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Approaching Strangers (Part 5/8)


“Approaching Strangers”


Last week we explored the art and science of approaching strangers. We went over different approaches such as photographing in public places, photographing public events like parades, etc., staying invisible and getting out of the way, offering gifts representing your neighborhood or community, and using body language and facial expressions to activate the mirror neurons of your subjects and create trust. We also touched on legal and ethical considerations.

So far, we limited our attempts to a one-off event where we establish trust, we take pictures, and we go away. This week we will expand our scope and use our knowledge to create a photographic narrative.  

What if you worked hard to create trust and your interaction became a potential friendship? Your photographic adventure doesn’t need to end there, it can be ongoing. You can go back to the scene and every time you return you get closer; your subjects trust you more and they not only open up themselves for you to photograph them but also welcome you inside their social circle and maybe even their family.

Consider this small village in Ghana. I started by taking photos of the villagers from afar.

I spent the day walking around getting closer, taking photos, showing the picture to them on the back of my camera—allowing them to trust me and slowly becoming a part of their daily lives. 

After a while I was one of the villagers! 

But the ultimate prize was when I came back the next day. I felt a sense of closeness and—as we learned—our mirror neurons were in sync and they felt close to me as well.

I came back to their home, and the look in their eyes showed me the ultimate indicator that we has formed a bond. They let me in, literally. They opened their homes and their lives. They even let me witness the first bath of a newborn baby.

Ghana, 2019
Ghana, 2019

We ate and sang songs, and I felt that we were a family sharing a beautiful moment. When I came back to the U.S., I printed their pictures and sent them the photos. I will always remember this experience, and I am very happy with the photos I took. Such is the power of establishing more than a momentary transactional relationship.

Lastly, consider another approach. Photographing children in the U.S. is considered improper, even rude and offensive. I usually avoid it unless I ask the parents for permission. But how do you ask permission? You can ask and tell the parent that their child is very photogenic and that you will send them the picture. You can smile and be friendly, honest, and sincere. Most photographers just don’t do it—they give up and go away missing what could be a wonderful opportunity.

I tried the “wait, blend, repeat” approach. I sat around this fountain in Manhattan and watched the children play. I wasn’t taking pictures and the parents got used to seeing me sit there. I went away and came back and sat down again. I came back the next Sunday and the same parents with their kids were there.  

Once they felt comfortable with me, I took out my camera, signaled with my body and smile that I was going to take pictures. I approached the scene with confidence and without hesitating.

I took this photo:

Manhattan, 2019

The father approached me after a while, not angry but intrigued, and asked why was I taking a photo of his child. I told him “The happiness in his face is so apparent that I wanted to capture it. I will send it to you and if you disapprove, I promise I will delete it”.

I received one of the most touching emails that I ever received after sending pictures: “THANK YOU for capturing my child’s happiness in such a vivid way. I will cherish this photo forever.”

This approach can be advantageous in social situations as well: You want to befriend someone or fit into what looks like a very tight group of friends but feel like they won’t let you in. You can walk away or you can approach with confidence, use your body language, and make it clear that you like the person or group and that you are there to make friends. It works in street photography as well as in life.

Getting emails like this is just one reward of street photography. Getting good pictures like this one, even if I say so myself, is another reward.

Happy snapping,

Alec Rill

Alec Rill

I am a street photographer documenting the world as I see it through my camera. I try to show the range of human emotions wherever I go, whether it is to far away places or across the street.

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