The streets of Singapore

The Eyes Have It

Where do we begin?

The “Eyes” – this is perhaps one of the more characteristic features of my personal photography – my “street photography” for want of a better term. I refer here to that certain “furtive glance” I seem to capture time and again. Hence, “the eyes have it” part.

Portrait photography by any other name…

In a sense, some of these images maybe “misconstrued” as portraits of some sort. But, I don’t think so. As I see it, a “portrait” is:

  1. Something set – locations, lights, cameras,
  2. Something formal – in that someone asked for or commissioned something here,
  3. Something that is deliberate – yes, between the photographer and another party and/or,
  4. Something negotiated – how much time do you have and, what are you willing to pay?

Other than for the fact that I pushed the shutter button, none of the photographs featured in this post meet any of the above criteria. Meaning to say, that none of these “portraits” or whatever you want to call them, were either “deliberate” or “posed”.

That “decisive moment” thing…

This brings me to one of my pet peeves – the so-called “decisive” moment. In my street or personal photography, there is very little here that was ever “DECISIVE”. I didn’t “decide”. I have never just “decided”. In all of the “moments” presented here, all of them were part of “continuum”, part of a sequence, part of something where there was a beginning somewhere and an ending somewhere and, in between, I extracted or “framed” a moment. The pictures I make are all parts of stories somewhere. They are all a part of story in general.

The other thing here, about these images – these are not my stories. This is not my own story. Other than being present and, may be being witness to something, these images are other people’s stories. Their stories have nothing to do with me. Others may well query this, “How can you say that? You were there! You took the pictures!”.

Indeed I did. Yes, I was there. And yes, I was witness. And yes, I took the picture. But, whatever the person was doing at the time the picture was taken had nothing to do with me. I may have been there. I may have framed the moment. But, that was their moment, not mine – the lady in the market, the ladies standing in a queue or the guy reaching into the barrel had nothing to do with me. I didn’t go out looking for a lady in the market or someone pushing along a bicycle. I just framed that moment as it was happening and, pushed the shutter button at an opportune time – that being about my only deliberate action. In the view finder, an event was unfolding. I didn’t make it happen.

Reclamation Street market
HONG KONG, YAU MA TEI – NOVEBER 07, 2016: Shopping on Reclamation Street in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong on November 7, 2016. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

This lady in the market was going about her business serving customers. The market was busy. This is what I was photography – all this activity. And then, in a moment, she looked back me. She had no real reason to but, this is what we got. Other than moment, there were quite a few things to this image that I didn’t see or notice when I was making the picture. At the time, I was more intent on keeping the lady in the centre of the frame and then, minding all the elements within the frame. I don’t like cropping my images. On this occasion, I had to. There was an “intrusive” element bottom left. That aside, all the pink/cerise elements all over the place – as in the colours of the sweet potatoes and the ladies tops and the pink tops elsewhere – kind of surprised me. I only noticed this when reviewing the images at the selection stage of my workflow.

Bowrington Road Market
HONG KONG, CAUSEWAY BAY – MAY 04, 2009: Pork butchers preparing their stall at the start of their work day on Bowrington Road in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on May 4, 2009. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

I was mooching around Bowrington Road at first light one morning. I may have been heading out somewhere – I can’t recall now why I was there so early in the morning. In doing so, I walked past this butcher stall. The place was not new to me. Anybody familiar with the area would know this place well – this while on their way to Causeway Bay from Wan Chai or vice versa. It’s right there on the corner. Before making this shot, I was shooting these guys going about their business. But, nothing gelled initially. The earlier shots were a mess. Then the fellow on the right reached up for a bag, looked back at me and, that was it. I didn’t put him there. I didn’t ask him to look at me. In fact, after I made this picture I was basically shooed away.

Bowrington Road Market
HONG KONG, CAUSEWAY BAY – MARCH 23, 2014: A worker with his delivery bicycle walking down on Bowrington Road in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on March 23, 2014. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

On another occasion and some years later, I made this picture and right in front of the pork butcher stall in the image above. And again, that “sequence” thing. I saw this fellow some way off as he was making his way long Bowrington Road. It came to mind that I wanted to do a “pan” shot. I followed him through my view finder and then, when he was opposite me, took the shot. In taking this shot, him looking at me was coincidental. OK, was this a “decisive moment” thing? May be. In making the picture, the moment was “deliberate”. However, there was a sequence here, this as he was approaching me and, as he walked on by.

Product salesman at work
HONG KONG – DECEMBER 06: A product salesman demonstrates his wares at his street stall on Fa Yuen Street taken in Mongkok, Hong Kong on December 6, 2014. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

I mean, this is what I love about Hong Kong – the streets. This is where life is lived. I saw this guy and stopped by for a while to watch him do his thing. That I was behind was both coincidental and deliberate. The section of street in front of him was congested – with people watching him demonstrating his products. I started taking pictures – the interest and focus being the people watching the product demonstrations. And, in this moment, he looked back at me.

Chinese New Year - 2009
HONG KONG, – JANUARY 27, 2009: Devotees celebrating Chinese New Year at the Che Kung Mui in Tai Wo, Hong Kong on January 27, 2009. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Another thing I love about Hong Hong are the crowds and, more so over the Lunar New Year period. In a crowd you can get “lost” and with that, comes a certain amount of “anonymity”. At the same time, the “personal space” thing becomes more “fragmented”. This is not to say people are any less “inhibited” or less “weary”. To the contrary. Things just tend to be more “transitional” – as in happening quickly and then dismissed. In the pandemonium, the chaos, the smoke, the hustle and bustle as hundreds of people all pushing through to do their “bisan” [worship] thing in one place or other, things happen. In all of this mayhem, somewhere, there are moments – as in this woman kind of quizzically spotting me and seemingly, wondering what I was doing? Her story, not mine.

The streets of Singapore
SINGAPORE – JULY: Two young ladies in conversation while queuing for breakfast at Bugis Junction in Singapore, July 2012. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Much the same could be said of this image – “her story, not mine”. Here I was, standing in the same queue and waiting to buy my breakfast – just as these ladies and the people ahead of them were. This picture was also part of a sequence. Before making this image I had taken several other images – one of which is featured below. In making the main image, I was intent on shooting the scene ahead faming this between the heads of the two ladies. Fortunately or, unfortunately as the case maybe, the lady to the right turned around to see what I was doing. And no, she wasn’t looking at me – she was looking at my Leica M-3 with its binoculared 35 mm f/2.8 lens.

The streets of Singapore

The Image to the left was made just before the above image. At this point, I was was shooting at waist level – something that I had become quite adept at. These were some Leica “secrets” passed on to me by the late, great Mike McCann.

Chun Yeung Street wet market
HONG KONG, NORTH POINT – MAY 24, 2015: A group of Indonesian domestic helpers on Chun Yeung Street in North Point, Hong Kong on May 24, 2015. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

It’s not that I do strange things, it’s that strange things happen to me. OK, said in gest. I saw these two Indonesian OFW’s [Oversea Foreign Workers] in Chun Yeung Street in North Point in Hong Kong. This was either a Saturday or Sunday. And, they were out and about on their day off. Between them and me were several other groups of ladies all chatting away. These groups made for a nice “frame” and I waited. And, again, was this another of those “decisive moment” things? Again, maybe. From my side, there was something of an “inevitability” here – all being part of a sequence of events. Yes, as we all seem to do in similar situations, the two ladies were “scanning” across the scenes around them. In the process, they may have noticed the camera pointing at them. It was inevitable. Hence this picture.

Cooked food shop, Shanghai Street, Yau Ma Tei.
HONG KONG – AUGUST 17: Customers queuing and buying up selections of take away cooked food at a shop on Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong on August 17, 2015. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

In the scene above – over the years, I passed by this cooked foods shop quite often and, on these occasions, took time to shoot scenes and situations around here. This shop was always busy and busy enough where no one paid me any attention – usually. On this occasion I picked up a shot that I quite often “missed” – this butcher’s particular gesture. This was his style. No menace here. This was just his way of singling out and getting the attention of the customer he was about serve.

Smithfield Market, London.
LONDON, ENGLAND: A worker sorting out offal in an offal bin at Smithfield Market, Smithfield, London circa April, 1991. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

The above image goes back some time. Meaning to say, that what I do and how I do it, has long history of its own. More like an “evolution” of a style I guess. At the time of making this image, I was documenting scenes and activities around Smithfield Market in London. This fellow’s job was sorting out offal. He’d bend down and dig into this bin and then, haul out various bits and pieces. He was actually quite mechanical about his work – as in repeating the same motions time and again. To make this shot, I had been observing him for a while. At an opportune moment, I stepped in. He looked up and noticed me and, that was that. As a post-note to this image – take care and take responsibility for what you do and however you care to show or share your images. When I showed this image to the gentleman featured here, he was devastated. He just uttered, “I’ve got so old” and walked away almost in tears.

Smithfield Market, London.
LONDON, ENGLAND: Breakfast at the local greasy spoon in the basement of Smithfield Market, Smithfield, London circa April, 1991. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Taken at the same venue and at almost the same time as the previous image, the question begs, “Is this picture a portrait or a moment”? Well, as it happens, all four of us were having breakfast at this greasy-spoon in the basement of the Smithfield Market. And, while doing so, none of us exchanged a word. Next to me on the bench on where I was seated, I quite probably my Leica M-4 fitted with a 28 mm. In getting up to leave, I lifted my camera and asked the two gents on the far side, “May I”? And, this is the image. In a brief exchange of words, I explained what I was doing. I mean, all these guys had seen me hanging around the market for some time now. So, I wasn’t exactly some stranger. The gentleman in the middle let me know that his other job was being a clown at children’s parties and such. Kind of explains his pose and expression. The gentleman to the left seemed quite oblivious to what was going. And, more so, perhaps didn’t realise I was using a wide angle lens here. A special moment.

So, that’s the story – what I do and how I do it – more or less. Enjoy…

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Rogan Coles
Rogan Coles
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