Invisibility and Empathy in Mobile Street Photography

To Sion Fullana, every passerby is a story waiting to be told.  Equipped with a background in both filmmaking and journalism, Fullana routinely wanders the streets of New York in search of aesthetic strangers to photograph. However, while Fullana’s photography does sound similar to Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project, there are two major differences:

Instead of a DSLR, Fullana shoots with an iPhone. Oh, and he’s actually invisible.

Fullana is one of the world’s leading mobile street photographers, but he prefers to be labeled as a visual storyteller. In this interview with Stated Magazine, Fullana shares valuable advice about maintaining “invisibility” and shooting with empathy on the street:

For Fullana, mobile photography is so much more than a petty novelty for capturing selfies or creeping on strangers. Instead, it’s a means to document humanity as it plays out around him in the faces of those who pass him on the street.

“I suppose there are many out there who think there’s nothing but an obscure intention behind the concept of photographing strangers, that it may be done either with the intention of ridiculing them or to satisfy one’s perverted voyeurism in the era of the Internet,” he said. “[But] what I care about the most is telling stories and transmitting emotions. Doing mobile street photography is a way of telling stories of real lives.”

To that end, Fullana employs two skills as he works—invisibility and empathy.

I. Invisibility

Contrary to popular belief, photographing strangers in public places without their permission is actually both legal and ethical, as long as the images are taken with good intention and respect, and as long as they are kept out of the commercial sphere.

“In order to capture that true, honest, “unfiltered” vision of a moment in time, invisibility is key, even if it comes without explicit permission [or] direct interaction with the subjects,” Fullana said. “Shooting with a phone allows you that extra level of invisibility.”

sion fullana mobile street photography

In an article called, “The Ethics of Invisibility,” Fullana discusses the ethics of photographing strangers on the sly.

It was the iPhone 3G that first drew Fullana to photography. Clunky DSLRs betray photographers with noisy shutter clicks, causing subjects to feel guarded and embarrassed, but the iPhone is unassuming and subtle—if one doesn’t blatantly hold it at eye level and tap on the screen to focus.

Instead, Fullana shoots with the phone held horizontally in one hand. This allows him to pre-focus and lock the exposure with his thumb as he anticipates a shot. When the moment is right, all he has to do is let go. No mess, no release forms.

II. Empathy

Growing up with a love for psychology, Fullana has always felt an empathetic connection to others—and that emotional intuition comes out in his work.

“[Empathy] helps me ‘feel’ the scene or situation in front of me, to know the best moment when to take the shot, either with someone I’m taking a portrait of, a candid situation in the city, some actors engaged in a scene, or a speaker on the stage,” Fullana said.

new york city photographer

Besides adding artistic appeal, shooting with empathy protects Fullana from offending his subjects because it teaches him to photograph them respectfully—flattering them as much as possible.

Through empathy, Fullana infuses photographs of total strangers with an evocative sense of familiarity—that same feeling of déjà vu that prompts people to ask, “Have we met?”

Without emotional connection to subjects, even the highest quality photographs will seem lifeless and uninspirational, which proves that photography is less about tech and more about artistic vision.

“Everyone’s photos tend to start looking the same… [but a good photo] tells something that is memorable, or that makes you feel something, or reflect on something,” Fullana said. “It’s not the tool you have in your hands. It’s your eye, your heart, your brain. That’s all.”

high museum art atlanta camera obscura

This photo has been selected for permanent display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Originally from Spain, Fullana worked there as a journalist before studying filmmaking in Cuba, and later became a professional photographer. Now, he routinely wanders the streets of NYC and posts his photographs on social media sites like Instagram and Backspaces, enjoying a large, loyal following and winning international acclaim.

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