There isn't any greater joy than taking photos of strangers on the street. It's exciting, adventurous, a little risky, and it can be terrifying. There are many reasons why someone might approach a stranger on the street: "Can I get a smoke?", "Do you have any change?", "Do you know the way?" But why on earth would a photographer decide that they want to approach complete strangers and ask them to have their photo taken?
Inspiration and Overcoming My Fears
The idea to take photos of people that I've never met came from two places. The first place? Inspiration! I read an article about a photographer who developed a lighting system that he could wear on his back, and he took to the streets to ask people that he had never met before if he could take their picture. I thought his pictures were gorgeous, and I thought that this idea was delightful! I have a mindset that artificial lighting is king in photography, and if I could somehow bring a slight "studio lighting look" to the street like he had, I might just come up with some interesting results. There was a problem, however. The initial excitement of a new adventure in photography was quickly replaced by a gripping fear- stranger danger! This is natural, right? It's in our nature to protect ourselves from scary experiences in two ways- fight, or flight. In my case I wasn't fighting, I was ready to run from this potentially incredible experience because of the scary, imagined scenarios that wheeled around in my head. What if someone got angry with me? What if I asked someone if I could take their photo and they said, "No!" How terribly frightening! Don't say, "No!" Anything but, "No!"
The second place? Overcoming my fears!
If you're going to take portraits of strangers on the street then get used to people saying "no" to you. Many people like their privacy, many people are wary of other people, and its important to respect their privacy. When someone says "no" to me, I feel rejected. Its like I failed somehow with my approach, and because I tend to be neurotic, it feels like there is something wrong with me, or maybe that the potential subject doesn't take me seriously. I mean, why would they?
The truth about someone saying "no" is that it doesn't feel good, but I can assure you: Nothing happens!
The first person that you approach on the street might say "no". The second person may reject you as well, then the third, the fourth, AND the fifth. I can guarantee, however, that SOMEONE will say yes. Its true. There are lots of people out there that appreciate what you're doing. They see the camera in your hand, they know you are a photographer, and they may even be a little flattered that you asked them. Sometimes you'll take a picture, say thank you, and move on. Other times they may want to know why you're doing what you're doing and you get a chance to talk about your passion and spend a little more time with them, which could lead to more photographs.
The end result is a rush of adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of joy that you did what you thought you could not, a chance for a small, but very significant, connection with a total stranger, and a one-of-a-kind-street portrait that will never be repeated until the end of time.
Some people jump from planes, others scale mountains. Me? I take photos of total strangers, and you should try it soon.
(Photos in this post were taken with Ilford Black and White Film https://www.ilfordphoto.com (FP4 Plus, Delta 100, Delta 400))