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Shooting Strangers

For many people, approaching strangers isn’t easy, and for those of us who are prone to feel a little self conscious with a camera in our hands it can be even more of a challenge. Although more images are being taken than ever – by ourselves and by CCTV cameras – the general public can be paranoid and panicked by the sight of a person with a camera.
The first time I stopped a complete stranger in the street and asked to take their picture was extremely daunting. I was working on my first assignment on my undergraduate course at Farnham, and I was working on project that was supposed to be about my personal response to my new environment. Inspired by Ingrid Pollard’s Wordsworth’s Heritage series from the early 1990s, I set about making a set of pastiche postcards that expressed something of my disappointment with my new ‘home’.
I needed a picture of a commuter for one of the postcards. I wasn’t particularly bothered what he or she might look like, although perhaps the glummer the better. But really, I was happy to get a snap of whoever would say ‘yes’. I tried to stop about half a dozen people as they hurried out of the station, rushing to get home. Perhaps not the most sensible time of day to do the shoot but luckily one kind gentleman agreed. (‘Thank you – whoever you were, and wherever you are!’)

© Jesse Alexander
© Jesse Alexander

The picture itself is certainly nothing special: I’d barely used a flash before; I don’t think it was even in focus; and I printed it very poorly. But it gave me great confidence, and the experience definitely helped me approach strangers, feel less self conscious about using a camera in public, and it taught me to deal with rejection too!
I asked a few other tutors about their experiences of photographing strangers…
Sharon Boothroyd
One of the first photos I remember taking of a stranger was of a woman on the subway in Boston. I was about 17, doing A-level photography and I liked her face. So I asked her if she would mind if I took her picture. She nodded and it was a quick, shared moment. I loved the picture, probably more for the moment it represented than for the picture itself (I left the negative in the enlarger and lost it shortly after!). It helped confirm my interest in other people and photography’s ability to make connections, however brief.
Since then I’ve spent more time with my subjects. Strangers I met in Russia invited me in for Tatar pie and tea and I had a friend of a subject ring me up and invite me to take her picture and speak English with her.
In Disrupted Vision I approached strangers in the street closer to home in London, Oxford, Wales and Paris. In The Glass Between Us I met them by looking through their window at them and knocking the door to ask if I could take their picture. Most people respond well and I’ve enjoyed many of those moments I had with the woman on the train in Boston ever since. Photography’s capacity to connect me with humanity continues to amaze me and remains the thing that keeps me shooting.
© Sharon Boothroyd
© Sharon Boothroyd

Robert Enoch
© Robert Enoch
© Robert Enoch

Obviously this young man didn’t mind being photographed!  For years I’ve been collecting photos of the word FREE.  I’m interested in this important word/concept is used, abused and disseminated in our culture.  I came across this young man and noticed his FREE T-Shirt, so I told him I was making a project about the word FREE and asked if I could take his photo.  He obviously understood the idea and said yes immediately.  Such a picture isn’t really about the portrait, it’s about the word, although I guess his attitude characterizes the word, which is actually a dictionary definition.
© Robert Enoch
© Robert Enoch

I took this in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast.  This is Mary in her beach hut.  I think I started talking to her and then asked if I could take a photo.  Generally, when I photograph people I explain that I am an artist and I may say something about what stood out for me and the reason why I would want the picture.  She had to stay still for the longish exposure because it was quite dark inside the hut.  It’s probably the closest I’ve come to a “Walker Evans” type portrait.
By far the most remarkable experience I had of photographing a stranger was coming across a prim looking young woman at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I walked straight passed her thinking “She’s a picture!”  Then I checked myself for not having asked for a photo, so I went back and asked her.  What ensued was wholly unexpected.  Sarah-Neel was an American masters student of Islamic art history and very happy to be an artist’s muse!  We walked around the museum and then around central London.  It resulted in some of the best portraits I have ever made, largely because she was something like an actress or chameleon who changed in each picture.
© Robert Enoch
© Robert Enoch

Lorentz Gullachsen
Since my student days, I have found that having a camera and a smile can get you to talk to a potential subject. Most people are happy to engage with others; you ask strangers for directions – why not ask if you can photograph them?
A shot of a builder working in my street. It took two minutes to shoot, but a 15 minute chat before about the weather and how his job was progressing…
© Lorentz Gullachsen
© Lorentz Gullachsen

Approach people as you feel you would like to be approached. Be friendly and tell them what you are doing. But remember the first rule of photography: ‘Look Cool’! If you are relaxed and not anxious, they will be relaxed too.
I shoot a great deal of travel and street photography, and even if there is a barrier because of language, I try to engage with the subject, and indicate that I would like to photograph them. If I can talk, then I explain the purpose of what I’m doing, making the project or assignment as simple as possible.  Initially I always expect the cliché smile, but then, it is possible to engage further, and negotiate another few images. Once you have a few shots you can possibly show them the results and then you can try and suggest alternative versions. It maybe that you can promise them a copy (via e mail) and get their details.
I always carry a small ‘model release’ form, custom made and ‘user friendly’. I ensure I always carry a few pens, so that writing is easy (how many people carry a pen now?) Alternatively a smart phone can be used to enter details, and there are apps for model release that can be used.
www.gullachsen.com , Cally Road Festival , https://youtu.be/-lTEp8TN51Y?t=1s
Wendy McMurdo
The first time I photographed someone I didn’t already know was in Sheffield in the 1990s. I wanted to photograph a group of local amateur actors (something I’d never done before) and made contact with a few groups that I spotted in the yellow pages. In the end, I began to work with a group of child actors (again, something I had absolutely no previous experience of). I was so intent on capturing what I needed for the project that what I felt was not nerves, but the pressing desire to get something useable from the shoots. Luckily, the group I began to work with were completely relaxed and/or oblivious to the camera which made my job very easy.
I do clearly explain to the groups I work with at the outset exactly what I want to achieve from a shoot. I don’t ever shoot without this preparation and for me it’s important. As I have progressed in my work, I try to ensure that my subjects are aware of their roles and happy with the way in which they are represented.  From that initial contact in Sheffield in 1993 came a lifetime of photographing (mainly young) people in a variety of different situations. My subject may begin as strangers but – as was certainly the case with the In a Shaded Place project they continued to live on in a way I could not have anticipated when I made my first contact with them all those years ago.
© Wendy McMurdo
© Wendy McMurdo

Andrea Norrington
For years I avoided photographing not just strangers but any people at all.  I photographed abstract shapes, shadows, hints of the person but never the person.  I tried to photograph friends and family but never quite got the hang of it. Feeling very subconscious and not quite in control of my camera, I was jealous of those who could direct people with oodles of confidence to obtain portrait shots.
About eight years ago I was challenged by a colleague who was a portrait painter to take some people shots. (I had by this stage become very good at telling students how to do it without actually ever doing it.)  So I started by photographing my department … they weren’t the greatest images but it was a step in the right direction.   By the end of the project I found I was actually enjoying the shoots.
Some people will say no if you ask to take their picture. A few will be quite rude at saying no; a couple of people may be very rude about saying no!  But stick with it. For all those ‘no’s’ most people will actually say yes – maybe reluctantly, and occasionally they may scare you by being a little too enthusiastic to pose!
Thank you Seb for setting me the portrait challenge!
© Andrea Norrington
© Andrea Norrington

Please feel free to add your own stories, or share any advice you might have for someone who might find the prospect of approaching, asking and photographing a stranger less than appealing!

Posted by author: Jesse
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13 thoughts on “Shooting Strangers

  • If anyone has a comment to make about sketching strangers, I’d be interested. I have just started drawing, and feel that it could be intrusive to sketch someone, especially as I’m very slow, so it takes a lot of looking.
    I recently sat by a children’s play park and tried to sketch some of the playing children. They move very quickly so it was just very quick impressions. I don’t think they even noticed me, but it could have been difficult if a parent had objected. The sketches were completely unidentifiable as individuals, but parents understandably get very worried about the safety of their children. I was just too self-concious to ask.
    I feel very protective of children in general and think that they should always have given consent if they are to be photographed in an identifiable way. I’m not sure it’s enough for the parent’s consent to be taken as an OK. This means that small children would be out for me, as they probably don’t have the capacity to understand the concept.

    • Alison, I think children are a very difficult topic. When my little boy was just a few weeks old a man approached me in a coffee shop. He gave me his card which said that he was an artist, and asked to take a photograph of my baby so that he could later sketch a picture. The whole thing made me very uncomfortable and I said no, but looking back I can’t tell you what I was nervous about, my little boy was swaddled and in my arms so no harm could come to him! I think we are just conditioned these days to assume the worst when it comes to childrens safety.
      For that reason I would never photograph a child other than at the request of their parents – even when photographing my son (at the park for example) I stop as soon as another child comes near so that I don’t make the parents nervous.
      More generally, I am still too scared to photograph a stranger other than at a distance with a long lens. I have a project in mind photographing the people I walk past every day on the school run, examining what makes certain people stand out from the crowd, but I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to try it. Again I don’t know what harm I think is likely to come to me, its a completely unfounded fear!

  • The ability to stop, gain consent and take a useful photograph of strangers was one of the main criteria that the Chief Photographer at my first press job was looking for. Luckily in my sparse portfolio there was a photograph of Didsbury’s midday drinkers all acknowledging in a variety of ways my presence with a camera – not sure how informed the consent was. So many elements are involved in getting the shots that we as viewers often take for granted, but with practice you can; overcome shyness, concisely inform others of your project, ‘mould’ the subject to gain the effect you’re looking for and get the photograph you wanted or get something neither of you expected…

  • Very interesting and for me a timely topic. I am extremely nervous about photographing strangers, perhaps because I am pretty shy when meeting strangers and handle conflict badly (although I can be anything but shy once I get to know people, as those who have recently met me might have found to their cost). I have tried to engage with street photography, taking shots of people unawares,sometimes with success, occasionally with a robust response. Culture can affect this, Germans are very nervous of cameras and guarded about their privacy, a history of the use of photography to surveil and control to populace has had a lasting influence. The law protects a persons image from any form of use, paid or not.
    However, I am just about to embark on a mini-project to try and photograph strangers I meet as I walk my local river bank as a potential element in my Body of Work project. I have the added difficulty of doing this in a foreign language that I can barely speak – my bad. My plan is to create small postcards that illustrate and explain my project in English and German with a link to a web site where they can go and see what I am trying to achieve and the outcome of my work. I am also planning to use a film camera, partly out of my own interest, but also because I think that might help me to engage with the subject and add some mystery? I also wonder if film might be seen to be less threatening than digital, although in reality my scanner makes that academic.
    Anyway I plan to give it a go and thanks for the article, it is a good confidence boost at this time.

  • If I’m doing a portrait, as opposed to candid street photography, then I find it useful to ask if the subject would like a copy (or copies) of the resultant photo by email. Most people in my experience are happy to be photographed and that offer is I think a kind of reassurance.

  • Im just looking at a photographer called SHIZUKA YOKOMIZO. very interesting the way letters are written to anonymous subjects that she wishes to photograph.
    Great work 🙂

  • I found this blog post very interesting and engaging, thank you. I’m a student on the Foundations in Photography course, currently wading through the portrait section, and this couldn’t have been better timed for me. Really enjoying the various links too.

  • I have been looking at a number of model release forms but they tend to focus on the ‘model’ aspect more appropriate to an organised shoot etc. Has anyone come across or modified a release form that you can actually use with ‘strangers’ during street photography which is simple to read and understand by members of the public that you would be willing to share with me? At this stage my images will only appear on my OCA online learning log and in my course work submitted for assessment etc..

  • “I felt extremely nervous approaching people and asking to take a portrait and I still do to some extent. I don’t think it’s something that ever goes away, nor should it, however, 12 years on I’m a lot more relaxed about the process. The worse that can happen is that someone says ‘no’ in which case you simply move and look around for other opportunities, it’s nothing personal. I often find that people are flattered that you ask, in recent years some have been more suspicious but I find that if you explain your motives and how you intend to use the image, people feel a lot happier about consenting to be photographed. Sometimes I give them my card and ask them to email me if they want a copy – invariably they don’t, but it offers some reciprocity to the process. There’s always a temptation to rush, get it over and done with and move on, but I try to take my time and offer feedback whilst I’m shooting, just simple comments such as; ‘that’s great’, ‘nice’ ‘perfect’ ‘thank you’ etc… sometimes I don’t say a thing and they drift off into space allowing me to capture a more private moment. Really I think it comes down to practice, it gets a lot easier once you’ve done it a few times.”
    Gina Lundy – OCA PhotographyTutor

  • The first time that I asked total strangers to photograph them was actually only a few years ago.
    I have been given an advertising job for a large chain called Koelle Zoo in Germany that produces everything that one can imagine for their pets and their stores include sections with exotic animals including Iguanas, Snakes, Spiders etc.
    My colleague and me were travelling from one store to another across Germany for about 8-9 days shooting Aquariums with complex lighting, interior images of the store, the staff and products so by the end we where quite drained.
    The evening before our last shoot the agency decided that they also wanted to have images of customers interacting with the animals in the stores.
    This was a difficult task since the idea came up so late and we were not at all prepared for it.
    We had to do the entire shoot in the last store that we were photographing. We had improvised a release form on short notice and we decided that we set up the lighting and angles and casually ask the customers to pick up the iguanas, snakes and other animals, which as you can image was a lot to ask from complete strangers.
    I had to convince the customers that the animals were not dangerous and that it would only take a few minutes and I was surprised how many accepted to do this without asking too much hesitation, which shows that people are generally ready to help out and even excited to take part. Luckily for us it all went much more smoothly then previously anticipated and none of the volunteers where bitten by the animals.
    It was also quite amusing for us that such a large and carefully professionally planned campaign ended up with rushed photographs of people without previous planning and last minute legal forms but the client was very happy and we gained a new valuable experience.
    Benjamin Beker – OCA PhotographyTutor

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