Mean Streets of Budapest – Street Photography Dilemmas in Hungary

Budapest street photography

 

H e asked me for a cigarette. A youngish guy, stinking of liquor. We stood in the heart of District VII, in the rapidly gentrifying and wildly cosmopolitan city of Budapest, Hungary. Before I had time to answer, he pulled the “fuck you” sign language, proudly extending his sloppy middle finger right in front of my face. Then he loosely turned around, staggered two steps backwards, and collapsed onto the sidewalk next to the entrance of the Hunyadi Market. His body motionless, assuming the uncomfortable contortion that only a professional drunk is capable of. With eyes wide open his pupils were nowhere to be seen, hidden somewhere behind his open eyelids. A pair of surprisingly clean, bright, and non-bloodshot whites gazed up at the sky. He was out.

My camera was slung around my neck, as it normally is. Instantly, the dilemma became apparent. He may have been down on his luck, probably a homeless drunk, but there is no denying that he was also an asshole. A twisted body lay on the ground beneath me, whites gleaming, and shoppers were stepping over him just to buy some carrots and potatoes. I thought, this may make a powerful image. There would only be a moment to decide whether or not to push the shutter button, and capture the mean streets of Budapest. Because if there is one thing street photography has taught me over and over again – everything in life can change in an instant. I needed to decide, fast.

Do this enough, and you will develop a gut feeling as to what is “right”, or indeed “wrong” when it comes to determining whether or not to click the button. In hindsight I have the luxury of time to ponder, and deeply consider, that moment. However, it only takes a few seconds on the streets to slide most of the big thoughts through my mind. It appears to be a paradox – but at that moment, I had all the time in the world to consider a complexity of morals, ethics, and rules, before deciding whether to take the shot. Street photography forces you to develop your own rules. Your own personal code of conduct.

I decided I would take the shot, and reached for my camera.

photography street budapest
Technique – I asked this pretty lady if I could take her photo. She said yes. Budapest, Hungary.
budapest supermarket, hungary
Some street photography happens in the hair products aisle of the supermarket. Hunyadi Market, Budapest, Hungary.
street photography on the streets of budapest
This is called a “hip shot”. My camera, is on my hip. It’s sneaky, but worse than that – it makes it difficult to get a good photo. I’ll stick to my usual technique. Budapest, Hungary.
street photography in Budapest
Amazing looking people roam the streets of Budapest, Hungary.
photography on the streets of budapest
Stylin’. Budapest, Hungary.
street photography budapest
This is a “ruin pub” located within an old dentist surgery. Recommended. Budapest, Hungary.
street photo in budapest
Where I come from, older people are banished to retirement homes in suburbia. Not in Budapest, Hungary – it’s a real city.
budapest sunrise
About once a year, I stay awake all night. At around 4.30am or so, this is what Budapest looks like. Consider this photo a break from all the intense and emotional faces of people on the streets of Budapest. And now, back to the regularly scheduled photos and semi-depressing street photography story…

 

He was passed, out within arms length of where I was standing. A laying drunk, a sitting duck.

And then everything changed in an instant, as it is prone to do. Another man, probably homeless as well, approached. He starting kicking the feet of the guy on the ground. It took a few firm kicks, but he awoke, startled. The man standing over stared fiercely, pointed at the park across the road, said something gruff in Hungarian, and motioned for him to leave the entrance of the market. I translated the situation as perhaps the public park was a more appropriate place to be passed out stonkered, than the front entrance of a busy market. The men continued to look into each others eyes. It was like I was invisible. And then they both walked away.

I put my camera down. I hadn’t taken the shot.

Now, a couple of weeks later, I can really think that moment through. It wasn’t appropriate for me to take the photo – and I’m glad I didn’t. Having experienced the guy thrust his finger into my face, I had allowed myself a temporary rush of vindictiveness. It wasn’t that he deserved to have his photo taken and made public. It was more a case of – well, he made his choices in life, he was in public, there’s nothing illegal about taking his photo, and since he was such an asshole, I probably wasn’t going to feel bad about putting his photo on the internet.

But the thing is, I would have. I’ve developed my own internal set of street photography rules, and taking advantage of people who are down on their luck is one rule I would need a much better reason than “he was an asshole” to break. I do think photography can help the underdogs of the world. It can give them representation. Make normal people remember that the forgotten people exist. Shown in the same reality as everyone else I see on the street, with as little bias as possible, they can be elevated from the usual portrayal to one that shows them as regular human beings, firmly part of the patch work of any real city. I’m aware of my privileged position in life, due to the stroke of luck of my birthplace and a bit of good fortune ever since. I don’t really suffer guilt because of this, my personal ethics dictate that everybody is equal, but unique, until they prove otherwise. And this is what I carry over onto my street photography.

Budapest is one of the worlds greatest cities. Which means it’s not perfect. Rapid gentrification is occurring, and Budapest is certainly a city in transition. With transition and gentrification, come winners and losers. And gentrification is a real bitch to the losers. On the inner city street I stayed on for a month, there was a cafe at one end where the decor was so decadently opulent it makes the Ritz seem a little understated, and at the other end, a homeless guy was living outside on the concrete. I saw him every single day. I never spoke to him, he stuck to himself. We made eye contact a few times, and that’s as far as it went.

click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article

 

On one morning I noticed him washing himself in the fountain. At night, I would see him asleep on the small steps of the post office. Sometimes, he would have a companion. Mostly, he was alone. There was a one sunny afternoon where a small girl had approached him, and they were conversing. He looked incredibly happy. The child’s mother looked on, her eyes smiling in that way that shows there is no hint of anything but pure joy. Clearly he was a nice man, and the locals were somewhat accustomed to his presence.

I never saw him drunk.

In the cold of the night, I saw him rugged up, laying down with his back turned towards the world, trying to get some sleep.

At first he had a suitcase, but that disappeared after a couple of weeks.

After that, his rugs were always neatly folded and stacked behind the pubic phone box.

There was at least one thing we had in common – for a whole month neither of us ventured too far from District VII in Budapest.

After the dilemma at Hunyadi market, I walked home, turned the corner into Hegedu Street where my apartment was located.

Immediately I spotted the homeless regular, standing right in front of me.

We both lived on that street. His home was literally on the street, mine wasn’t.

I saw all of his possessions neatly stored up against the wall, as usual.

He was hunched over in complete and utter despair.

Apart from that one time when he was talking to the child, I’d never seen him look happy. But I’d also never seen him look so terribly despondent. He looked up. His eyes didn’t lie, there was a torrent of emotions behind them. But his face remained empty and expressionless, as it was almost every other time I had seen him.

He looked back down, and placed his hands on his knees.

I raised my camera to my eye, and took a photo.

 

homeless on the streets of budapest
Another disposable street photo. It means more to me than it does to you. Homeless in Budapest.

 

When we’re children, we don’t think that one day we might grow old sleeping in the streets. Life for some people, takes an unexpectedly wrong turn. As much as we would like to think we can predict how things will turn out, we can’t. There’s too many variables. Anything could happen. We can assume that we will always have a loving family. That whatever prosperity we’ve gained will be retained. And if we work hard all of our lives, and pay taxes, then the state will look after us into our old age.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Life has an ultimate beginning and end.

The time in between, we just can’t predict.

It feels harsh saying this – but for as long as this photo remains in existence, or for as long as my memory retains his face, he will be a reminder of many of lifes lessons. What to take, and what not take a photo of on the streets, being the least important of all of the lessons this photo represents. Perhaps the main lesson is that our lives often unfold almost beyond control.

And that every person you see on the mean streets, has a story to tell.

Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to hear the stories.

I’m glad I took the photo. Much like in real life, it would seem that the photo shows the man as being anonymous and unidentifiable. But for anyone who lives in that Budapest neighbourhood, reading this, they already know at least a little bit about him. They will recognise him. To them, he’s not anonymous. And we can be sure that either now, or in the past, he had a family, a job, a home.

Maybe a wife, and maybe some children.

That photo will also remind me that Budapest isn’t perfect.

And that’s a trait that’s shared by all of the worlds greatest cities.

I’ll be back.

Nate

 

PS, I want to personally thank all of the people who have read, shared, and left comments on Yomadic over the past twelve months. You don’t know how much I enjoy, and appreciate, the dialogue that happens on these pages. In seven days time, Phillipa and I will have completed our first twelve months on the road. Going into the second year of travelling, I can predict that my life, Phillipa’s life, and your life – will remain unpredictable. As for the future of the Yomadic blog? After twelve months, I haven’t even come up with a tag line.

I’m just getting started.

PPS, those who follow me on Facebook know that I’m currently in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. Yes, I’m back in Western Europe after six months spent mostly in the Balkans. This will just be a quick stop here (another week or so), and then, well, that’s what I need to start planning.

PPPS, did you know, those people who receive each post by email (about one a week), receive larger sized photos than on the website? It’s true. Mad love for my email followers. Jump on board, pop your email address in here: (no spam, I promise).

 

Getting started in street photography is easy. Before I set out on this journey, I had a quick trip in Hong Kong. I met Eric Kim (an amazing street photography teacher), took some photos on the mean streets of Hong Kong, and wrote an article on tips to help you take street photos. Have a read, and share it! The more the merrier in the street photography world.

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49 thoughts on “Mean Streets of Budapest – Street Photography Dilemmas in Hungary

    1. TIHANA! So nice to hear from you, hope you’re enjoying Budapest (if you are there now?)…. the pub is on Akacfa utca… in fact, I will add a map to this page showing exactly where it is, so check back again. It’s typical of most of the ruin pubs in Budapest, but perhaps not so many tourists (like the ones on Kazinczy Street). Take care, hope to catch up with you again one day. Nate.

      1. No, I was only there for a day and a half, about three weeks ago. But going back in September. :)
        Thanks for the tip (I’d probably never find this kind of place on my own), I’ll check back. Send my regards to Phillipa.
        Bok!

  1. Budapest – such a fun city! I wasn’t as intrigued with the people there as I was with how much history there was and so much to see and do. Love it!

    1. Hi Andrea – great to hear from you again. Agreed, I enjoyed Budapest so much. It has run through my head more than once to make it my Euro-base. Time will tell…

  2. I absolutely loved this post. I think what you describe is what all travelers face – how much to you “zoo-ify” the places you go? On one hand I’d hate for people to be taking my mom’s picture at a grocery store, but on the other it’s so fascinating to see people buying vegetables in a Vietnamese market. As time has gone on I think I’m more likely to take the picture, but in the beginning I always erred on the side of caution. But where there is room to inspire, I prefer to take the shot and apologize later.

  3. Great post Nate.

    Re shooting from the hip – that’s where swivel screens come in handy, although personally I don’t really like this method. I would usually prefer to be obvious about taking a shot, rather than trying to get one on the sly. For some reason it always seems to feel worse when you do that and get caught out anyway!

    1. Cheers P. Yep, I agree about the hip shot. I tried it for a day, and there are a few problems – it makes it impossible to compose properly, also I like to capture peoples faces close up, and yep – it feels a little creepy, I would hate to get caught out!

  4. I think you are the blogger that has made my Buzz posts the most! I tend to hang around some bloggers who keep posting pics of their trips on First Class and amazing hotel suites (all on frequent flyer miles and hotel points!) so it is so refreshing to come here and see what real life is all about!
    Gracias senor!

    1. You’re welcome Amigo! As I have said before, I appreciate SO much you sharing my posts. I hope I can keep it real for you and your readers, and offer a little balance compared to the first class lifestyle. Although I wouldn’t say no if someone was to offer me a first class ticket or an amazing hotel suite…

  5. Hi Nate

    I’ve been following you for some months now and have really enjoyed your photos and observations. The poor guy on Budapest’s mean streets is a powerful piece of reportage, worthy of a National Geographic article. Living in south Wales (UK) we have our share of losers in the lottery of life, but it’s so easy to be so wrapped up in our own interests that we ignore these poor souls. Lesson learnt – it could so easily be me – Be thankful for what I’ve got and help these guys, even if it’s just buying them a cup of coffee and saying hello

    Best wishes

    Jon

    1. Thank you Jon, it’s nice to get to know the people who are reading my blog. I can’t express properly how I feel reading your comment, all I can say is a heart felt thank you.

      And I agree, life really is a lottery – and we all need to be very grateful for what we have. As well as looking out for those less fortunate. I genuinely don’t want to sound preachy, indeed, I see that I need to spend more of my time in life being generous and bringing positive attention to those who need it.

      Thanks again,

      Nate.

  6. Hi Nate
    If you like Budapest I strongly recommend a film called Gloomy Sunday which is set there and I think you will find very evocative.It’s set before, during and after WW 2 so it will be based on the older parts of the city.It’s made in Hungary so make sure you get a subtitled version! It’s a sort of rebuttal to Schinlers List

    Cheers

    Dave

    Ps: Am currency in Mandalay, partly because of your Myanmar photos!

    1. Thanks Dave – I always love receiving movie recommendations. I did watch one movie about Hungary, it involved a farming family slowly starving to death eating nothing but potatoes, so something a little less grim would be nice!

      I really hope you enjoy Burma (as I’m sure you are), and feel happy to have at lest partially inspired your journey. Take care mate!

  7. Wow Nate! A subtle, yet powerful post. I love how you’ve bookended it with the story of the two pics, one you didn’t take and one you did. I definitely think you made the right decision. The one you did take is so powerful when you tell the story behind it. As always, love your street photography because there is a story in every face and every scene you capture. Well done, yet again. And congrats to you and Phillipa on your one year road anniversary! Can’t believe it’s been a year already for you two. I don’t remember if I found you or you found me on Twitter last year, but so glad we connected. Cheers and best wishes for another fantastic year of travel!

  8. Nate,

    Really enjoyed this piece. Been reading your posts for a few months now and I always look forward to the next one. This one moved me, especially about the homeless man – and that’s just a beautiful capture of him as well.

    You plan to go back to Poland anytime soon? I’m from there…left with my parents in 1984 and been back only once in 1997. It changed a lot in those years, and probably greatly again since ’97. I’m sure there are stories to be had there.

    Keep the real-life stories coming!

    Best,
    Slavomir

    1. Hey Slavomir, thanks for the compliment, I’m glad you’re enjoying the journey. I really would like to spend more time in Poland, I rushed through last time, and there was just so much to see. There is a possibility I will head back, I hope so.

  9. You’re one of the best street photographers out there, Nate! People might have taken some photographs of real people with their real lives and claim their photos as deep and meaningful. But great photographers never speak of the greatness of their photos, other will. Great job, Nate! As always.

  10. For me, alongside the ethical debate about taking photos, there’s a practical debate about the balance between getting a good shot and soaking up the experience. I don’t publish photos so the main purpose for me is to trigger memories. If I get this balance wrong I end up feeling like the guy who walks round the art gallery reading all the labels but never looking at the pictures. The time taken up getting the shot is always at the expense of gathering less material to base the recollection on. But maybe that’s a whole different debate.

    1. That’s a debate I’ve had with myself many times, too. It’s really difficult, but I think your sentence–“The time taken up getting the shot is always at the expense of gathering less material to base the recollection on”–is a great way of putting it. The less time you can spend getting a shot to allow for more memory acquisition time, the better!

  11. Hi Nate,

    Really glad you enjoyed Budapest. I agree that it’s a great city. This one of most interesting and heartfelt, ethics of street photography posts I’ve read. I agree with you, just because a shot can be taken, doesn’t mean it should.

    As photographers or even just visitors to other towns/cities/countries we shouldn’t forget our humanity. Everybody has their own rules but I have to treat those who might be in my photos with compassion and respect.

  12. Reading this blog entry was especially interesting for me as I was born In Budapest and living there ever since.

    At first I became a bit frustrated because your words and photos felt negative and painted the city worse than I think it is. The vicinity you were in and around though is not really far from what you show but the city is much more varied and different in the other districts (not certinly better, just different). By the end of the entry my feelings changed – loved your little stories and words, complimented by nice photos with meanings.

    If you are to come back sometime and would like to have someone as a guide to show some places for street photography, for example the Vásárcsarnok – The Central Marketplace which is always full of photographic opportunities, write me.

  13. WOW this is the best street photography blog, love you’re stories behind the pics, felt like I was in Budapest on the streets with you going through the madness, Budapest looks like my kind of City, I’m so glad I found you blog thanks to Fujirumors.com.

    Keep up the real work, I will be following you.

  14. I, too, re-discovered your blog through fujirumors.com like Freddie. Have bookmarked it this time to keep up. Very enjoyable and I am working back through some earlier posts to catch up.

    Reading through your entries with the images tied in to the words is a really nice format and gives more impact and understanding to an image. Especially like you did with the last shot. The image takes on additional meaning with what is essentially an expanded cutline.

    On your equipment, have you decided yet on the X100S? I have both the X100S and the X-E1 with the 1,4/35mm. For me, they complement each others but there are a couple of small things about the X100S I would like to see in the X-E1. Specifically, provide a 0.5 second selection on image display after the shot (yeah, that has become addictive!) and work a little more on the focus peaking in the X-E1. I love the focus peaking in the X100S but the feature in the X-E1 is a little short. Maybe with a different color as has been mentioned.

    1. Hey Richard, nice to have you back. I’ve not decided on the X100s yet, I think I’ll wait for the new 23mm X-Pro lens to come out first, check that out, and then make a decision!

  15. Hey Nate,

    My rss reader has been down for a bit so now just getting caught up on your travels. As the others above, great article and photos, especially your account of the homeless gentleman.

    Personally, human connection is something that moves me in a very emotional way. It doesn’t happen with everyone I meet or come across but when I connect with someone, it has a lasting impression on me.

    BTW…did you ever find out or ask what had caused the man so much despair?

    1. Hey Nathan, no, I never spoke to the guy. We just made fleeting contact whenever I passed. I think it’s safe to assume, a lot of his despair is just due to being homeless. He was really roughing it. Thanks for the compliments as well.

  16. It’s getting meaner for the homeless on the streets of Hungary. The parliament has recently passed a law that prohibits homeless to sleep near world heritage sites and other public places officials want to keep “clean”. So being homeless and visible becomes a punishable offense. It’s sad how they’re investing energy into hiding poverty and problems instead of doing more to solve them.

    Fantastic blog, Nate.

    1. Hi Martin, that’s just sad. So ridiculous. However (and unfortunately) – Budapest isn’t alone around the world with this way of thinking. There are other countries where being homeless is a crime as well. It does nothing to address the real problems. I’m sure that you – as with myself – feel kind of helpless to do much about it. I don’t know what else to say!

  17. My comment is related to the homeless in public places. I believe in compassion for those in need but accountibility for those who can be helped but refuse it. Surely, some have mental instability and can’t help themselves. I see the homeless as a city issue and would like to see cities offer various help to rehabilitate these people who can have help. That does require resources. But I see it as a city problem and the community needing to get involved. For those who don’t want help and like a lifestyle of not working and living off others, I feel they need accountibility and consequences. I don’t believe they should be given free reign of a city. Most people work hard in this economy to put a roof over their heads. Anyone can fall on hard times and need help. But for those who refuse help and are capable, they need to be banned from public areas and the public should not be forced to deal with their choices.

      1. 2 thoughts
        1. The whole idea of banning homeless from public places starts with the notion that they are an eyesore. One of the things I like about Yomadic’s photos and reporting is that they don’t make that assumption. It does away with the “something should be done” mentality.
        2. If you start down this road who’s next? The old, the disabled, photographers? We may end up with empty pavements because we’re all banned! Third world cities would be automatically empty. (written in Taunggyi Burma)

  18. Nate,

    Great story? I mean the article was intuitive, well written and thoughtful. I think no matter where you/anyone would travel to, there will be always those in need, those whom are down and out. And as you put so well it could happen to anyone of us, anytime and anywhere. I live in Los Angeles and in the last few years begging and street handling has become an operation, sometimes for some who are good at, profitable. Many of those people in Los Angeles, because if has become so wide-spread, have become virtually invisible. often my heart aches, I have a warm bed, a job and people who care……I live in an rich age of hunger and poverty. Good luck in your travels and you speak well that your camera lens is a vision, a light into your soul….please soldier on my good man and continue to help us live vicariously through you photos while i toil in a windowless office.

  19. A lot of incisive thoughts, and beautiful prose. Thank you for an elegant blog post!
    Look forward to investigating what else is on here…

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