In this second instalment in the “Great Subjects” series, we’ll be looking at photographing your hometown. Your quest is to create a series of images that document various aspects of the place you call home.
There are few things that define your life so much as the place where you live. No matter what path your life has taken, you probably have a place that you think of as “home”, whether it’s where you’re living now, where you spent most of your childhood, or a special place where you spend your vacations.
For me, that place is Victoria, British Columbia, so that is where my examples in this post come from.
Places have so many features that this theme can be taken in almost any direction. Streets, buildings, people, infrastructure, natural features, and the surrounding environment all combine to make “your hometown” what it is.
The important thing to focus on for this theme is to ensure your photographs have a sense of place.
The City Centre
When considering this theme, begin by exploring the core of your city. What makes it different than other cities you’ve been to? Maybe it has a unique layout, or a particular style of architecture. Which is the oldest building in town? Which is the newest? What are the main roads, and why? Are there businesses or institutions that define the area, such as commercial complexes, industrial plants, universities, or the like? Think about the main business that drives your town’s economy – is it based on service, tourism, manufacturing, resource extraction (logging, mining, drilling) etc? Try to photograph these places, if you’re able to gain access.
Uptown, Midtown, Downtown
Most medium-sized and larger cities will have several neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct personality. Some might be more affluent while others have more grit; some have history, some culture, some commercial appeal. Spend a bit of time in different districts, documenting the similarities and differences between them, including the style of architecture and décor, and the people who inhabit the area.
Where do you spend the most time, outside of home and work? Perhaps you have a favourite park, restaurant, coffee shop, or any other place that you like to visit a lot. Rather than setting aside specific times to take pictures, just carry your camera with you as you go about your day-to-day life and shoot the spaces you love to spend time in the most. Your friends and family may play a huge role in this, or you might prefer to capture your personal sanctuaries where you go to escape the hustle and bustle.
Around the House
Your home is your castle, and is worth photographing every bit as much as Buckingham Palace. The place you live in, work in, and sleep in affects your life very deeply, though it can often take a back seat to the things that press on us from the outside.
Creating images of your house, both inside and outside, forces you to look closely at the things that you might not notice in between the rush of work, school, family, and other obligations. It might even inspire you to make positive changes to your living space. Doorways, windows, and long halls all create interesting shapes in a photograph, and the patterns and textures found in the walls, floors, and furniture can make for some lovely compositions. Don’t forget to take time to appreciate your garden and the flowering trees in your yard.
If you’re not already familiar, consult a map to find out exactly where the official borders of your city end. There may be out outlying areas that you rarely visit – this is the perfect opportunity to familiarize yourself with the rural areas and neighbourhoods outside of your usual routes. You can also place yourself in those outlying areas to capture a more distant view of your hometown.
Every town has a handful of local characters. There are the eccentrics, like the man with the curly moustache and bright green jacket who reads newspapers at the library each morning, or the lady who walks her pet duck along the main drag. There are the performers – the saxophonist in front of the movie theatre, or the caricature artist in the city park every Sunday. There are the entrepreneurs who run the best local businesses, and the regulars who can always be found there. Who makes a difference in your community? Sometimes you can capture the spirit of a whole village through a portrait of one person.
Environmental portraiture can go a long way in communicating the relationship between a person and the place they live. This type of portrait is made with a wider angle of view and includes the person’s surroundings, giving them a sense of place and context. These compositions can be posed, but often they are more natural candid shots.
You can also photograph the locals doing an activity for which your town is known.
Maybe you live in a mountainous area, by the sea, or amid a great forest or desert. You might visit these natural places often, or you might hardly see nature from the centre of your busy city life. Either way, you can always take this chance to stop and look around you. Think: if all the buildings in town suddenly disappeared, what type of landscape would you see off in the distance – hills and valleys, the endless ocean, expansive plains? Explore the area outside of the city for more natural inspiration. You might come across nearby lakes, rivers, and trails that offer a wonderful juxtaposition to the glass, metal, and concrete structures that make up modern life.
From Place to Place
As you’re wandering around town, take notice of how you’re getting where you’re going, and how everyone else is getting there, too. Is your city’s transportation system driven by cars along straight streets and avenues, winding roads, or over bridges and through tunnels? Do massive freeway systems dominate the cityscape, or is it made of old country trails? Maybe your town is more bike-friendly, with dedicated lanes and paths, and racks for cyclists to lock up their wheels. Your city might even be small enough to walk wherever you need to go. No matter what sort of infrastructure your town is built on, it can create incredible lines, arches, shapes, and forms in a photograph which tell us a lot about the character of the place you live.
Be a Tourist in Your Hometown
Sometimes it can be tough to view your hometown objectively, especially if you’ve lived in it for a very long time; familiarity with a place can act like a glaze over your eyes that blinds you to its unique character. The more you look at something, the less you really see it.
To combat this type of complacency, try a bit of make believe – next time you go out shooting, pretend that you’re brand new to the area and visualize what it would be like to wander these streets and take in these sights for the first time.
Alternatively, you can imagine that you’re taking a visitor on a tour of the city. What would you show them? What are the hot tourist spots? More importantly, what do you think they’d see?
Sometimes we are so focussed on avoiding touristy areas, that we can forget how nice they really are. It’s like a cliche – there is usually a good reason for it. If you have a tourist spot that is popular in your town, maybe this is a good time to play “tourist in your own hometown” and see what the fuss is about.
Clear your mind, and try to look at the world through a stranger’s eyes. This will help you to see the details that you begin to overlook when you experience the same things every day.
You and Your Hometown
This theme is about photographing your hometown, but there is something in every picture that, though it is present, can’t be directly seen: you!
A city exists on its own, yes, but the way it appears is determined largely by the way you see it, and how it is presented depends on how you choose to show it. Just as your town is defined by its buildings, structure, environment, and residents, it is also partially defined by you (as a resident yourself) and your relationship to it (as the artist rendering the image).
Within the story of your town lies the story of you:
- How did you come to live where you do?
- Were you born there, or did you move (and if so, why?).
- Did you always live in the same house, or did you move around?
- Where did you go to school?
- Where did you have your first kiss?
- Where did you get married?
- Where did you bring up your children?
Your hometown is packed with a lifetime of experiences and memories that create pieces of your life’s own narrative. These can be vague or distinct, solid or fleeting, or anywhere in between. Think about these feelings and memories and ask yourself: how can you express your own story in a photograph?
Your Hometown’s History
It’s probably safe to say that your hometown has been around a good deal longer than you have. There were people who lived there long before you, and places within the city that changed throughout time.
What is the history of the city you live in? What year was it founded, why, and by whom? What else was happening at that time? Where were the first houses built, and the first town hall? What about the first train station (or bus station, or even gas station)? Take a trip to your local library or museum to find information on the early formation of the town. Some cities were built around a mine, a trading post, or a port, while others simply served as stops along the road between two other places.
Learning the history of your city helps you to understand why it was made the way it was, and how it became what it is today – how its streets are laid out, how its buildings are constructed, why they placed the fire hall on that corner, etc. It can even give you insight into some hidden parts of the city that aren’t seen so much anymore.
For example, a great fire or earthquake could have leveled some neighbourhoods a century ago, which were then built on top of, preserving the original remains underground. If your city has a historical society, they can be an invaluable resource for insight and inspiration into this theme.
Create a Collage
So much of the feeling of your hometown depends on impression, memory, and emotional association, which can be hard to show in a single frame. If you find yourself getting stuck with traditional compositions, try creating a set of two or three images that work together to convey a more elusive meaning that you’re trying to express.
The images should relate in some significant way, either by complementing or juxtaposing the other through form or content. Often, these are multiple shots of the same scene taken at different times or in different ways, but they can be any set of shots that work to enhance each others’ meaning.
You can display your story telling set of images in a diptych, triptych or collage. If you’re interested in trying this out, there is an excellent website that will help you layout the images (and it’s free). Try picmonkey.com.
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