONY BULL
words ASHLEY MUNNS
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