How many of us would love to photograph perfect strangers, but the idea of talking to people, let alone taking their picture, seems impossible. This series looks at situations around the world, where I have met complete strangers, taken their picture and walked away with more than a smile.
Last year, B&H Photo invited me to speak about the topic and when they reviewed my presentation, they were skeptical. They did not know if a guide on photographing strangers would be that interesting…well after 132,000 YouTube views and counting it seems like there are a few people out there who would like to know how to do this more easily. So, welcome to the new series “How to talk to Strangers” and we hope that it encourages you to get out there, take some pictures and make a few unexpected friends along the way.
Know thy Self
Before you attempt to photograph people, spend a few minutes reflecting on yourself. When you travel, do you:
- Strike up conversations with the person next to you on a plane, at a bar or in a park?
- Do you smile or make eye contact with people on the street?
- Do you actually like people? (laugh if you will, but there are a lot of photographers who really don’t like new people)
If you answered yes to all of the above questions, things will be a lot easier for you as you endeavor to connect with your photographic subjects.
If you answered no to any questions, my suggestion is to make a conscious effort to work these behaviors into your non-photographic life. It will get you in the habit of being comfortable with new people in a short period of time. If you genuinely don’t like people…well that one’s a bit more challenging to overcome. Smiling at people is great start, though – a waitress in a cafe, a checkout clerk at the store or just someone walking by in your neighborhood. Being friendly takes no time and can make someone else’s day.
For the sake of clarity, let’s set out a framework for the series so it is not confused with Street Photography or Portraiture.
Street Photography, social documentary, social realism…whatever we call it, is not what we are discussing here. No one is giving brownie points for the picture being candid. This is a learning experience and truthfully, I have NEVER met a gallerist, curator or editor that has even cared if a photo was “pure street.” The concept is an invention of the Internet which we will not discuss here.
We will consider Portraiture any photograph which was arranged in advance with the intention of making a portrait. It’s a great way to learn and something that may be useful to try, but for this series we will stick to the idea of walking up to someone on the street and being allowed to take their picture. Allowed is the key word here.
Dinara & Plamen in Florence
This past May, David Farkas and I were in Florence, Italy for a workshop we hosted. Perched high above the city is the abbey of San Miniato al Monte. It overlooks the Arno River and Brunalleschi’s dome and is the preferred spot to watch the sun set over the city below. People gather, every night, to take the most important picture of the 21st century, The Selfie. Given the predictable nature of photographic subjects and the great end of day light, we headed up to the abbey one afternoon.
While the light was fading, we saw a young couple on the wall in front of the abby. He was doing what most boyfriends do, trying to take a picture of his girlfriend. She was doing what most girlfriends do, rolling her eyes as he fussed to get just the right angle and setting on the camera. These awkward exchanges happen at every sunset around the globe. We decided that we might ease the obvious tension by asking, “Hey, would you guys like us to take a picture of you both?”
What did they say? “Yes.”
Why did they say yes? Who knows exactly, but my best guess was that she was at the end of her patience and he was equally frustrated with the half smiles that girlfriends give when they no longer want their picture taken.
In effect, we were allowed to take a picture because we solved a problem for them.
Lesson 1: Solve a problem for someone FIRST and ask to take their picture SECOND.
Once we were allowed to shoot, we asked Dinara and Plamen to sit in a few locations, gave a few instructions and they were happy to oblige. After a few shots, Plamen decided that it might be easier for him to grab a few pictures while we were shooting, so we ended up just shooting Dinara.
Lesson 2: Ask for their names.
When we meet people, what were we taught to do? Introduce ourselves, shake hands, bow…it all depends on the country and local customs, but photographers seem to forget their manners with a camera in hand.
There is nothing different about talking to strangers than there is to meeting a new client. They want to know who are you, why are you there, and whether you are actually paying attention to them. Here is how you can solve this problem, because it will happen every time you photograph someone new.
- Introduce yourself, clearly. If your name is complicated and has three hyphens, two middle names, and a royal prefix, just give them the short version.
- Tell them why you want to take their picture. In this case, we said we were leading a photo course, and that was all they needed to hear.
- Most importantly….REMEMBER their names. A real test of whether someone is paying attention is if they remember your name. Try this the next time you are out. Introduce yourself and see how many names you can remember.
During college I used to do this for fun. We would be out with friends and meet a group of girls. While everyone was busy sizing up one another, I would listen and remember everyone’s name. I can’t tell you how many people will be impressed if you remember their name. Forget about being good looking, charismatic, or even a good photographer… all you need to do is pay attention. Why?
Because, it makes them feel special because most people introduce themselves simply as a precursor to them talking about themselves (Welcome to NYC.)
Lesson 3: The follow up
While most of the photography world kicked and screamed with the introduction of digital cameras, they have two advantages that we did not have with film. First, you can turn the camera around and show them their picture and secondly, you can email them a picture afterwards. Sounds silly right? If you can take a good picture of someone within a few minutes of meeting them, they will enjoy it…I guarantee you.
Once you finish shooting, exchange info or cards or whatever you have and send them your pictures as a thank you. I try to do this with everyone I meet. I can’t tell you how many times I see one of my pictures as a new Facebook profile picture. And do I mind? No, not at all. It is a fair exchange where everyone walks away feeling good about the situation.
Now go out and give it a try and see how you make out.