The Human Landscape: Photographing Strangers

Seems to be a trend that many people would like to make more portraits but don’t know where to start. Being out and about is easy, lots of people enjoy bipedal photography in their hometowns or abroad. When you’ve photographed all the statuary and have creeped on all the great cars and been tossed out of all the coffee shops you’re left with the most intriguing and engaging part of any community. What makes the community. The people.

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down


I struggled with photographing people early on for a number of reasons, but the most of all because I wasn’t comfortable speaking concisely about what I was doing and why. Getting my arms around what drew me to photographing strangers was the first step to actually getting the task done. When the inevitable conversation came either before or after the shot I’d fumble and talk about everything but the truth.

I had a photography department head who would talk a lot about the juice. He’d look at your work, get your talking about it and ask: have you gotten the juice out of this idea, this scene? It took me a while to get the gist of this way of thinking, but my sensei was of course correct. Photography, especially environmental portraiture, usually has to hit the mark in one shot. Your vision can’t ramble or be too obtuse. Photos tell a story and your story had better be clear cut if you want it to be engaging. I’m not advocating one-dimensional work, far from it. An engaging portrait is obvious and secretive at the same time. As with any art, it should draw you in and let you digest it, come to terms with it.

Rapport, Comfort, Release.

The trick to creating a great portrait has to do with the relationship you establish with your victim subject. In a studio session, you have the subject coming to you for a service. You’ve got the upper hand, they’ve entered your lair and want to give you money (or EXPOSURE) for your talent and time. And thats great, I’ve been there. Your job is to make the sitter feel relaxed, comfortable and past the fact that nobody really likes photos of themselves. On the street, the tables turn.

On the street, market, train, you’re in their domain. The authority has passed from your hands, increasingly so as you get out of your comfort zone. Thankfully, your job as an image maker remains the same. Rapport, Comfort, Release.

I have to share a trick that makes things a whole lot easier for me. It’s not anything to do with technique, hypnosis or stealth tactics. Just shoot with something interesting. Perhaps this isn’t practical for everyone, but in my experience it makes all the difference in the world. Using a Rolleiflex in public is like shooting photos with a puppy. You can’t hide behind a TLR and it looks like it’s from a different age because it is. Everyone looks, some cock their heads, some people come to me and ask about it. Be open, be friendly. I get attention from seniors, artist, hipsters, trendy folk, kids. People who are interesting because they’re engaged with the world around them. These are easy marks because they’ve already bought into the idea.

If you’re not lurking like a creep, you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Oftentimes, the exchange of request and permission is as simple as making eye contact, motioning toward them with the puppy camera and raising my eyebrows in the universal “Do you mind?” expression. A conversation follows or precedes most images and I’m ok with that.

Some will, some won’t. Who cares? Who’s next?

In my upcoming post on NEWLK Salem, I revealed briefly my take on what people call street photography. I referred to it as a predatory game, and I stick by that. I see the value in being able to quickly grab a shot that will be gone before you have a chance to think. That works well for some people, but I’m not into it. I stroll, I chat, I shoot. The dynamic created by what I see happening with street photography is one of stealth and power. Successful street work happens with a wide lens, which means you’re either too far away to create a powerful composition or you’re very much in somebody’s airspace. In the word we inhabit, the can pose a problem. It can cause confrontation. It can give the rest of us a bad rap.

The same person you find interesting to look at is likely to be interesting to speak with as well. Even you exchange a few words and they decline, it’s a win. You’ve broached the gap with a fellow human, expressed your desire and received confirmation of their desire in return. Photographing people in public is a lot like speed-dating. Either they’re into you or they’re not. Pick out something they’d be proud of to open the conversation with:

  • “Miss, I love that coat. Thats’s a great look. May I take your photo?”
  • “That’s a killer beard, how long did it take to grow?
  • “How long have you had the Honda? I ride a BMW.”
  • “You lot look like you’re celebrating, what’s the occasion?”
  • “Is this a date? You guys look great together!”
  • “That hat is amazing, I wish I could pull off something like that!”

People enjoy talking about themselves, so let them. They’ll ask about you and your reasons for doing what you’re doing. Make sure you have a reason. Be engaging. Pass them a card so they can see your work.

If you’re anxious or ashamed of what you’re doing when you’re at large with a camera, it’s time to take a solid look at what your goals are. I suggest writing a private Artist’s Statement. It’s not a document you’ll post up on your website or share with people you meet. It’s a way to get your ducks in a row and give yourself a direction. In my recent rant about the lack of constructive criticism in modern social media I gonged on about having a grip on why you’re working, how to to get better at it and how to articulate it to others. An artists statement the first step on that journey. Perhaps you’ll never show your work, or share with others but at the end of the day you have a metric you can hold your work up to and decide if you’re on the right track.

Take the chance, get out there and meet people. You’ll be surprised how many are genuinely interested in what you’re doing and have stories to share in return. Go get the juice.

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