Canals Are Streets Too

As a street photographer I wish there were more canals and fewer streets. Canals are wonderful places for taking pictures but there are not enough of them. Those we have — in Amsterdam, Venice and Bangkok — are overrun by tourists, each one of whom seems to come equipped with an expensive camera.

Given that there is such a lot of competition from both tourists and serious travel photographers, I’m a little surprised that great “street photos” from the canals are not more widely seen. After all, the canal — in a very real sense — is just a street with water instead of tarmac.

In cities where canals criss-cross the urban landscape, people use them in much the same way as dry-landers use the city street. They travel from A to B via the canals; they transport goods on them; and very often they set up shop right there in the middle of the water.

There’s only one major difference. The pace of life on the canals is necessarily a whole lot slower. Five miles an hour is considered fast; twenty miles an hour, while possible, is definitely frowned upon.

Damnoen Saduak
I am fortunate in being able to visit one of the world’s most popular canal systems, near Bangkok, not as a tourist but as a relative by marriage.

My partner’s aunt has a house right on the main canal at Damnoen Saduak, the most famous of Thailand’s floating markets. There, it’s great fun to snuggle under the mosquito net at night, listening to the water lapping beneath the polished teak floor (although maybe less fun to be woken at 5.00am by the deafening racket of long-tail boats revving up their engines).

There are two ways to photograph the action at Damnoen Saduak: from the side of the canal or from a boat. You can get great shots either way, but those from a boat undoubtedly have the edge, especially if you want to get close-up portrait-style shots.

Portraits taken in natural light nearly always require the use of a reflector to balance the light and provide some illumination from below. But that’s only for dry-land photographers! Once you’re on a boat you can dispense with all the accessories because the water itself provides the reflection you need. I think even tourists are beginning to notice that their shots of each other on boats look better than those they take on dry land.

I’ve emphasised the similarity of canals to streets and I’ve suggested that street photography is something you can practice on a canal, but I have to add a word of caution. Don’t expect to do what’s commonly called “hardcore” street photography, either from a boat or from the canal’s edge. The atmosphere is much too relaxed for that. People are happy and smiling; their movements slow and predictable. Their way of life fits them like a glove, without all the hassle and friction normally sought by the hardcore street photographer.

The Garden Centre
For my featured image (at the top) I’ve chosen a lady in a boat who looks as relaxed as it’s possible to look while still actually working. She’s a one-woman garden centre, selling pot plants and refreshments at reasonable prices. I like the way her face is in shade whereas her wares are strongly illuminated by the sun. This seems appropriate, seeing that she’s tucked away quietly at the side, making no apparent effort to give anyone the “hard sell.” I think she needs all the commercial help I can provide.

In the sunlight, on the other side of the canal, another lady (above) is well-stocked with apples and young coconuts, ready to punt her way to a busier part of the market. She seems more extroverted and more likely to suggest a sale than her competition across the way. Both ladies, you can be sure, have been photographed hundreds of times — every week, during the tourist season.

I’ve recognised both of these subjects in other people’s photographs, but not as often as you might expect. They are usually in a group scene, along with all the other vendors.

If you go to Google Images and search for “Damnoen Saduak floating market” you’ll see what I mean. The photos brought back by the search are quite different from mine. With scarcely an exception, they’re all general shots of the crowded market, of dozens of boats laden with colourful goods. None of them really gets behind the gaudy spectacle of the market to the real world of individuals and their personal traits and characteristics.

Up Close
On the canals, the street photographer’s imperative to “get in close” can lead to pictures that are both more meaningful and more beautiful. On the occasion when I took these images I think I was helped by the presence of my elderly Thai father-in-law, riding up front in the boat, smiling at the ladies as we passed. His protection made me less of an alien intruder and more like “one of us.”

My favourite image from this short boat ride is of a younger woman who was selling assorted goods, including shopping bags and…yes…framed insects. She’s leaning on a thick bamboo pile which keeps her boat from moving out of position. I suspect she also has another, more conventional job elsewhere, but as I recall this was a Saturday, a day on which many people — one or two of our friends included — like to earn extra income trading on the canal.

Can you get this sort of image on the street? I don’t think so. Despite being so close to the camera, the woman shows no signs of being aware of it. She’s smiling at our whole party of people, not making direct contact with the camera. Although it’s a candid shot it has many of the qualities we expect in a proper portrait: good light, nice pose, interesting props. Nonetheless, I’m still going to claim it as a street photo. That’s why it’s here. Because canals are streets too.

Leave a Comment