Shooting Strangers

Published by MJR on June 5th, 2008 in Technique | 4 Comments »

One small tip for people who seem to get shot down by people they approach and want to photograph: Don’t ask to take their picture, Tell them you’d like to shoot their portrait. I want to walk you through the experience of approaching a total stranger and firing off 20 frames because its just what you do.

The following images were shot during a 4 minute conversation with a guy named Rage. Of course I was rushing to the train station last Friday. NYC was waiting on the other end of 200 miles of train tracks and I had 12 minutes to make it from the curb to my beloved business class seat with an AC plug for the Apple Macbook Pro. Surely it was worth the extra money. As I’m rushing up the steps to the station I look to my right and see an overweight kid who looked like he was crossing the bridge between a misguided youth and an unsure adulthood. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I know a photo is going untaken, and there is only one remedy that I know of.

This is how it went..

I walk up to Rage with camera in hand. I tell him I’d like to shoot his portrait. I start standing back a bit and play off the symmetry of the surroundings. Bricks, tall buildings with uniform patterns, lines created by walkways. I’m a very visual person and my eye frames subjects first around angles and lines. Although its no longer my forte, I owe it all to learning how to shoot by roaming the streets of LA shortly after getting my license shooting architecture with Julius

When I photograph subjects candidly or in an impromptu setting I like to narrow in on gestures and motions. Images shot at point blank with only a subtle stare tend to lack substance for your mind to latch onto and digest. Drags off a cigarette, hand movements and sudden changes in body language are elements that I try to capture.

What first drew me to the subject was his feet and the seemingly random tattoos that littered his body. After noticeably shooting just his legs I asked, “Do you have any more tattoo’s?”

After photographing around 15 frames of Rage I ran to my train to get on board.. But what struck me was a date that was enscribed on the underside of his right arm. As I was waiting to board, ticket in hand, an urge came over me to know what the date meant. I broke out of line and ran back to find him arising from the pavement about to move on. I asked him what the date meant on his arm and he told me it was the day that his girl died. He pulled up his shirt to reveal “TIERAH” in gothic script arching over a bloated belly.

Never fight the hunger to know and to capture. A photographer must follow instincts, and it is these moments of blind intrigue that will elevate a random image of someone you encountered into a memory that will never be forgetten. What if I never asked? Well, this post probably wouldn’t have been written nor would I remember Rage, the story of how he left New York City to find his mother in Massachusetts, the loss of his lover Tierah, and the narrow passageway he is now following into an uncertain future.

I attached numbers to the frames in hopes that viewers would select their favorites or comment on which would be their “selects” .. the large frames are my selects.

Now there is a much different side of the street portrait coin. Just the other day Rob forwarded me a link to a recent Gothamist article featuring Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden. The man forgoes a process and shoots images purely from the instinct. “Going for the frame” is a tenant of street photography and Gilden takes no prisoners on the streets of Manhattan. I love his insights on the city and his style really does reflect the electric-current that runs through the cement in New York City, making its pedestrians wild robots. This article was more about pulling people out of their daily lives and putting a camera in their face.. and would be more aptly considered “street portraiture” rather than nitty gritty street photos. We can call it whatever we want, at the end of the day nothing beats the feeling of nailing a frame from the hip, pre-focused and metered in the brain.

4 Responses to “Shooting Strangers”

  1. Marcus Says:

    June 5th, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Thats fantastic, thanks. More useful than 1000 reviews of sensor noise or how to do a HDR image. And (the source of the Gilden interview) looks very interesting, I’ll have to watch all of that.

    I feel like I’m telling the doctor what treatment I need (ie. underqualified), but you asked so here goes anyway.

    I like your selection, I’d pretty much do the same except to drop 8 for 6 because I like the undisturbed feel of 6. Looks like thats how you found him. But i think the cropped bright green bottle might bother someone if they haven’t seen the whole series and remembered what the whole bottle looks like.

    Shot 7 took a while to click, guess I was moving too fast and not thinking. I like the two cigs that he must have already smoked in it. Oh, and I just noticed he cut his jumper and put his thumbs through the end. I love these kind of details.

  2. Dave Says:

    June 6th, 2008 at 11:02 am

    great post matt. i love/hate the feeling when i pass something that i know i have to photograph.

    as for your selects, i would add #1 and #10, and possibly eliminate #19, though that does kind of kill the end of your story.


  3. russell Says:

    June 6th, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    i think i would probably switch 6 for 7. i guess having his face in the picture resonated a little more with me. 20 is probably my favorite though. i also agree with dave about 19. if i didn’t know the story the image would’ve just seemed unnecessary.

    i’ve been thinking about getting a little bit more serious about photography. moving up from just point and click to something with more control. maybe a d40. any suggestions?

    again, good stuff.


  4. Scott Says:

    July 3rd, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Great write-up. I have real trouble taking pics of strangers, possibly because of where I live but I think thats a sorry excuse. The one thought this brought up is – why are most great street photographs of the poor or the nutty? Is it because you feel less awkward using them as a subject? Or is it plainly that they’re more interesting subjects with stories worth telling?

    I think #7 says it all, the socks, dark, damp and dirty, not even pulled up properly resembles how I would think this poor guy lives everyday of his life – uncomfortable, weatehered, and alone. Really great shot and write-up, thanks.