How street photography changed my life

Church Street Bus Stop. London 2014 

Today marks 10 years since I attended a photography walk that would change the course of my life.

If you’d have told me at the time that this would lead me to photograph Arnold Schwarzenegger from just metres away, spend an evening alone drinking cocktails in a bar where the drink chooses you (before then going to sleep in a nuclear bunker), star in a toothpaste advert (ironic, given my British teeth), or be chased down an alleyway by an angry Danish man, I’d never have believed you.

Prior to 9 April 2011, I had only a slightly-above-average interest in photography, which tended to be focussed on architectural shots with no people in them. I had been more interested in illustration, which I had loved since I was a child. The way that, using simply a pen and piece of paper, you could create a seemingly infinite range of images, real, imagined, or a combination of the two – how could anything be better? But I was starting to feel overwhelmed by this infinite number of possibilities, and was having trouble thinking of ideas and inspiration for things that deserved to be committed to paper.

In 2011, in my early 30s I had the urge one day, seemingly from nowhere, to borrow an SLR camera and sign up to the first photography course I saw. My friend Ben kindly loaned me his Canon 550D and the course happened to be a street photography walk around Shoreditch in East London with David Gibson, these days a member of UP Photographers and author of several well-known street photography books.

Trois Garcons. Shoreditch, London, 9 April 2011

The conditions for this walk turned out to be perfect for an introduction to street photography: sunshine, interestingly-dressed East Londoners, and exotic environments – a mix of old and new London. I took several shots that I’m still pleased with to this day, but the one that changed everything for me took place when I spotted three gentlemen dressed in double-denim who were walking almost in sync. When I noticed that they were headed towards a shop named ‘Maison Trois Garcons’, I couldn’t believe my luck, and was quaking in fear that I’d miss the shot. What I didn’t quite catch in the frame was the street sign: ‘Chance Street’, which I sometimes think was for the best as perhaps nobody would believe the shot wasn’t set up if I had.

I Know What I Know. Manchester 2018

It didn’t take long until I was seeing these kinds of ‘once in a lifetime’ scenes regularly, be they from a seat on the bus on my way to work, or while rushing to meet friends for drinks. After missing enough of these moments thanks to not having my camera with me, I vowed to bring one whenever I went outside. I now do this even if I’m just popping around the corner to the supermarket, or to the recycling bin at the end of the street.

Nest. London 2016

One of the most significant things that changed for me once the street photography addiction had taken hold was that I no longer felt alone if I had a camera with me. With the knowledge that I get to explore a new place and potentially capture a favourite new scene, I positively look forward to the prospect of going to places on my own (and due to my passion for photography, I think my girlfriend sometimes looks forward to this too).

I’ve also found that I’ve never been truly bored in the last ten years, thanks to always wanting to take more photos or edit those I’ve not yet looked at (and as I take up to 40,000 a year, there are many).

Hands Down: Jimmy Cauty, Artist and Musician, The KLF. London 2015

Once I’d decided to have a camera on me at all times, a new project grew out of this. Thanks to an opportunity to observe and photograph graffiti artist Ben Eine at work, there was one shot in particular that stood out to me after I looked back at what I’d taken: a photograph showing only his hands, the lid of a spraycan, and the black background formed by his sweatshirt. I decided to turn this into a series of portraits of interesting people’s hands, ‘Hands Down’.

This series led me to ask the question “I know this might sound weird but… can I photograph your hands?” to many people, a surprising number of whom agreed to it. Through it I have had conversations with interesting individuals in the street I’d have never spoken with otherwise, had a couple of well-known musicians come to my house, and got to know some very interesting local business owners.

The Dark Green Line: Samuel, Ex-Mechanic. London 2016

In July 2016 I was selected to compete in Adobe UK’s first Photography Jam event, held in Shoreditch, London. There I created a series focussed on the staff and patients of Moorfields Eye Hospital, ‘The Dark Green Line’, named after the line along the pavement that leads patients from Old Street tube station to the hospital. This was later published by the BBC on World Sight Day.

Lady in Red. Budapest 2016

After feeling that I had enough work I was proud of, in 2018 I released a self-published book of my street photography, ‘chromorama’. In a career highlight, this was featured by The Guardian, which led to many new people seeing my work. A year later, I published another book, ‘Hoods’, about the car hood ornament designs I saw in Cuba, and from which I later developed a very limited, one-sided edition of the book. In 2020 I donated a copy of each of these publications to the library at Tate Britain.

Growing Old Gracefully. Vienna 2017

Up until 2016, my street photographs almost all included people in them, but at the end of 2016 a trip to Cuba had me staring at the pavements. I’d noticed just how different the discarded rubbish was compared to that back home, so I started my Trashtopia series, where I use some of the same principles as with street photography to see whether the trash of a given place can show a little piece of the character of the location in which it was found. This series gave me my first solo exhibition at a gallery in Oxford.

Trashtopia: Blue and Yellow Balloon. Vienna 2017

This turned out to be useful to me a year later when I moved to Austria, where the privacy laws are stricter than those in the UK, as by then I no longer felt obliged to capture purely people for a series. As some of the fun for me when looking at a photograph is piecing together the elements and forming a story in my head, sometimes the environment alone is more than enough for this.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Miami 2017

I had my work exhibited at street photography festivals in Miami, London, Rome, Dublin, and San Francisco. Once I began taking part in these, it felt like another world had opened up to me. Exhibiting at and attending these gave me a whole load of new friends from around the globe who, thanks to a mutual love of street photography, have an instant understanding of each other.

One particular moment that made me feel incredibly glamorous for a few minutes thanks to this was heading out for a walk after having just arrived in Miami (not a small city) and someone shouting my name in the street. I assumed they must have been calling for another Michael, but no, it was one such friend!

Underneath Flower Vase Rock. Little Liuqiu Island, Taiwan 2018

In 2017, having become frustrated at the number of male-dominated photography collectives at the time, I founded the Optic Nerve Street Photography Collective. I care most about the quality of a photograph and less so the gender of who made it, and certain exhibitions had ‘Female Photography’ as a separate category. It frustrated me that the world wasn’t as equal as it should be by then, so I decided that Optic Nerve should have equal numbers of members who identified as male, female, or anything else, and that our competitions should be inclusive to anyone and free to enter.

Feels Like We Only Go Backwards. London 2018

In recent years I’ve photographed Trump protests, stood on a roof while capturing the dying remains of a Soho street before gentrification ruined it, worked as the stills photographer for a horror film set on the North Yorkshire Moors, and eaten homemade guacamole in Martin Parr’s apartment. During the coronavirus lockdown in 2020 I also set up a virtual exhibition of street photography in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, using my skills as a former video game artist.

Nature and Nurture. Hallstatt 2018

You might be wondering why I wrote this. In part it was to remind myself of some of the things I’m proudest of in recent years (a particularly useful exercise at the moment while the world is less exciting than usual), to show that life-changing events can happen at any point in life, and also on the off chance it inspires you to take up street photography or indeed anything else you suddenly start to show an interest in. You never know what streets it might take you down.

About the Author

Michael Goldrei is a Vienna-based street and documentary photographer, originally hailing from the UK. His work shows the humor, mundanity, and color of everyday life. You can find more of Michael’s work on his website, Instagram, Facebook page, Twitter, and if you join his mailing list. This article was also published here and shared with permission.