For some time I have been following my favorite photographers on Flickr who have shot numerous beautiful series of street portraits. Their series inspired me to the degree that I too wished to try my hand at it. As I have spent much of my time shooting candids, I chose this time to get personal and ask permission. Not a simple task. Asking permission means you then have to deal with the possibility of rejection, and potentially an ensuing awkward social situation. Asking permission takes technique, it is not as easy as walking right up to someone and asking for their portrait. It is finding a way to break down an invisible social barrier, finding some common ground to make a connection. There has been much writing on the subject, so rather than dive deep into the how, I will approach the “why” aspect of it.
The technical “why” is consistency. I wanted to challenge myself to control my shooting style to a degree where, over the period of one week, I would have a set of photos taken from each day, under varying conditions, that maintained a consistent set of qualities to them. The personal “why” is that I had a trip planned for Cambodia, and everyone who visits Cambodia shoots Angkor Wat, then comes back telling stories of how wonderful and friendly the people were. I wanted to meet these people and make an attempt to show how they are just as remarkable as Angkor Wat. That was my personal “why”, my concept.
In many touristy and rural areas, as a foreigner, the locals will often make some effort to chat with you out of curiosity or just to sell you something. I made a game of it, an attempt to lighten the stress of the approach. If they call me over to chat or chase me down the street to sell a product or service, I will, in turn, ask for their portrait. Their curiosity and demand for my attention provided an easy opening for me to ask the portrait question and saved the trouble/time of having to be the one to approach them first. From day one to the last day, I only had one rejection when I asked for a portrait, and that person was simply too busy.
Much of this is obvious, no? Of course you may say it is easy to shoot a series of portraits when your subjects are running to you, eager to meet you. It’s not, you see. You still have to lift your camera to your face, aim it at them, and take the shot. You also can’t stand there firing off rounds of photos, you really only have 2-3 shots before they wonder what it is you are shooting, or get nervous from the repeated shutter releases and try to leave. I kept telling myself I needed to nail the focus on the first shot so I would not keep them standing there waiting.
What did I learn from the experience? I discovered how communicating with my subject, how making a connection provided me far more insight and depth to their character than I would have captured had I shot their portrait from afar without their permission. It also provided a level of comfort between the subject and myself that kept them from getting nervous and that comfort granted me the time I needed to get that focus right. There is much I learned from the experience which I will cover in future posts.