Since the 19th century, photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Joel Meyerowitz have been tirelessly roaming around to photograph life on the streets. Camera strapped in hand, these artists devoted thousands of hours seeking beauty and meaning in the banalities of daily life.
Although the proliferation of camera tech has drastically changed the landscape of street photography in the digital age, the tradition is continued by thousands of enthusiast photographers who are still pushing the envelope on what the genre should be about — and what it means to be a street photographer in the 21st century.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has made it virtually impossible for these artists to document the streets — which is why some of them are looking for alternative ways to hone their skills.
Moored inside their homes, a small group of street photographers have found a new venue to practice their craft: the virtual streets of Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, and Uncharted.
The trend has swiftly shaped up into a movement on Instagram, where photographers are sharing their snaps from games with the hashtag #virtualstreetphotography.
“A few of us had the idea of hanging out in the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 when we suddenly remembered that the game gives you a camera, so we started taking shots of landscapes,” Sean Tucker, a UK-based photographer and YouTuber, told me. “Before long, we were riding to Saint Denis [a fictional city in Red Dead Redemption] to shoot street, like we would on any normal day.”
Tucker is only one among dozens of street shooters turning to virtual photography amidst the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I noticed that Craig Reilly [co-founder of Street Photography International] was sharing some of his virtual street photography from Red Dead Redemption 2, and encouraging other users to do the same during self isolation,” London-bound photographer Nico Froehlich said. “I jumped on board straight away because I’m a huge fan of the game and I was already using the in game photo mode feature to do some virtual street photography in the game’s largest bustling city, Saint Denis.”
For what it’s worth, photographers have been capturing moments in video games for years now, but the recent pandemic has given the trend a second wind.
“Virtual street photography was born out of the need and the longing to express oneself creatively as a photographer in times of pandemic,” explained Germany-based photographer Nick Fabian.
While he stresses he didn’t kick off the movement himself, he says he’s drawn a lot of inspiration from it. “It’s exciting to see how photographers use video games to stay creative,” he added. “It’s also distracting, of course, and that’s very good in these times.”
More than an escape from the tedium of quarantine, virtual street photography is yet another way for these artists to sharpen their eye.
“It’s really impressive to see the possibilities Red Dead Redemption 2 has,” Fabian said. “I feel like I can transfer my own style of real photography into the video game.”
“You have a camera in the game itself that you can use,” the photographer explained. “So it’s not screenshots, but photos that you take in the game.”
Indeed, Rockstar has put quite a bit of effort into its in-game camera module from the looks of it. “You can even use a box camera from the 19th century which the protagonist possesses, which allows you to actually look through a viewfinder to compose a shot,” Froehlich added, seconding Fabian’s sentiment.
“As a photographer, it’s just another way of trying to be creative,” Reilly told me. “I use the same process in virtual street photography as I would in my actual work. Looking at what time the sun is at a particular location, and how that scene is lit at that time. The rest is just revisiting the scene and waiting for the right moment.”
That said, there are some differences between shooting the streets in person and in-game.
“Honestly, virtual street photography is like shooting fish in a barrel,” Tucker told me. “It’s easy pickings because all your subjects just stand and look at you, with no confrontation, and the light is constantly beautiful and changes in interesting ways every five minutes, so it’s much easier than the real thing.”
Still, Tucker believes it’s a great way to learn how to compose an image in a safe environment. It also introduces a whole new set of challenges. “The biggest difficulty I found was the fact that light changes very quickly in the game,” Froehlich pointed out. “It definitely keeps you on your toes.”
In the end, a big part of a photographer’s journey is to develop their own style — and there’s plenty of opportunities for that in games.
“Loving how similar these two shots are but how vastly different the process was,” wrote Cambridge-based photographer Craig Whitehead, comparing an image he captured in Red Dead Redemption to another one he snapped in the actual streets. “I guess it doesn’t even matter if I have a camera. I know what I like.”
Fun aside, virtual street photography has a higher purpose: Protecting those around us by exercising patience and responsibility.
“I know some photographers are still out there claiming it’s their duty to capture this momentous event in modern history,” Tucker said in an email to TNW. “Personally, I think that’s the job of the accredited journalists who are working on assignment for reputable news outlets… and that’s a very small number of people.”
“The rest of us should be staying home and doing our part to slow the spread of this virus to the most vulnerable in our society,” he added.
Tucker is not the only one who shares this opinion.
“The movement encourages photographers to stay at home, at a time when some are still going on photowalks and trying to justify that as a form of exercise,” Froehlich told me. “As long as we can get stubborn photographers to stay indoors — consider it job done.”
Read next: The night is always darkest before the dawn