Fear (of photographing strangers) Part 2 (#223), with Guest Blogger, Fritz Liedtke

I follow Brooks Jensen’s LensWork publication fairly religiously. See it HERE

The cover of the recent bimonthly magazine really caught my eye. The freckled face on the cover, taken by Fritz Liedtke, is a stunner. See it HERE

Photographer Fritz Liedtke’s project, Astra Velum (veil of stars) involves approaching strangers with freckles, which they sometimes view as imperfections. This seems a bit daunting to me. See Astra Velum HERE. 

Perhaps even more daunting is his previous project, Skeleton in the Closet, in which he approaches people with eating disorders. See it HERE

Fritz Liedtke has graciously accepted my request for a guest blog post. He explains his views about getting past the fear of approaching strangers for portraiture.

“On Approaching Strangers
Fritz Liedtke

I'm frequently asked about how I find the subjects for my photographs, and how I deal with approaching and photographing strangers.  Whether I'm photographing women and men struggling with eating disorders, or girls with freckles, or tourists on the streets of London, or a farmer in Thailand with whom I share neither culture nor language, photographing people you don't know can be intimidating.

First off, let's start with three truths:

1. Everybody deals with fear of strangers at some level.  It's normal.
2. You don't have to take rejection personally.  You choose.
3. If you don't try, you are guaranteed to fail.

Whenever I talk about the struggles facing photographers--whether it's about insecurity, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of strangers, fear of other photographers, etc.--I always find it helpful to acknowledge that everybody deals with these things. Every time I've been honest about my own struggles with fear and insecurity, I can almost hear the photographers I'm talking with breathe a collective sigh of relief. I can almost hear them thinking, "Ah, I'm not alone." 

It doesn't matter how 'successful' you are, you'll deal with these things. So let's start this little conversation by acknowledging that I--probably like you--am intimidated by approaching strangers. You might look at my work and think, "How can this be? Fritz must love approaching strangers! He must be a real extrovert!  Look at his work!" But in truth, I'm a quiet little Type-A introvert, and I'd rather be off on my own, working on my own projects, doing my own thing. 

But that doesn't stop me. When your passion for creating something beautiful is greater than the inertia that would keep you from working with strangers, you find a way to make it work. And so I do. 

When I was 13, my Grandma Grayce gave me a little workbook aimed at helping kids make the transition to being mature, socially adept adults. I can still see a particular page in the book, illustrated by drawings of a boy at a bus stop meeting a girl carrying a cello case. The chapter was all about how to talk with strangers, and the lessons I learned from it I still apply to this day. 

The message was simple: Make conversation by asking good questions. In the illustration, the boy asked the girl about her cello, and she replied. Then he asked her another question, and she talked some more. It was a real eye-opener for a socially awkward kid like me. All I had to do to start a conversation with a stranger was to show some interest in them, to ask some good questions. I found that doing so puts others at ease (because they, too, are probably timid about talking with a stranger like you), it gives you something to talk about, and it moves the relationship forward.  Easy.

A couple of years ago, I was at a local park with my nephew Ryder. He saw some other boys playing on a slide, and he ran over and started playing with them. (Ever notice how easily kids begin playing with strangers?) As I followed him over, I noticed a woman there with beautiful, delicate freckles, and, being in the midst of photographing a project about people with freckles, I knew I wanted to talk with her. I watched the kids playing for a moment, and then stepped toward her, saying, "Are these your boys?" She said they were, and I asked how old they were. She replied, and I asked if they lived nearby. She said they did, and I said I thought they seemed like good kids. And so the conversation progressed, as we talked about her tattoos, what her husband did for work, and what I did for work.  (You'll notice I was looking for a way to bring up my work as a photographer….)  A little while later, as it was time to leave, I said to her, "You know, I'm working on a project photographing people with freckles; would you mind if I took some portraits of you sometime?" She said she wouldn't mind, so I gave her my business card (always have one with you), she jotted down her email address, and we parted ways. Later I followed up with her and photographed her and her family at their house. I gave them some free prints a few weeks later, and I ended up with "Navae", one of the more popular images in my series Astra Velum.

This is usually how it works. I've met people at weddings, concerts in the park, on tours in foreign countries, friends of friends, kids in orphanages, and most of the time, the opportunity to photograph them started with a simple question. I didn't' start out saying, "Can I take your picture?" (Although that question has its place; not every photograph requires a lengthy introduction and relationship.) I started out asking them about their lives, letting them get to know me, introducing the fact that I was a photographer, and eventually asking if I might take a portrait of them. 

Does everybody say yes? No. I've had people tell me no thanks, people not answer, people get angry. But those have been rare.  What I've actually found is that people are usually honored that you've asked to take their photograph.  They're flattered that you find them interesting enough to pay attention to.  Often times, they flat out love it. But if they do demur, don't take it personally.  Just think of it as part of your job, thank them for their time, and move on. Rejection is part of every adventure; it'll make your skin tougher. And as every salesman knows, every no puts you one step closer to a yes.

So, approaching strangers isn't all that hard. It just requires that you acknowledge your fear (and the fear of the person you're approaching), recognize that it's normal, and act anyway. You'll have some rejections, but you'll have far more successes. And like any risk in life, if you don't try, you guarantee your failure. But if you do try, and you persist, you're also pretty much guaranteed success. 

And the result? You'll be a stronger person. You'll flatter some people and make their day. And you'll probably end up with some great photographs. And I bet you'll find that the risk is worth it all.”


Thank you Fritz, for providing this insightful essay.