Do I have any tips on approaching strangers? This was a question asked by Lucy Allen, a fellow photographer who is relatively new to the art of street photography. This was to help with a photography module she is doing at the University of Central Lancashire. She explained that the module was about her interpretation of the Anthropocene concept, defined as, 'relating to or denoting the current geological age [and] viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment'.
At first I was little puzzled, mainly because street photography is really about a candid moment with either little or no influence from the photographer. But Lucy's interpretation of the brief was all about finding out about the people, as well as capturing images of them interacting with the environment - images that could be considered street portraits and therefore similar in background to my, "Talking With Strangers" project. Such a project requires a different set of skills from those used in a purely candid approach, so here are 5 tips which will hopefully help Lucy with her project, and anyone else considering a similar activity.
Tip 1 - Know why you are asking to take the photo.
When you approach a stranger it is good to have your story ready because you're likely to get asked a couple of questions.
- The first is likely to be, "What is it for?" In this case, you need to have the reasons for taking the photograph clear in your mind. Like Lucy, is it for a project? Or is it because there's something particular about the person? Or the scene itself? I generally start the conversation with, "Hello, my name is Alf Myers. I'm a photographer and I'm currently working on a project called, 'Talking with Strangers'." I then go on to say what the project is and if they're willing to have their image taken.
- The second question that will most likely be asked is, "Where will it go?" So know how you're going to use the image. Is it personal and purely for your own eyes? Will it being shared in social media or on a website? Is it for competitions, exhibitions, or possibly even being published in a newspaper or magazine? Be ready to answer their question or better still, tell them 'up front', before they even ask.
Tip 2 - Be humble, be respectful
When you approach, do so in a non-threatening way. Be humble, almost meek, but at the same time confident of your purpose. The last thing anyone needs during their busy day is to be bamboozled by a flurry of words, compliments or overly enthusiastic and cocky approaches.
You want to be seen as someone they can trust. Someone who isn't a threat. Someone they can help. In those first few seconds you need to earn their trust.
Tip 3 - Ask questions and show interest in your subject
No matter how your first approach went, it is highly unlikely that your subject will be relaxed or acting naturally. You need to help them relax, so ask questions about them such as: What's your name? What brings you into town today? What do you do (job)?
Also, compliment them! After all, there must have been something that caught your eye and piqued your interest. So mention it, lift their spirits!
Tip 4 - Take your time
This fits and overlaps with tip 3. Before you start shooting and taking the pictures, take a little time. I already mentioned spending time to learn about your subject to help them relax. But there is a second motive behind this too. It helps you relax and as your are chatting, you can be checking your settings and assessing the scene. For example, do you need them to move for a more appropriate background (have a look a Niall McDiarmid's work for some examples of this) or for better light?
Only once you're both ready should you start to shoot. You'll notice that they will probably go into pose mode, so take a shot or two and then ask them to act naturally. Even use the trick of saying you're finished and take a few more shots as they come down from your attention.
All that being said, don't take too long!!! After all, you are interrupting their day.
Tip 5 - Just do it
Not really a tip, but you just have to go and ask. The more you do it and the more you practice, the more you'll be more comfortable with it. So, practice, practice, practice....
And don't be upset if some people say no. Just accept it and move on.
Hopefully these tips will help and I really wish Lucy well with her project. Maybe we can have an interview with her when she has finished her course to hear all about it.
What did you think? Have you got any hints or tips that would help Lucy? Please send me your comments and views.
Harry Mountain - "Very informative Alf Myers good idea for setting it out." via Facebook
Barbara Green - "Very useful, Alf, and I really enjoyed looking at Niall Mc Diarmid’s photos. Thanks." via Facebook
Paul Edward Robison (From Travel and Photo Blog) - "Thanks for sharing, Alf. As you say, this is really more about Street portraits, than classic Street Photography. All you points are valid. I find that my most important tool is a smile. Sometimes the most truthful answer to "Why?', when not working on a specific projects, is just to admit that I am photographing interesting looking people, and I love you hair, your mustache, you suit ... your smile ... People like to be flattered and telling someone that you found them interesting enough to want to talk to them and photograph them, can go a long way. Now, for me, in a day of street shooting, I may photograph 100 people, but only talk to 3-4, long enough to get their "story". Of course, it also depends where I am and my language skills. That smile can be universal. Often, just showing the camera and smiling will be sufficient. I always carry a supply of cards with my contact info, and offer to send them a file or two. Not only does it give them a way to get a copy, but it adds to my creditably. Good article. I encourage everyone to read it, even if you don't often photograph strangers."
Follow the link to find Paul's Travel and Photo Blogs.
William Matthews - "Thanks Alf Myers a great confidence builder on how to approach people, I now need to gear out there." Via Facebook