How I approach Strangers for a Portrait (#345) 07-07-13

I have touched on various aspects of my approach to strangers numerous times. In this entry, I will try to get it all down, in one place. Hopefully, someone will find this useful – and get out there to photograph somebody!  :-)

Before heading out to scout for potential subjects, there are two items of preparation: the camera, and my head. The camera is a necessary evil in this endeavour, so I always tend to it beforehand. I have used a DSLR, and now I use a micro 4/3 camera – it doesn't matter. I prefer aperture priority with a wide aperture, ISO 200-400, prime lens, no flash, autofocus, burst mode, and camera on a wrist strap. None of that is critical. A point and shoot pocket camera set on automatic will work.

What is critical is to set the camera up in advance. That way, when I meet a person, I forget about the camera. I am confident that even if images aren't great, at least I will never come away empty handed. I can meet someone, interact, and keep my mind where it belongs, on the interaction. The camera becomes a non-issue.

The other item for preparation is me. I have to assume the proper mindset to approach strangers in a credible way. And, I am by nature, not a 'people person'. Not at all. I have to get 'out of my own skin' to be able to meet strangers. The simplest way is to take a few quiet moments to reflect on gratitude. This sounds a little metaphysical, and I don't know why it works. But I does work for me. Just a few moments of being aware of my surroundings, the neat camera in my hand, and the opportunity to meet new people is enough.

Gratitude gets me into the present moment. This is important. Many (all?) of us spend a lot of our mental time rehearsing the past, or anticipating the future. This doesn't work for meeting people. It is imperative that my mind is in the "Now". A few moments reflecting on gratitude does the trick.

So with the camera on a wrist strap, and my 'head in the right place', I begin walking purposefully, standing tall, and making eye contact with most of the people I pass. Being the high energy guy in a crowd gets a good response. Crouching, cowering, and sitting on benches does not work for me.

So now, a few specifics about the approach. Of course, my approach has changed over time. As has my success rate in getting potential subjects to agree to be photographed. I have noticed that for me, settling on a uniform approach is best. Just like always having the camera ready, if I am ready with the same words to say, I can continue on mental autopilot without being concerned about blurting out the wrong words at the wrong time. So, here are the words:

Much of this personal project has revolved around the Flickr group, 100 Strangers. This group requires an entry to include a portrait, and a short write-up about the encounter. A tab at the masthead of this website is about 100 Strangers.

So, when I identify someone who I want to ask, I say,"Excuse me, I wonder if I could ask a favor?" When speaking, I make solid eye contact. At that point, usually the person(s) look at me and give their attention. Then I continue, "I belong to a camera group called100 Strangers. My job is to meet 100 people, and take their picture. Could I meet you and take your picture?" I always emphasize meeting, before photographing. Usually the person is smiling at this point, and success is almost assured.

Often they ask what I will do with the image. I explain what Flickr is – about half the people already know. Then I pull out my cell phone (which I have already loaded with my Flickr Photostream) and show it. Occasionally someone has taken the phone and scrolled through several screens of thumbnails.

While they look, I ask where they are from and just see where the conversation goes. Now the encounter is off autopilot and there is no script. Anything goes. Sometimes there is a fairly lengthy encounter; some people want to talk. Other times, they stand still for a few shots, and that's it – they move on.

If they seem interested, and want to see the image on the camera's LCD, I offer a business-like card. My are printed by a company called MOO. MOO cards are used by many in the 100 Strangers group. One side has an image, the other, text. When the cards are ordered online, any number of images can be included for variety; I have cards with two.

On the text side I include my name, e-mail, website and Flickr Photostream. I tell people that their images will appear in the Photostream in a week or two. I then say that if they like the image, e-mail me and I'll attach the file on a return e-mail.  It is disappointing that I seldom hear from the strangers.

But, that's the way it goes. :-)