Capturing humor in a studio setting is a complex job that requires intelligence, patience, care, delicacy and respect. And if that isn’t hard enough, capturing humor in uncontrolled situations is an even more massive challenge – but why?
A “sense of humour” means that someone has the ability to be amused. Humour triggers laughter, and making someone laugh is not that easy. If it was, everybody would be a comedian – and that’s why working with humour is indeed complex. Human beings respond to humour in different ways depending on age, culture, and even their unique "sense of humour”.
Natural > Controlled Situations
I truly believe that capturing humorous incidents on the streets or in any other uncontrolled scenario is much more difficult than doing it in controlled situations. I’m not diminishing concept photography; I'm just saying that because humour that occurs in uncontrolled situations is usually brief. It has to be subtle enough to make you laugh without jeopardizing the subjects' integrity and situation. Finding humour in real-life circumstances requires patience, luck, being present at the perfect time and place, and a well-bred eye for seeing subtle humour that might escape others.
Great humour photography, under controlled situations, can result in ingenious art when done right. The deal around the “concept” must be taken with meticulous care by the photographers when working something around humour. Sometimes humour is focused on a deep topic. Just look at satire, and you'll get my point. Humour can be used as an intelligent way to transmit an idea or concern.
The Thin Line between Humour and Vulnerability
The biggest challenge, and probably the main reason why humour is considered such a complex theme in photography, is drawing the line that divides a photo from being seen as “deriding” and something that suggests that "we’re laughing with you, not at you".
Capturing people in vulnerable situations and publishing them as "humour" is just not cool, and it goes against many of human ethical standards I believe in. When that line is not so obvious, but a person asks you to delete a picture of them, please do so. Don't be rude. Being so inflicts deep collateral damage to other photographers.
Shooting people in vulnerable situations is valid from my personal point of view, when the aim of doing so is to produce a social statement of complaint. Photography is a powerful tool, but it’s important to define the meaning behind the decision to make a photograph.
Do you find it hard to define a photograph as acceptable or unacceptable? Just ask yourself if you’d like to be photographed in the same circumstances. And it doesn't stop there – add to that simple equation some broader perspective on empathy. Don’t limit yourself to comparing things like peaches and apples.
Having a camera pointed at our face isn’t so pleasant when the photographer is a total stranger. Try to be as quick as possible when snapping pictures of strangers, and even quicker if you find that the scene or the situation you’re about to capture is humorous.
Humour depends a lot on culture. If this wasn't true, there wouldn't be debates on why people from country X don’t get Y type of jokes. Therefore, the cultural aspect is something you need to consider when capturing humour on the streets or when targeting a specific audience (when working in concept photography). Whether or not you’re seeking to evoke humour, remember to use your social skills when diving into cultures different than yours.
If capturing a "decisive moment" wasn't hard enough, capturing humour is about delivering a specific message inside the decisive moment. Explaining this juxtaposition for me is easier when I put it like this:
Juxtaposition is the interaction of subjects that otherwise would present dull meanings when captured alone.
Humour is not expressed by the subjects in many cases. Humour is constructed by the interaction of a subject or subjects with their context. Humour is born when these elements combine at an exact moment of time to result in a playful message.
Observing the images of Elliott Erwitt is the best way I can illustrate the greatness of humour. Erwitt was not just a master of the popular "decisive moment", but a master of capturing humour through irony and absurd situations in uncontrolled situations. He stated once that "making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make them laugh and cry, alternately, like Chaplin does, now that's the highest of all possible achievements. I don't know that I aim for it, but I recognize it as the supreme goal."
Wise words from somebody who truly understands how to capture humour through photography. By contemplating his photographs, you'll realize that humour doesn't even exist in the scene itself, but it can manifest itself in the photograph.
Show your pictures offline once in a while and watch people's reactions. You might be making people laugh, but "likes" are not necessarily telling you that.
As a street photographer, you don't seek humour; humour finds you – and it's picky. Which is yet another reason why I never tire of telling people this: never walk without a camera. Always have it with you as your closest companion. Make it a habit, make it feel strange to walk around without its trusty strap slung from your shoulder. Amazing moments happen without planning. They don’t ring any alarms. They just happen. And humour is even rarer. It is serendipitous.