Is Asking Strangers For A Portrait So Dreadful?

Is asking strangers for a portrait so dreadful? Probably not, according to a lot of photographers that usually do Street Portraits in their life. I always felt a fascination for people and when I see a project based on portraits of strangers met on the street, I dream to do something like that. I think often about my photography and how can improve myself, so a few days ago I asked a question to FlakPhoto Network on Facebook:

Among all the beautiful comments I received under my post, I really liked some in particular. This is the answer I had by photographer Michael Hruska: “You’re exactly where I was six years ago when I decided I was going to start doing street portraits. Be positive and confident about what you’re doing and people will pick up on that and be more open. Make eye contact. Be honest when asked why and what you plan on doing with the photos. Offer to send copies to the subject. Be thankful. Prepare yourself for the rejection (actually much, much less than I imagined it would be). When you do get a “no”, don’t take it personally. Graciously acknowledge it and move on to someone else. Remember there’s an endless parade of humanity out there for you to photograph. The more you do it, the more your people skills will develop and the more comfortable you’ll become with approaching strangers”.

Then, I really appreciated the answer of Don Giannatti (photographer, creative mentor and coach). He told me: “As an introvert myself, I can only speak to how I do it. Wear your camera. The camera can serve as a de-facto armor. It is not you that is getting rejected, but the camera. Put yourself in the role of photographer instead of yourself. Again, when you get rejected – and you will – it is the photographer that is being rejected – not you. After 50 years of working with models and all of the sometimes huge groups of people that are at a commercial shoot, becoming assertive is simply self-preservation. I have found that if I imagine what I should do as a photographer, it is easier to do it. Now I slip into that persona easily and have no problem with asking people for an image, or even public speaking. Also – do not take it personally. It isn’t. They are not interested. Smile and leave. Do not interrupt people who are busy – talking, on the phone, working, or head down into a book. Ask yourself why you want to take the photo? You do have a reason – and share it. “I love that jacket and hat, sir, may I make a photograph?”. Never try to talk them into it. If they say no, smile and wave. If you tell them you are going to send them a photo, then dammit – send one. And smile smile smile. If you are not having fun doing this, why would they want to join the misery party you seem to be having. Lastly – and I do this as the first assignment in my workshops – go out and do it. Ask a stranger to do a portrait… AND… have them move to a new spot. This is important. Let them feel that they are part of something rather than just be sitting on that park bench. Even if all you do is change their angle. You will find more people to agree than not. Initially look for places where people expect to have photographers around them. Bicycle races, art fairs, food fairs, sporting events, car shows and rallies… the sort of thing where people are also out of their element. Much easier to practice there”.

Artist Britt Thomas‘ point of view is not so different, she underlines how being introverted can be a gift in this case: “Know that being a shy introvert is not something to get over. It’s just something we live with and make work regardless of it. I second what someone else said of setting small goals. The first time I went out for my project where I had to ask people for photos on the spot, I committed to asking at least two people, then 3, 4, 5. I topped out at 5 because I didn’t want to get so overwhelmed that I didn’t want to do anymore. It’s never comfortable though, but it is a little easier. I brought cards with a website and password so that they could download a low res version or request a print for free as a thank you. I explained what I found interesting about them such as “I love your outfit, I would like to take your portrait. Is that okay?” I can honestly count the “no’s” on one hand out of over 100. People appreciate the attention or are at least curious enough to allow it. The harder part is keeping them from “cheesing” for the camera or tensing up. If I see too much tenseness even after a few shots and some reassuring banter, I usually thank them and move on because I interpret that as not wanting to have their photos taken but not knowing how to say no. I think being introverted can be a gift in these situations because you’re usually a little more aware of introversion and shyness in others and can relate and be more comforting in those moments”.

The most inspiring answer I read is John Mireles’ one: “I was shy growing up. Decided that shyness wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to go. I think overcoming it is a step by step process where you continually put yourself in situations where you’re uncomfortable. Eventually, it’s no big deal. I did a TED talk earlier this year. It was easily the most difficult and terrifying thing I’ve ever done professionally. But I did it just because it was so challenging. That’s how we grow. I’ve done a massive portrait project that took me to every state in the US. Over 5,000 studio lit portraits of people from all walks of life. I set up on the street and would ask complete strangers to pose for my camera. I learned to hone my pitch so I could get past people’s initial resistance. Rejection always stings a little, but after awhile, you barely notice it. It helps when you have a clear purpose that you can quickly communicate. Be friendly, jovial and confident. It’s all in your demeanor. In my many thousands of interactions, I showed my work to at most a handful of people before photographing them. It’s too time consuming. Nobody has time to stop and look at a portfolio. I sure didn’t have time to do a portfolio showing to each subject. I could have someone in and out of my studio in a minute. I could Richard Avedon a subject in less time than it would take a Polaroid to develop. Be confident and be quick, you will do well”.

Observing John Mireles’ work was really a huge inspiration for me: check his gallery out and I also suggest you to spend five minutes and hear his Ted talk on youtube. Here some Street Portraits taken by John (he uses an installation, a sort of “photo booth” in the street where he ask people to pose for a portrait):

After all this kind words and useful suggestions, I went out for a walk in the Colosseo area and for the first time I thought about street portraits. At that moment I had no intention to stop someone and ask to pose for me. I just wanted to study body language and begin to understand who could be a good character for a street portrait. As I already wrote in this post, I met a guy that was about to do a wedding proposal. His jacket was so particular that I told myself: “Alessio, you MUST ask him for a portrait, it’s a good start!”. I followed him and his friends for a while and, when it seemed to be a good moment, I approached the guy and I asked if I could take a photo. He said yes and I did it. It’s not a great portrait, I know, maybe I had to choose a better background, but I don’t care, the most important thing to me was to overcome my shyness and try. It was a huge goal.


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