I started asking strangers for portraits a few years ago, it came about for two reasons. I currently live in Singapore and this city is an incredible convergence of cultures. There are so many beautiful people from around the world here, which makes it an ideal place to take portraits. The other reason is more a deeper personal reason. In my line of work, I often have to interact with total strangers and present my ideas to them, sometimes one to one or to a big group. That’s stressful! So to help myself overcome my nerves, I started pushing myself to speak at events, and to try doing this, asking total strangers for their portraits.
The first challenge in doing this is that obviously not everyone speaks English. So how do I break down the communication barrier in a friendly way? I designed a simple business card which I can carry around in my pocket. On one side is my contact information, on the reverse side I wrote, in four different languages, a request for permission to take their portrait photo for my art series.
It works really well! It also has the function to let them write back to me to request their photo. I wrote the EXIF number on the back, they only have to email me that number and I will email their portrait photo back to them. I’ve made a lot of new friends this way too.
For anyone thinking to try this as well, remember, it’s not a guarantee that everyone will let you take their portrait. Always be polite and friendly and always take no for an answer. Just smile and walk away and forget about it. Some people simply do not want their photo taken and certainly have their own reasons for it. If they ask you what you will do with the photo, also always be honest and tell them, and do not sell their photos! If you plan to print it in a book later, make sure you ask them if it is alright. Depending on where you live, by law you might need them to sign a release letting you do that, even if it is for art purposes.