Dialogue

I went to London and turned into a street photographer

London is a big city. That might sound like an obvious statement to some, but at this particular Thursday morning, I had no idea yet.

Mitchel Lensink
Sep 1, 2022
11 min read

Table of Contents

Dear pen-pals,

First of all, I'd like to do some housekeeping and thank the first paid subscriber to this newsletter. I explicitly said that nobody should feel obliged to convert from a free to a paid tier and you should only subscribe if you don't expect anything in return (for now). It's with this support that I can continue to do this work though, and for that I am very grateful. So Xander, I know you're reading this, thank you.

I since have also learned that my words from last month might be taken as 'don't do it, you'll regret it' and that I actively want to discourage people from becoming paid subscribers. That's not the case. Anybody who chooses to join is valued, appreciated and very welcome. You will receive a personal thank you note from me, as well as a special place in my heart. I would just hate it if my quest for sustainability is misconstrued as disguised beggary, which is the only reason I phrased things as I did.

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This newsletter is called Dialogue for a reason! Feel free to reply to these emails with any of your thoughts and comments. 

In our economy, money is paid for things of value and I'm still struggling to view my work as something that will benefit other people. That's not to say that isn't a goal eventually, but I haven't quite found that edge just yet. Perhaps the value I provide is just to inspire or to give a peek behind the curtain and share the process. The struggle is universal and maybe by showing mine, I can at least let you know you're not alone. But, to justify my own actions once more, that's why the membership price is only 4 EUR per month (or 40 EUR per year) for now. A little money for a little value. We'll see how that evolves over time. In any case, joining now is certainly not something you'll regret.

image of the map of London with GPS data
So much walking and still so much not seen

Now then, that should be the end of that for the time being. I'd like to talk a little about a recent trip to London where most of the time was spent walking. Before we get into it, you can find some stats from our five-day trip below:

Total distance walked in KM: 88
Amount of steps taken: 106.928
Time spent roaming: 55h 23m
Time spent sleeping: too little
Indian curries eaten: countless

Nothing beats the train

It's hot in the train terminal. The combination of subtropical temperatures and the large number of people in a small space turn the place into a stuffy mess. We manage to find one seat next to an older lady, so I let Charlotte take it and sit down in the windowsill next to her myself. It doesn't take long before the lady starts speaking to us in heavily accented Dutch, asking us about our travels. We tell her this will be my first time visiting the UK and we plan to be in London for five days. We chat a bit about how Charlotte has been a couple of times before, thankfully, so navigating the city should be a little easier. In return, we learn she has a daughter living in The Netherlands and that she visits from the UK as often as possible and therefore has decided to learn the language as well. Which explains her willingness to talk, she was basically practicing. It is at that time the train pulls into the station and everybody simultaneously gets up to queue. We end our exchange amicably and sit down in our designated seats to let the train take us from Amsterdam Central Station to London St. Pancras.

Only four hours later, we're on the streets of Kings Cross with a hunger to explore but mostly just hunger in our stomachs. The hotel is only a five-minute walk away from the station, convenient, and restaurants can be found around us everywhere, perfect. Charlotte, a notorious Indian food aficionado, masterfully maneuvers her way to the restaurant, where we satiate ourselves on papadums, naan bread and curries before we return to our far-too-tiny hotelroom for what is hopefully a good night's rest.

Exploring London

London is a big city. That might sound like an obvious statement to some, but at this particular Thursday morning, I had no idea yet. I always assumed London to be walkable-ish like Berlin but that thought does not align with the truth at all, I will soon find out. Nevertheless, we come prepared with our most comfortable walking shoes and fully intend on using them too. Google Maps tells us there should be a quaint little coffee place a short walk away, conveniently located in the direction we're planning to go today anyway. The coffee is large and energizing, the sandwiches tasty and the juice-to-go the perfect thirst quencher. Having done nothing much in London yet but eat, we excitedly start setting one foot in front of the other, juices in hand.

We make our way down to the river Thames, over the Waterloo bridge, and ponder on which direction to head to. We can either take a right and walk towards the London Eye, then Big Ben, and make our way through St James's Park in the direction of Buckingham Palace, or we can take a left and see London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and then head towards Brick Lane. We decide to take the first option.

In a solid 18 KM walk, we see all those things in rapid succession without bothering to enter or linger around any of them. We sit down in St James's Park to catch a glimpse of the famous squirrels but soon learn there's nothing special about them other than the constant feeding by photo-hungry tourists. Which is an attraction in itself. I must say I'm pretty photo-hungry myself (duh) but I'm not a fan of staging photos with the help of clever nut-bribery so leave the squirrel photography to the selfie-stick-wielding people. Finally, we sit down in Camden Market for an overpriced but very atmospheric pint. We head back as twilight sets in and bring out total kilometers walked for today to a respectable 21,1.

During this first walk, I'm once again enjoying the benefits of looking through the eyes of a tourist and practically everything I see feels novel and looks interesting. Of course I know London has big red busses driving around everywhere and many of its sights reveal no secrets beyond the things you already see in popular media. Seeing all those things with your own eyes grants you a 'yup, that's indeed what it looks like'-feeling but despite that, it's still nice to cross them off the bucket list.

How to walk a city

For me, the interesting bits of visiting new places aren't necessarily the popular sights but rather the textures of a place. By that I literally mean the textures, like the color of the roads, the materials used for the buildings, and the shape of the traffic lights, but also the texture of everyday life itself. All places have a certain rhythm to them, an underlying current that's not immediately visible to the naked eye but can be felt in a way that's ever-present though never dominating. That feeling is hidden in the type of street vendors you see in busy places, the languages spoken around you, and the variety of advertisements sprinkled throughout. Heck, even the typography used for the markings on the road carries a certain character with them. All those things combined, however small they may be, add up to the general feeling you get from a place. That's what I'm trying to capture in my photos.

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All photos in this newsletter are available as fine art prints in many different sizes. Simply send me an email for inquiries. You can also browse my archive

It's with this in the back of my mind that I maneuver around the streets, trying to complete this daunting task I have set for myself. Yes, I will shoot a photo of the pretty vantage point and, of course, I will point my camera at the famous landmarks. I'm not here to shoot these so-called 'banger images' that will do good on Instagram though. I don't really care to do the research required for these photos. Which means I never put down my tripod in the exact right spot to capture all the lines in total perfection at the right time of day, just to create an image that's been created so many times before. Maybe, if I'm being honest, I'm not good at doing that anyway and is that the reason the idea doesn't excite me, but that's beside the point right now. What does excite me is simply being out there and getting a feel for the place and its ever-pounding heartbeat.

Be like water

What this process of 'feeling a place' looks like, can change easily but usually comes down to the following: you start by setting a 'soft-goal' for the day, which is normally a thing we'd like to see or eat, and then simply start walking in that direction. During that walk, we try to take as many detours and creep through as many alleys as possible. We stop for drinks and quick bites, browse at obscure shops, and gawk at all the marvelous sights, both big and small. We will eventually reach the goal we've set most of the time but sometimes end up somewhere completely different. That's okay as well, because that's the beauty of setting a soft-goal. Its main purpose is to give you a direction to head into but never to reach it at all costs. Walking around a place, and only walking allows for this, causes you to see the things as they happen and then take them as they come. It's a beautiful Bruce Lee-esque way to travel. What I'm saying is, you want to be like water, my dear friends.

Real street photography, finally

It's with this mentality that we move through London for the next four days with the only constant being the coffee place where we have breakfast. Nothing prepares you better for a day of unexpected explorations than a morning refuel you know your body will run on smoothly. So if we find a breakfast place that works for us, we typically stick to it. Other than that, the only thing that stays in place is the camera around my neck so it's ready to shoot whenever something unexpected occurs.

Because London is such a big city with so much vibrance on the streets, I feel comfortable enough to properly try my hand at photographing people on the street as well. Keeping the camera close to my eye at all times while walking at a semi-quick pace, allows me to snap a shot of an interesting character whenever we pass one. I realize that, as long as I keep moving and my eyes pointing forward, I am never bothering anyone. Some people notice I'm taking photos but it appears they assume I'm a simple tourist taking touristy photos. They're not wrong about that but none of them realize it's them I find most interesting in this overstimulating environment.

I can feel my confidence grow as I'm snapping away and capturing the exact type of photos I always envied 'real' street photographers for. I'm certainly not at a Bruce Gilden level of bravery yet but for the first time, I'm at least relaxed while wandering around in the crowd. I feel invisible and powerful at the same time, as I gather these ephemeral moments in time for my archive. I finally see why people are drawn to street photography so much and appreciate the uniqueness of each moment even more because of it. Nothing of what I'm capturing will ever happen in the exact same way again, but my photography is still bringing permanence to a fleeting experience.

There's a reason I have referred to myself as an (urban) landscape and documentary photographer until now and that reason is that I was simply too scared to put people into my shots. I always focussed on the street and its inanimate objects, because they cannot object when I take their photo. It is people who've put these objects there though, and a photoset is not complete without them. It's those two elements together that tell the complete story of our present time and I should embrace that if I genuinely want to be a documentarian in that regard. The textures of a city I referred to earlier, are not only the things you see around you but also the people who created them. They are a vital part of the story.

Rounding up

The station behind us is shrinking quickly on the horizon as we contently lean back in our chairs. A five-day walk is long enough to wear a body down and we can't wait to lay down in our own beds again tonight. I take one last look at the images on my camera to remind myself of all the places we've been and notice there has truly been a shift in my work this weekend. I don't think I'm ready to replicate this in my hometown, which sports a higher level of scrutiny from strangers than in bustling London, but I'm sure I can continue incorporating new subjects in the future. It's an exciting thought. And with that excitement, I close my eyes and let the land outside whizz by until we arrive safely back in Amsterdam.

Thank you for reading,

M

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