Photos of Confused People at Traffic Lights

Melbourne photographer Dan Bryant captures people thinking they're in a private space.

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02 March 2017, 10:19am

Dan Bryant is a Melbourne photographer who loves the genuine expression on someone's face when they wonder why their photo is being taken. It's this love that's drawn him to his latest, somewhat provocative series—people sitting in their cars at traffic lights. In the world of privacy, the car is a grey area. People sitting at the traffic lights often sing, pick their noses, put on makeup, and sometimes even talk to themselves. They feel as though they're in a private place—along with all the other people clustered together in windowed cars.

Dan's work highlights this inconsistency by creating a direct interaction between the subject and viewer. The results are people captured in a moment of total vulnerability and delightful, hilarious confusion. We asked Dan to talk us through the how and the why—and also the ethics of this particular project.

VICE: Hey Dan, there's a lot of discomfort in your photos. Is it accidental or something you deliberately draw out?
Dan Bryant: It's deliberate because, the thing is, as soon as you ask permission to take someone's photo their expression changes. So when you don't ask permission, you get a look like, What the fuck, are you taking my photo for? or a really awkward, confused expression. And I just love that.

What do you love about it?
There's a weird, intimate moment between the photographer and the subject. I like that and, technically, it's not very "street photography." Street photography for the purist means candid moments where the subject is unaware. This is where I'm a bit different, because I enjoy those interactions. If the subject is looking at the camera then they're looking at the viewer and it means more engagement, but there's also an aspect of interference. That's where pure street photographers don't agree with what I do.

Totally. You can see that moment of realisation: Shit, he's taking a photo!
Yeah, and I'm firing my flash at people as well. That's even more invasive.

Is this ethical though? Are there people you won't shoot?
I never shoot homeless people. Homeless people, disabled people, and anyone who can't defend themselves I'm not interested in. There's too much street photography of homeless people as it is, so I don't feel the need to document it. But when it comes to suits and elite looking people, it's all fair game. Having said that, I want to stress that I'm never trying to do anything negative. I'm never intentionally trying to paint people in a negative light. I'm just really passionate about reality, that's the main thing. I only want real, I don't want any fake interactions.

Yeah I can see that. With the photos of the police though, what are you trying to achieve with those?
It's kind of like they're me, but on the other side. I'm obviously never going to hit or attack a police officer. But what I can do is take their photo, and that's kind the next best thing. I don't mean it in a violent way at all. If I can't do anything other than take a photo, I'll take a photo or a portrait up really close, and try to at least get under their skin a bit.

Do you think police see you as a threat?
Yeah, they see everyone as a threat, and that's half the problem. Pepper spray is a first resort these days. I remember when they didn't have pepper spray, they used to have to talk to people. The cops don't bother talking now, they just pepper spray you cause you're resisting and that's it.

Let's zoom out a bit. All your photos are taken in the middle of the CBD. Do you think you'd be able to get the same photographs out in the suburbs? Somewhere that isn't so fast-paced?
Well, that kind of works in my favour, the density of people really helps. It's like a "safety in numbers" type deal. I've done a little bit of street in places like Clayton but you're way more exposed. Like, I'm out on my own.

Did you move into the city specifically to take photos like these?
Yeah, I was living out of the suburbs at my mum's place. Ideally, for shooting what I shoot, living in the city is perfect... It's like hunting. I hunt people—not literally though. It's like going on safari and I'm trying to get a great shot. I realised every day I go out I could take a photo I might look at for the rest of my life. Each time I go out I think that, right now I've got about five top, great photos that I love.

Words by Ashley Goodall. See more of Dan's work on Instagram.