Impromptu Street Portraits
"When in doubt, click" - Charlie Kirk
How often have you passed by someone in the street, having thought to yourself - "that person looks like a real character and they have such an interesting face (or look) ?
Having set out my stall in my 'About' page on the Jamie Lowe Photography website; I earnestly stated that- I use photography to connect with people, or some such words. The truth is that it's quite often la photographie de l'escalier with me and photographic opportunities, when its comes to encountering interesting people. As a highly visual person, with a tendency to be one of life's window-shoppers, and voyeurs; this seems to go against the grain of my manifesto. So I figured that it was time to look to some of my 'heroes' of photography for advice.
It was Eric Kim, contemporary street photographer, whose words, as well as his photographs, which helped steel me into action:
"In my experience if I asked people to take a photo of them with a smile, around 8 out of 10 people would say yes. Once you are comfortable to ask strangers to take their photos, you will begin to build up the guts to take photos of them without asking for permission."
"Whenever you miss "the Decisive moment" or hesitate to take a good photo (and end up regretting it) don't beat yourself up over it and feel shame. It is pointless to regret your past mistakes. Rather, use it as a learning lesson and do differently next time. So the next time you miss the Decisive moment (because you didn't have your camera with you) always remind yourself to carry your camera with you. When you see a photo you want to take, don't hesitate. Just take the photo and live without regrets."
Armed with this and various other words of wisdom and not having the luxury of a 31 day programme when on a Christmas break in Thailand, I decided to think of my camera as a kind of 'talisman' to help my situation. I wanted a ready-made solution to help overcome my fears of approaching strangers to photograph. I had just been perusing the vast range of Buddhist amulets for sale at various temples. The Thais favour these as potent protective symbols, to wear around their necks. Symbols to ward off evil, bring good business, succeed at love, have wisdom and so on. Like any photographer, I know my camera intimately well and as a result I feel similar to the character of Linus with his blanket from the Charlie Brown cartoon. It's a source of comfort, as well as being a source of confidence, as in the case of Thor and his hammer. This is a simple way to redirect your thinking. Remind yourself, that this is a device that you know how to use well and that you bring with you everywhere. Your camera, has met many challenges with you and served its humble purpose unstintingly. You can literally hide behind it, cradle it, or hold it forth as a token of peace. And when you use it -magic happens!
I'm not advocating that its acceptable to randomly stick a camera in someone's face and expect them to be pleased about it, simply because you believe that by having a camera- it makes you entitled. What I am saying, is that it is about an attitude within. When you think to yourself- I'd really like to take a photograph of that person and I feel that I can make a really good job of this- it provides the basis for a polite, non- threatening, open approach. After all, what is the worst thing that could actually happen? They could say "no", or shoo you away.
It's probably our fear of potential conflict with others that tends to steer us away from such behaviour. Yet I have found (and remember, I havent made it even a small way through Eric Kim's proposed 31 steps), that in the short seconds following a simple request - Would you mind if I take your portrait? The surprised subject (who also wishes to avoid conflict), usually agrees. You don't have to go into a great long speil, as to why you would like their portrait in the first place. That may make you come across as awkward at best and creepy at worst. A simple - I think you have an interesting face- often suffices. If you genuinely find that person visually interesting, then that is going to communicate itself through your body language, gesture and facial expression, even before you verbally ask.
Here is the trick. In those seconds before you receive your reply; you're already ready to take a first shot (settings dialed in) - then as you continue to be non-threatening by thanking them and using your charm and / or smiling, you set up for the next shot, without dropping the camera from your eye and try for two or three more as you communicate. By making the whole experience a very rapid "no-big-deal" situation. You should be able to part company, leaving the impression in your subject's mind, that this is not such a bizarre request or indeed such a random event after all.
I've called this series of photographs: "Completed Encounters", as you will notice that I haven't yet graduated fully in Kim's' programme, to taking people's portraits without their permission. Although there have been a few in this series that didn't start as consentual photographs. Instances where I shot first, smiled, asked the question and then carried on shooting, have shown me the way forward to another level,. I've seen how its possible to gradually develop a feel for when and how this sort of non consentual photography can work and I realise that I need to perhaps journey through all 31 steps, to generate a wholly different series of imagery.
For me, as primarily a portrait and travel photographer, 'Completed Encounters' has been about- just that. The after-words, the banter, the chat, the mutual glance at the back of the camera for approval. The passing of a business card and the networking that may inevitably follow taking that portrait. There is often a palpable sense of relief from both parties as the ice has been broken, as it were. Most of the time people are just flattered, or in the worst case scenario, puzzled as both parties go on their seperate ways.
'Completed Encounters' continues to be a rewarding experiment. It certainly helps me to develop my skill at putting models at their ease in a studio situation, make quick-fire compositional decisons and allow my subject to reveal their personality, as I attempt to capture that certain something which attracted that person to my attention in the first instance. Joel Meyerowitz said that: "Photography is a way of reading your culture". I believe that is true even if you are; or especially if you are, a portrait and travel photographer. As the act of taking a photograph says as much about how you view a subject, as to what the subject reveals to you and your audience. Maybe like mine your camera is your talisman too and you too, feel proud of having a 'craft' ? I hope that my camera continues to be that two-way device for communication and goes on facilitating that open and honest exchange between photographer and subject.