Photographing Strangers – Project 52

As one of my photography goals for 2011 is to produce a new portfolio reflecting a higher standard of work, I was quite excited to discover Project 52. The brainchild of photographer Don Giannatti, Project 52 is a year-long series of photographic assignments and its goal is to “… prepare the emerging shooter to be a working professional through a comprehensive, synergistic approach.”

Awesome! Ask and ye shall receive!

The excitement lasted until I saw assignment #2: Portrait of a Stranger.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
-Bene Gesserit ‘Litany Against Fear’, from the novel Dune by Frank Herbert.

This assignment involves asking a stranger for his/her permission to take their portrait. This means no hiding in the bushes with a telephoto lens, paparazzo/stalker-style. And that’s when the fear began to take control.

I read the assignment brief again and immediately thought, “I can’t do this.”

“I’ll skip this one, it’s too hard.”

I realised that I didn’t want to do this assignment because I was terrified. It was a fear of rejection that had taken hold of me, and I was ready to allow it to prevent me from completing the assignment.

Then as if on cue, the next day Chase Jarvis posted a video of street photographer Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist on his blog. And watching Scott make approaching strangers look so easy, I found myself thinking, “Maybe I can do that too.”

So I headed into the city last weekend, my DSLR in the bag. But soon after I arrived, I wanted to go home. I was exhausted from a hectic week at work and didn’t feel like shooting. Walking the streets asking strangers for their picture sounded even less appealing. And once again, I felt the fear beginning to take hold.

After grappling with the terror for a while, I finally convinced myself I’d at least take a few street scenes. Finally, I was able to relax, and I soon found a potential subject for my project. This gentleman drives one of the iconic horse-drawn carriages around Melbourne’s CBD. I figured he was used to having his photo taken by tourists, so I (somewhat nervously) asked if it was OK to take his picture. He agreed, and after telling him he didn’t need to pose or smile, I quickly fired off a few frames. He didn’t seem to be in a chatty mood, so I simply thanked him and moved on.

© 2011 Gilbert Ho. All rights reserved.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I told myself. My confidence boosted, I continued walking around but didn’t find anyone else I was drawn to photograph. Then as I walked past a clothing store, I saw this girl drawing an intricate chalk pattern on a blackboard near the entrance. I asked her if it was OK for me to photograph her working, and she agreed! Yay!

© 2011 Gilbert Ho. All rights reserved.

My last portrait of the day was of an extremely talented musician busking outside a department store. He graciously agreed to my request to photograph him, and I was able to get really close as he tuned his guitar for his next performance.

© 2011 Gilbert Ho. All rights reserved.

At the end of the day, I was surprised at how easy it had been. All three people I’d approached had agreed readily. I wasn’t even asked to explain who I was or why I wanted to photograph them. It was very kind and generous of them, and I’m truly grateful. Best of all, I went home with some portfolio-worthy photos that I’m proud of.

What’s equally valuable are the lessons I learnt from this exercise. I learnt that the photos I got were definitely worth the risk of rejection. Often in the past I’d come across interesting subjects in the street but never had the courage to ask for their photo.

I also discovered for myself the importance of working quickly to ‘capture the moment’. In the case of the carriage driver, the first photo I took turned out to the keeper. In the others, he had gotten distracted and was looking away.

I was also mindful that as a stranger, the trust I was given was only for a brief time. I had a few minutes before wearing out my welcome, and my subject’s patience. It definitely forced me to work a lot quicker, a huge difference from my usual modus operandi of getting my friends to keep still while I fiddled with my camera settings and lens focus.

This exercise was definitely a challenge for me, and I’m glad I managed to complete it. That fear of asking a stranger for their portrait isn’t totally gone, but I know I won’t be as afraid the next time round.

Endnote: I’ll be posting these portraits and the stories behind each one in upcoming Daily Photos.

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