Portraits of Strangers

Photographer Sophron talks about his approach and motivation to photographing strangers in candid street portraits.

Curated by sophron
June 08, 2012

When Jason from Aminus3 asked me to write something about my approach on the Candid Street Photography part of my work, we first had a discussion on whether this is the right name for my style of shooting portraits on the streets. I pointed out that to me, street photography is what Cartier-Bresson or Vivian Maier did back in the days or Martin Parr and Jay Maisel still do today - taking non-posed (often even unnoticed) pictures of people in everyday situations which usually show important features of the surroundings too.

My approach however isn't that candid, nor would I call it street photography. I take portraits - and sometimes this happens to happen on the streets. I just love to photograph people, for me, the human face (and to a minor degree the rest of the body), is the most interesting subject by far when it comes to taking pictures. A portrait has the power to pull the viewer in at an emotional level, almost automatically. For this reason, people can be one of the easiest subjects for photography - but alas, there are also quite a few reasons why they are one of the hardest as well. I don't want to elaborate on technical aspects too much, as there are loads of how-to's out there in the interwebs. But would prefer to speak about motivations, attitudes and how to get started with people you'd like to photograph on the streets.

Reflecting on one's motivations seems one of the most overlooked parts of photography to me. Sure, you should take pictures however, and of whatever you like, but if you are interested in taking more than snapshots, I'd highly recommend to take a step back sometime and think about why you are doing what you are doing.

When you think you have an idea, reflect on whether the means and strategies you employ match those whys or not. Ok, so let's see what my motivations taking portraits of strangers on the streets are and how I approach this kind of photography. Well, I could go kind of artsy and state something post-modern or deconstructivist like "I want to break the anonymity and isolation which we are living in today" or "I want to break the inhumanity of those non-places we are transiting every day" but honestly - and though those artsy reasons might be even part of my motivation - what really drives me is my interest in people as such, and especially in those who are/look somewhat "different" or melancholic. And where would you find those most easily, if not at public events, or at heavily frequented places in bigger cities?

Public events, like say a zombie walk or a cosplay convention, have some major advantages that make the life of a street portrait photographer a bliss. People are not in a hurry, they often look quite picturesque, and most of all, they are usually prone to let you take pictures.

Because I am interested in the people and not in the event itself, first thing i usually do at a location is look for a quiet place to photograph. Normally this ends up being in front of some sort of plain wall in the shade. Once I've got my location set, I mix with the crowd looking for the faces that interest me most. When I find one, I approach her or him, and ask if they are willing to let me take a portrait photo, and if they would come with me to that afore-mentioned wall explaining why i don`t want to photograph right here on the spot with what is often bad light and a busy background.

Generally, most of them see the point and are willing to come with me. When we arrive at the wall, I ask them to stand about one meter or so in front it (which gives - along with shooting wide open at f2.8 - enough separation from the background for my taste). Usually i do not direct my subjects too much but rather change position myself, focusing on their eyes and snapping away for maybe 30 to 40 seconds - letting them change pose at their will (directing only the direction of their eyes if necessary). When I'm done, I thank them, give them one of my makeshift moo cards, or take down their email address if they are interested in the results (and they usually are), then I rinse and repeat...

Shooting street portraits of strangers in non-event situations is quite similar only most of the time you don't have the luxury of choosing a good place to take the picture, but instead have to photograph right at the spot where you approach your subject. One of the biggest challenges is you must deal with a lot more refusals which can be frustrating at times. The positive is that it is much more fulfilling when you finally find someone interesting who gives their permission to take their portrait, and better when you can connect, have a nice chat afterwards, or even a prolonged email conversation.

I guess some of you may say: "That's all well and good, but I'm a shy person..." well, so am I. You don't have to be outgoing (though it probably might help), you just have to know what you want to do, and maybe think about what you want to say beforehand, then approach people in a friendly way, and don't get too discouraged by refusals.

For more photography by Sophron, check out his Aminus3 Photoblog Urbane Melancholien.

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