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For the last twenty years, I have been examining street-level urban life:

Pierre Pradeau and David Henry with pigeons in front of Notre-Dame.

David Henry with Pierre Pradeau, a Parisian who never minded having his picture taken. —photo by Céline Vielcanet.

I photograph people interacting or in conflict. I find my subjects in public places: fairs, rush hour crowds, subways, and parks. My ideal photo frames an action, a moment of decision being played out on a stage. They capture the element that makes the most ordinary of moments suddenly look unusual, somewhat transcendental, but still pleasant to look at. I am always looking for irony, both dramatic and visual.

Since the mid-1980s I’ve been taking more photographs of homeless people. For me, the daily lives of these people are emblematic of the shift in political and social morals that occurred in the United States at the beginning of the 1980s and continues today. My photographs are a form of biography, telling stories about these and other people’s lives. Viewers’ reactions vary widely—shock, denial, revulsion, morbid curiosity, amusement.

In any case, my pictures ask the viewer to recognize and acknowledge people they would have otherwise ignored. I moved to Paris in September 1996, a move that has quite naturally changed the way I take photographs.

What is it like for an American photographer working in Paris?

Some suspicious passengers on the métro in Paris.

Some people on the Métro, at least two of them are staring glumly in the lens of my camera which I was holding in my lap.

When there is a scene I would like to photograph without disturbing the action, I keep the camera at waist-level and don’t use the viewfinder. If the scene is especially delicate, I don’t look at my subject, or even turn toward them. In this mode, photography becomes a visceral activity. My hands and forearms, connecting the camera to the rest of my body, become the viewfinder, another sort of peripheral vision another “eyes.” The photographs that come out of this work have a spontaneous feel, a physicality. They are taken, literally, at “gut level” and reflect that to the viewer.

I have been taking pictures in this manner (when the occasion requires it) for over a decade. I have become used to switching into this mode when putting a camera in front of my face would ruin a picture, and I’ve become used to obtaining my desired results. While visiting Paris for ten days in the spring of 1996, I used my standard techniques for taking candid pictures. After returning home to Boston, Massachusetts, I printed my pictures and found that almost all of the subjects I had intended to take candids of were, in fact, aware they were being photographed. In these pictures people are gazing calmly, directly into the lens. Unused to this sort of result, I was disappointed at first. But, when I showed this collection of later on, people found something intriguing and even startling about the frankness of the subjects.

Three members of the Compagnie Républicain de Sécurité in front of protesters at a demonstration.

A group of CRS (Compagnie Républicain de Sécurité) in front of some Jussieu University students protesting against asbestos contamination in their school buildings.

This experience piqued my curiosity about why Parisians are so much more aware of the camera, relative to the Americans I have photographed. Could this difference be due to the pervasive influence of television in American culture and the passive nature of “looking” that television teaches? I’m curious, too, about why Americans become fearful and self-conscious when they do notice they’re being photographed, while the Parisians I encountered were unafraid and unself-conscious as subjects.

Do Parisians see photography as a creative activity, while Americans perceive photography as a way of taking possession of something—a moment, an event, a face, a body? (After all, in English one’s picture is always “taken” while in French sometimes on se fait photographier.)

Go to the home page of my web site

See the pictures I’ve taken in the United States

Take a look at the pictures I published in the Traveler’s Companion series of tourism/travel guide books, pictures of Canada, New England, and Mediterranean France

Jetlag and culture shock: Read my thoughts on what it is like taking pictures in Paris

See the pictures I’ve taken in England

Take a look at the pictures I have taken on trips to Italy

See the pictures I’ve taken elsewhere in France

Photography workshops in Paris: Learn the secrets behind these pictures!

Portraits in Paris: with your family, friends and loved ones in the City of Lights, and the famous monuments of Paris in the background.

See the pictures I took on a trip through Alsace-Lorraine

What does all this new technology mean for photographers? Read my thoughts on digital photography.

Take a look at the pictures I took on a trip through Switzerland

How to order prints…