Walking on the streets of Paris with a camera changed everything. I was now more attentive to events that unfolded like a play at the theatre: a man crouching in the metro corner with an empty bottle, a woman with sad eyes leaning against the window, or a husband carrying flowers on his lap, either for his wife or mistress. My friend told me that she once stumbled upon a party inside the train of the metro with guests dressed in suits and evening gowns, clutching several bottles of champagne. She even has the photos to prove it. Here in Paris, you are prepared to run into anything.
The city of Paris was my introduction to street photography but during the first week of my studio course, I wondered why my pictures looked still, as if nothing was ever happening: a garbage can, the Chinese restaurant sign, a homeless man sleeping silently. My teacher urged me to turn to photo books and to visit exhibitions— “those are your greatest teachers”, he said. The truth of his words could be found in the influential works of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier. It all made sense now: I am the artist, and I can create as much of a composition as someone with an easel and brush, a compelling revelation.
The execution, however, was a whole other story. The skepticism of Parisians was already at a high level, even without the camera. Once I revealed it and peered through the viewfinder, people would scurry away, or hiss at me loudly. “Who does she think she is, taking a picture of me?” they must all have thought. The confrontations drew fear and guilt into my heart, and consequently, I resorted to a timid and all-too-nice way of photographing: from afar. But what was the sacrifice? My work lacked that edge present in the photographs I admired, were the subjects sometimes stared at the camera unblinkingly. My photos couldn’t tell you anything.
When I decided it was time my pictures stopped suffering due to lack of courage, I invented an antidote. I made myself approach the subject without a second thought, despite my fear. I went to them, asked permission, and took the damn picture. The change brought riveting results—I entered into pages of people’s stories. I was a witness to their daily life, whether they were trapped in a state of mind or exuding an uncontrollable energy. They could trust me to document these moments. As a consequence to all this, I gained an enhanced sense of awareness for the city and its people.
Now I stroll on the streets with my camera around my neck, hidden from no one. It could be what you call in French flâner, strolling in a city with no intended destination but for the pleasure of a promenade. With this identity and sense of confidence, I am searching for Paris’s secret life. I want to convey that we’re all living theatre without fully acknowledging it. What a joy when a photographer can be there to document it!
This was how I encountered my little clown here, on the night of Halloween while riding my bike. She was sitting with her costumed friends at an American diner near Odéon, about to order a proper milkshake. Perhaps this picture has too many American themes to be French, but I was surprised to have spotted her. She represents for me all the unexpected discoveries in cities, unconfined by expectations.
Yvonne is spending her junior year abroad in Paris, furthering her studies in art history and French. She hopes to continue taking pictures when she returns to Northampton for her senior year, after starting her photographic experience here in Paris.by