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Streets Ahead Interview – Donna Donato – Mobile Street Photography

I am so delighted to publish this excellent interview with a mobile street photographer that I admire very much. Donna Donato‘s street images contain a certain tenderness that warms me, she brings a poetic effect to her work from her initial capture to her crops. Cara Gallardo Weil our co-editor to our StreetsAhead group (with Gina Costa) has produced an interview that you will all love to read. Thank you both so much for this.

This week, the Women’s Street Photography Collective (Streets Ahead) is pleased and honoured to feature Donna Donato in our interview segment.

Donna’s work has been published in City Zine and Snap magazines as well as included in various TheAppWhisperer showcases, group shows and on Hipstography. As part of The Hipstography Awards 2014, her “Reflections from below” portfolio won two special awards, The Ben Watts Award and The Chris Hornbecker award.

Donna Donato

‘Self Portrait’ – ©Donna Donato

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Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. Have you always been interested in photography?

For as long as I can remember I have loved images, be they still or moving. For many years I had a rather casual relationship with cameras, taking photographs in fits and starts and until recently, I had the requisite boxes of proof sheets and sleeved negatives. In 1998, I discovered the Polaroid Joycam and began seriously taking photographs on a daily basis, this habit continues to this day albeit with an iPhone.

‘Street Gymnast’ – ©Donna Donato – “Some friends and I were sitting on the terrace of a local bar when I saw this girl demonstrating what she had just learned in her gymnastic class. I grabbed my iPhone and captured this image”.

Where do you currently live? Is this a place that gives you energy and inspiration for your street photography or do you have to travel to find it?

For me, street photography means capturing life on the streets, whether it’s architecture or people. I currently live in Paris, a city that I love very much. I consider myself among other things, a flâneuse, someone who wanders about with no real destination. I love walking around documenting the city and its people, noting the similarities to and differences from other places I have lived. I tend to find myself frequenting the same areas so at least twice a month I randomly hop a bus or the RER commuter train and go to a different neighbourhood often outside the city limits, just to ‘see’ what is there.

‘View from the Bus’ – ©Donna Donato

Does your location, be it a big city, a small town, or the countryside, heavily inform all your photographs in general, not just your street photographs? How do you choose the places that you go to photograph?

Obviously one’s location influences some of the images captured but many of the subjects I’m interested in, can be found everywhere. It is extremely rare for me to travel to a place just to take photographs. I find leaving home with the intention ‘just to shoot’ adds undue pressure to get a decent, interesting and every once in a while, perfect shot. Have found when I go out with the aim just to shoot, the results often look/feel flat and forced. So, I leave home with the intent to be observant and usually photograph whatever catches my eye wherever I am.

‘Going Up’ – ©Donna Donato

What first drew you to street photography and how did you discover it? What is it about street photography that compels you to go out to shoot on the street? What are the subjects that are of the greatest interest to you?

I suppose I have always done street photography since I bought my first camera while still in college. I used to live in Washington, DC and would roam the streets talking to and taking photographs of people in various neighbourhoods. When I traveled around with my Polaroid camera, I often took photos of children, after asking the parent’s permission, and would hand the still processing print to the parent. Occasionally, I might encounter the people later and would get a chance to see the developed photo. I’m interested in almost everything but particularly attracted to architecture, all sorts of reflections, shadows and nature.

‘Rain and Reflections’ – ©Donna Donato

Do you sometimes secretly pose or direct the subjects in your shots or do you always shoot spontaneously? Do you think there is a “right” way to take a street photograph? There are those who feel that a photograph is only good if it follows certain guidelines and fundamentals such as “the decisive moment” or that street photography should never be posed. How do you feel about this?

No, I don’t secretly pose subjects. Personally, I feel, if you are posing the ‘subjects’ then it is not street photography but a photography shoot being done in the street. If by ‘direct subjects’ you mean stand in an area and wait for people to pass through, for instance, a patch of light, then I can say I am guilty of that. Approximately 95% of my shooting is done spontaneously before the light or moment is lost. The decisive moment, ha-ha, for most of us when we press the ‘shutter’ that IS the decisive moment. Whether the photograph is any ‘good’ is another thing.

‘Leaping’ – ©Donna Donato

How do you feel about shooting from the hip as opposed to looking though the viewfinder?

I know some very good ‘shoot from the hip’ mobile photographers and I really respect their work; however, I’m not one of them. I always feel kind of sneaky when I try to ‘shoot from the hip’, as if I’m stealing.

‘Cool breeze’ – ©Donna Donato

These days, the genre raises many questions with regards to the morals and ethics of taking photographs of strangers in a public environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to shoot freely as a street photographer. What are your thoughts on this?

Public environment is the operative phrase here. Most of us understand that we are liable to have our picture taken by CCTV or someone with his/her mobile device as soon we step into the street. Our image is constantly being snapped and sometimes it gets to be too much. Often find myself thinking about where I’m standing in connection to advertising because I don’t want to be in ‘a shot’. People have camera fatigue, they feel under seize and are tired of wondering where their likeness will end up or how it will be used. Plus if their image could be used for financial gain they want to reap some of the financial benefits. I certainly understand the public’s wariness because I feel it too. I also realize I’m part of the ‘problem’.

‘The Conversation’ -©Donna Donato

How do you feel about using model release forms and re-publication of images of the public? Are we morally, if not legally responsible?

I don’t know if we are morally responsible but in some countries we may be legally required to use release forms and/or obtain permission for publication.

‘Paris Accordian’ – ©Donna Donato

Do you have any personal rules when it comes to street photography? For instance, are there any situations that you feel are morally unacceptable?

Personally, I don’t photograph beggars of any sort, homeless, down and out and/or other vulnerable people. I absolutely don’t photograph people with the intent to passively ridicule them later.

‘Funeral Watchers’ – ©Donna Donato

“I was walking past a cafe that is across the street from Saint Sulpice church and noticed the terrace and adjacent sidewalk were crowded. All faces were turned towards the church, which alerted me that a celebrity’s funeral was being held. The people were gathered to catch a glimpse of the rich, famous and powerful mourners as they left the church. I took the photo with Hipstamatic and opened in Oggl to crop and try various combos”.

Do you think women street photographers share a different perspective to men? If so, can you elaborate on your thoughts?

I am not so sure women street photographers share a different perspective than men. Since each person has her or his own personal point of view shaped by culture, class, race, nationality, etc. I can only assume each of us has a slightly different view of the world when we look thorough our lens.

‘Afternoon Rays’ – ©Donna Donato

“This man was warming himself in the late afternoon sun. I initially shot the image with Hipstamatic and used Snap Seed to emphasize the sunrays”.

As a woman street photographer, do you find yourself drawn to shooting other women and children or do you prefer to shoot men or is this irrelevant? Would you feel uncomfortable if a male street photographer were to take a photograph of you?

More often than not I photograph women and children but I can’t really say the reason is because I am a woman. I am very interested in women and children’s roles in society and their interactions with each other. I am more at ease behind the camera than in front of it so I’m not very comfortable with either random women or men photographing me.

‘Looking Out’ – ©Donna Donato

“On the bus I was sitting behind this little boy and saw him looking out the window. Was touched by his pensive, almost sad expression. Couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking. The image was cropped and changed from color to black and white to focus attention on the child’s face”.

Do you think women street photographers are more accepted by the public when taking photographs or do you think they are more likely to be challenged? Do you have any experience of this?

I think the acceptance of the street photographer depends on the personality of the photographer and how she/he approaches the subject. In today’s world, it might be easier for women to photograph others, especially women and/or children because we’re often viewed as less threatening than men. I don’t really know because when I googled street photographers the vast majority seemed to be men.

‘Le Monde’ – ©Donna Donato

“I was riding the metro and noticed this dapper gentleman reading Le Monde, which is one of my favorite newspapers. I took the photograph because with his hat and scarf he looked like someone from another time. The photo was cropped and changed from color to black and white”.

Which street photographers have influenced you?

Everything I come in contact with, books, music, films, paintings, theatre, advertisements, as well as photography has the potential to inform my photographic work. When I think of my favorite street photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Eugène Atget, Bernice Abbott, André Kertész, Robert Doisneau, Bernd and Hilla Becher and of course, Vivian Maier come to mind.

‘Outlet’ – ©Donna Donato

“I noticed this woman and her shadow taking a phone break. I took a photo just before passing her and this one after I passed. The initial image was in color but I changed to black and white for added drama”.

Which mobile device do you use to take your photographs? Do you post-process your photographs? If so, what are your favorite post-processing techniques/apps? If you post-process on your mobile device, do you usually transfer the images as soon as they have been processed to social sites (in other words, capturing and editing the image while in situ) or do you prefer to have more time to work on your images? Please share some examples of your workflow process.

The iPhone is the device I use to take photographs and Hipstamatic is my camera app of choice. If I do any post-processing it is done on my iPhone and Snapseed, Mextures, Stackables and Photo Shop Express are the primary apps I use. Before sharing my images I always try to transfer to the computer to see the image in a larger size to make sure there are no surprises.

‘Plugged In’ – ©Donna Donato

“I saw this young woman walking with long strides as she listened to her mobile device. The accompanying shadow was an added bonus. Shot the image with Hipstamatic and used Oggl to change from color to black and white”.

Do you pre-mediate the capture of your images? Do you have a plan or structure in place or do you prefer to act spontaneously? Please share your thoughts about some of your images  what you were thinking, or felt when you shot those photographs.

Sometimes you only get one chance so one can’t think too much about the shot, just take it.

‘Hell to Pay’ – ©Donna Donato

“I was headed to Musee d’Orsay when I saw this girl fall. Actually, I think she was pushed by her brother. Judging from the look on her face I decided she was okay and took this photo just before she leapt up to give chase to her brother”.


What is the importance of street photography within the entire body of your work? To what extent is street photography a major focus for you?

Though I photograph people I am still a little conflicted about ‘taking’ people’s pictures without their permission, but obviously have to admit that I do take photographs of people sans permission. If I happen upon a situation where people are involved I may take a photograph but I don’t leave home with the intent to do street photography. I would have to say street photography, which includes people, doesn’t feel like my strong suit and consequently isn’t the major focus of my work.

‘Le Bon Marché Shuttered’ – ©Donna Donato

“Most of the shops in Paris were closed and the city was in mourning on November 14, 2015, the day after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. This smartly dressed older woman was texting while standing in front of the shuttered entrance of Le Bon Marché”.

Who do you think is the audience for your work? Is this who you want your audience to be? What is it you hope to achieve, either on a personal or professional level, with your body of work?

Currently, I share most of my photography online in mobile photography social media sites. My audience is made up of people who use social media. Photography provides a fantastic, creative outlet and learning experience. What am I going to do with my ever-growing body of work? That’s a million dollar question and I am tossing around a few ideas.

‘Young Activist’ – ©Donna Donato

“I took part in a Global Climate Change march and noticed this girl taking a break at her mother’s feet. I couldn’t help thinking of the verse from Proverbs, “train a child in the way that she should go… and she will not depart from it.”

What do you think distinguishes your street photography from others in the group?

Have to chuckle at this question. What distinguishes my photography might be the fact that one rarely sees the subject in a full frontal view. Based on some of the subject matter I choose to shoot such as, reflections in shop windows, rearview mirrors and puddles, I believe I’ve developed a style and some people immediately recognise my work.

‘Cafe Thoughts’ – ©Donna Donato

“I saw this man so deep in thought he forgot to flick the ash from his cigarette. Loved the soft light, which surrounded him”.

Where do you show your work? How has social media played a role in your photography? Which platforms are you most active on?

The advent of mobile photography and social media has played a huge role in my pursuit of photography. My phone is always handy and is small enough not to be cumbersome. Social media has made connecting with other global, mobile photographers easier and quicker. Most of my work is shown on various social media sites, such as Facebook where I have a page called HipstaParis, Oggl, Flickr and I’ve finally started using my Instagram account. I also own three blogs where my photographs are an integral part of the postings.

‘Just So’ – @Donna Donato

“This little boy was about to go into the bakery with one of his parents. He was carefully leaning his first bicycle; the one without peddles, against the building. It was charming to see how careful he was with the bike, trying to make sure it did not fall”.

Do you have any tips that you would like to share with us? Is there anything else you would like to add?

Way too many people tend to compare their photography with/to other people’s photographs and the comparers usually place themselves on the “my work isn’t very good” side of the equation. We have to remember not every photograph is ‘perfect’ or good, not by a long shot. Keep shooting and learning about photography, open your eyes and practice seeing new and different things, keep photo taking enjoyable and know that your work will evolve and grow.

‘Café Drinker’ – ©Donna Donato

“This man was taking a break from his flea market vendor’s helper job. Our eyes met just as I took this photo. I said, “bonjour et merci” and walked away”.

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Cara is a Graphic Designer and amateur photographer with a passion for mobile photography. Born in Hong Kong to Filipino parents who moved there in the early 60s to work in publishing, her early life was spent in Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. She studied graphic design in London and spent more than 20 years here before returning to Hong Kong, where she currently resides. Cara brings to her street photography a wonderful international and cultural perspective.