How to talk to Strangers
How many of us would love to photograph perfect strangers, but the idea of talking to people, let alone taking their picture, seems impossible. This is a series that looks at situations around the world, where I have met complete strangers, taken their picture and walked away with more than a smile.
Last year, B&H Photo invited me to speak about the topic and when they reviewed my slides they were skeptical. They did not know if a guide on photographing strangers would be that interesting…well 132,000 views and counting; it seems like there are a few people out there who would like to know how to do this more easily. So welcome to the new series “How to talk to Strangers” and I hope that it encourages you to get out there, take some pictures and make a few unexpected friends along the way.
Know thy Self
Before you attempt to photograph people, spend a few minutes reflecting. When you traveling, do you:
- Strike up conversations with the person next to you on a plane, at a bar or in a park?
- Do you smile or make eye contact with people on the street?
- Do you actually like people? (laugh if you will, but there are a lot of photographers who really don’t like new people)
If you answered Yes to all of the above questions, things will be a lot easier for you.
If you answered No, experiment with the questions to which you answered no. It will get you in the habit of being comfortable with new people in a short period of time.
For the sake of clarity, let’s set out a framework for the series so it is not confused with Street Photography or Portraiture.
Street Photography, social documentary, social realism…whatever we call it, is not what we are discussing here. No one is giving brownie points for the picture being candid. This is a learning experience and truthfully, I have NEVER met a gallerist, curator or editor that has even cared if a photo was “pure street.” The concept is an invention of the Internet and it will not be the focus of the conversation.
Portraiture, we will consider this any photograph which was arranged in advance with the intention of making a portrait. It’s a great way to learn and something that may be useful to try, but for this series we will stick with the idea of walking up to someone on the street and being allowed to take their picture. Allowed is the key word here.
Dinara & Plamen in Florence
In May, David Farkas and I were in Florence, Italy for a workshop we hosted. Perched high above the city is the abby of San Miniato al Monte. It overlooks the Arno River and Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It provides a dramatic view of the Renaissance city below. People gather, every night, to take the most important picture of the 21st century, The Selfie.
While the light faded into the horizon, we saw a young couple on the wall in front of the abby. He was doing what most boyfriends do, trying to take a picture of his girlfriend. She was doing what most girlfriends do, rolling her eyes as he fusses to get just the right angle and setting on the camera. These awkward exchanges happen at every sunset around the globe. We decided that we might ease the obvious tension by asking, “Hey, would you guys like us to take a picture of you both?”
What did they say?
Why did they say yes? Who knows exactly, but my best guess was that she was at the end of her patience and he was equally frustrated with the half smiles that girlfriends give when they no longer want their picture taken.
In effect, we were allowed to take a picture because we solved a problem for them.
Solve a problem FIRST and ask to take their picture SECOND
Once we were allowed to shoot, we asked Dinara and Plamen to sit in a few locations, gave a few instructions and they were happy to oblige. After a few shots, Plamen decided that it might be easier for him to grab a few pictures while we were shooting, so we ended up just shooting Dinara.
Ask for their names
When we meet people, what were we taught to do? Introduce ourselves, shake hands, bow…it all depends on the country, but photographers seem to forget their manners with a camera in hand.
There is nothing different about talking to strangers then there is to meeting a new client. They want to know who you are, why you are there, and whether you are actually paying attention to them. Here is how you can solve this problem, because it will happen every time you photograph someone new.
- Introduce yourself, clearly. If your name is complicated and has three hyphens, two middle names, and a royal prefix, just give them the short version.
- Tell them why you want to take their picture. In this case, we said we were doing a lead-in a photo course, that was all they needed to hear.
- Most importantly….REMEMBER their names. A real test of whether someone is paying attention is if they remember your name. Try this the next time you are out. Introduce yourself and see how many names you can remember.
During college I used to do this for fun. We would be out with friends and meet a group of new people. While everyone was busy sizing one another up, I would listen and remember everyone’s name. I can’t tell you how many people will be impressed if you remember their name. Forget about being good looking, charismatic, or even a good photographer… all you need to do is pay attention. Why?
It makes them feel special because most people introduce themselves simply as a precursor to them talking about themselves (Welcome to NYC.)
The follow up
While most of the photography world kicked and screamed with the introduction of digital cameras, they have two advantages that we did not have with film. First, you can turn the camera around and show them their picture immediately and secondly, you can email them a picture afterwards. Sounds silly right? If you can take a good picture of someone within a few minutes of meeting them, they will enjoy it…I guarantee you.
Once you finish shooting, exchange info or cards or whatever you have and send them your pictures as a thank you. I try to do this with everyone I meet. Can’t tell you how many times I see one of my pictures as a new Facebook profile picture. And do I mind…no not at all. It is a fair exchange where everyone walks away feeling good about the situation.
Now go out and give it a try and see how you make out.