#626. Street Portraits: Don’t be Afraid to Ask

#626. Street Portraits: Don’t be Afraid to Ask

Hello! I’m Adam and this is my first article on this site. If you’d like to know a little more about me, then you can read this interview that DearSusan conducted with me by clicking here.

 

For 2017 I set myself the challenge of street portraits. I’d been shooting street for a while, but never really gelled with the idea of going up to complete strangers and asking if I could take pictures of them.

 

I had nothing against street portraiture, no purist it’s not street if you ask mentality and I had no pseudo decisive moment only narrative about my work. No not at all. It was one simple thing – I just felt embarrassed and scared to ask.

 

You see I’m quite blessed from a genetic point of view when it comes to street – I’m probably the most nondescript man in existence, of course in the most part this has been a hindrance in life – having to move out of everyone else’s way in crowded malls, I’ve had bosses that forget I work for them, but when it comes to being all but invisible with a camera, or at least non-threatening looking with a camera, the physical un-description I possess has been very helpful.

 

I wanted to try street portraits, but I was afraid to ask – what if the potential subject, scowled, laughed or worse still, said no?

 

I needed a nudge; I needed a little bit of good fortune to get me on my path.

 

Perusing one of my regular locations for a bit of “street” I turned down the proverbial (and literal) dark alley way, where I happened upon these guys playing cards in the street.

 

I’m going to be 100% honest here – as much as you should never judge a book by its cover, I judged this book by its cover and my initial thought was uh-oh… am I going to have a problem?

 

The quartet stopped, dropped their cards and looked at me in unison…

 

“Hey English man, hey English man take our photo.”

 

 

I was happy to oblige and they seemed to like the shot.

 

That experience wasn’t so bad was it? I mean I know that opportunity came to me, but it suddenly seemed to be the most natural thing in the world, shooting strangers who are actually aware that you’re shooting them.

 

Buoyed by this engagement, I made a pact with myself to ask as many people as I could, if they’d mind me taking a shot of them.

 

It didn’t take long to try my first true street portrait.

 

About 10 minutes after being propositioned by the guys playing cards, I found three ladies enjoying the winter sun. They seemed both bemused at my request for a photo and amused at my attempts at Portuguese.

 

However, they said yes.

 

 

So I had scored my first true street portrait, the world hadn’t ended – I hadn’t died of embarrassment. I was set and on my way.

 

One of my favourite street haunts is the Mercado do Bolhão – to be honest this location has probably seen more photos taken there than it has seen apples being sold (and they sell a lot of fruit), Henri Cartier-Bresson shot there, the tourist guides take you there – it’s a location synonymous with people holding cameras.

 

So what better place to ask some people, (who’ve seen plenty of folks with cameras), if I can take their picture.

 

I asked pretty much every stall vendor for a shot and they nearly all said yes.

 

I was actually spoilt for choice.

 

This was my favourite from that visit to the market.

 

I had some portraits – but it was time to take it to the street.  After all, shooting in a place where tourists outnumber locals by quite some margin was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, or perhaps more accurately, shooting fish on a market stall.

 

On a roll from my easy shots at the market place, I hit the street looking for anybody I thought would make a good photograph.

 

It didn’t take long to find someone:

 

 

The next time I was out, I didn’t bother with the warm up session at the market; I headed to another tourist hotspot, São Bento railway station.

 

So far I’d mainly shot older people whose faces made for an interesting picture.

 

I wanted youth. Youth were a bit harder to convince.

 

 

However, once the girl in the centre saw the camera, she became very interested, curious, and keen to have a closer look. I was shooting with a Fujifilm X-Pro2 and these cameras don’t really look like too many other cameras. This just happened to make my camera a conversation piece and my seemingly bizarre request for a photograph became a kind of transaction… “Of course you can take a look at my camera, yes that’s right that dial controls shutter speed; so how about that photo guys, are we cool with that?

 

Time went by and I’d shot many street portraits. I’d made a journey from happenstance, to tentative request to emboldened street documenter. I’d migrated from Hmm they look like they might say yes to wow, look at that face – I want a shot of them

 

I now wanted to experiment with context, and by context I specifically wanted to attempt to show a genuine fact about the person in the shot.

 

 

This guy was the only one (of three) street food vendors that was happy to pose for a shot (the other two ran for the hills the moment the camera came out).

 

I’ll hold my hands up here and admit, I’ve failed miserably to show the viewer that he’s operating a street food cart!

 

I chewed that failure over in my mind for a while. Whenever I have a bit of a lull in my street work – I usually head to Mercado do Bolhão and shoot in familiar territory, with people who don’t bat an eyelid at a camera.

 

 

Here at least we have a clue what the chap does for a living!

 

I started to look out for people who looked interesting, and could offer something above and beyond their face (even if their face was a good enough reason to shoot them).

 

 

Possibly the most visually interesting of these was a bit of an accident, this next guy photobombed something else I was shooting and gave me a few moments to make him the picture.

 

 

Despite the seemingly condensed nature of this piece, I’ve actually covered many months of street portraiture attempts.

 

By this point I felt really quite comfortable with it. It didn’t matter now whether it was contextual portraits or interesting face portraits, I felt I could do either, that I didn’t need to favour one over the other.

 

I felt comfortable approaching pretty much anyone, doing pretty much anything and ask – please don’t misconstrue that as some sort of self entitled belief that I have a right to stick my camera in people’s faces, it’s not that at all, just that you can always ask – some times you get, but if you never ask – you never get. However, common sense must play a part – for example I never bother to ask the guys peddling contraband or couples having a blazing row  🙂

 

 

Several months ago, I’d have never asked for this – they’re busy, she has an ice cream moustache, like there’s any chance that they’re going to say yes.

 

They said yes.

 

Previously, when I was merely looking for people who might say yes – I’d discount people who looked like they’d say no.

 

I don’t so that now – they’ll tell me no, it’s not my job to second guess what people might agree to.

 

 

She didn’t look like she’d say yes before, during or after the photo. But she did. (In fact ‘yes’ was the only word she uttered the whole time I was there, usually they at least ask why?)

 

I attended my first ever Pride March, (perhaps worth a write up in its own right….) but certainly a great place to capture interesting faces.

 

 

By now I’d started to experiment with influencing the shot a little bit, can you tilt your head slightly stuff like that, I’ve also started to try and elicit a facial expression change, things like hanging on a moment before hitting the shutter.

 

Doing that – achieved this:

 

 

All in all – I’m very pleased that I embarked on street portraits. I haven’t just photographed these strangers, I’ve often chatted to them as well, in one case I ended up spending all afternoon with a chap who was a genuine pilgrim, walking from Portugal to Spain. Fascinating guy.

 

I’ve got social media friends and followers from shooting strangers; I’ve had people search me out to see my work off the back of me taking their picture.

 

But perhaps best of all…. I took something that I had trepidation about and was fearful of and I embraced it. This is good for the soul!

 

I’ve leave you with some tips

  1. Be polite, ask nicely – they’re doing YOU the favour
  2. Always say thank you, even if they don’t agree to a shot
  3. If working away from home, learn enough of the local language to start a conversation
  4. Be quick – people don’t have all day for you start metering the scene and taking a WB reading
  5. Always offer to send them a copy (usually digital) of the shot.

 

About the author:
I’m a semi-professional event photographer but better known for my tutorials and musings on Fujifilm’s X-Pro range of cameras. For money, I’ll shoot what you ask me, but for pleasure I’m a documentary photographer with an urban/street bias. My highly verbose website can found at http://adambonn.com or if you want to just see my pictures, try Flickr or Instagram

 


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12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Annie August 02, 2017

    Adam…i thoroughly enjoyed your article and i always find your pics interesting on facebook…i shall continue to keep an eye on your progress…..and maybe even watch a tutorial….happy shooting.
    Annie
    Ps..i have another friend like yourself who posts shots of where she lives in Devon…. Fictive Photograly…. Lonija Balgavis….take a look at her site is u have a few moments to spare

    • Avatar
      Adam Bonn August 02, 2017

      Thank you very much Annie,

      I really appreciate you taking the time to tell me that, this site is full of great photography and insightful commentary, it’s well worth a browse and I’ve got my work cut out to (try and) keep up!

      I’ll google your friend 🙂

  2. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron August 03, 2017

    A very amusing writing style – although I have to chide you on one issue, Adam. Don’t sell yourself short – always leave that stuff to others, some of them relish the task and others will do the opposite, telling you what a wonderful person you are – self effacement is just unproductive use of your time.

    It’s interesting working through the photos. By asking, of course, you make sure that there’s no friction in taking their photos – there’s a loss of the “candid” element, and it’s traded in for an element of portraiture – but there’s no sharp dividing, defining line between the two forms of street photography anyway. And a real plus is the quality of the photos jumps – much better on average than a large proportion of traditional street photography.

    Another bonus – you’d learn a lot more portogues this way, and the people of Portugal are delightful to talk to. If you don’t manage their language, it’s OK – for historical reasons, most of them are fluent in english anyway. And Portugal is a wonderful place for tourists or for holidays. Sigh – it’s just a wonderful place, period. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Adam Bonn August 03, 2017

      Thank you Jean Pierre,

      Well at 167cm (five foot six in old money) I can hardly sell myself tall 🙂 🙂

      I guess I see street / street portraits as different ‘musicians’ in the same genre of music

      My Portuguese vocabulary is getting better….

      Now if only I could pronounce it properly,

      Cast your mind to the iconic line from ‘The Italian Job’ you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off

      But imagine instead it was “obrigado pela foto”

      And you’ll have a clear idea of my problem!

      Jokes aside, Portugal is a wonderful place and there’s so much to love about being here. Not least of which is all the photographical possibilities that catch the eye of a Brit who grew up in middle England

  3. Avatar
    Adrian August 03, 2017

    Adam, I don’t know if saw an article I wrote for Dear Susan a few months ago, where I talked about the development of my interest in street photography and travel portraits in Asia (link: https://www.dearsusan.net/2017/03/24/photography-travel-portraits-in-asia/). I agree with most of your comments about how to approach people, although I would add that I often shoot people (including formal male physique portraits) where we share almost no language, and I don’t specifically see it as a barrier. As you comment, I think your own demeanour and attitude will often be apparent to the people you are asking, even when they don’t understand your words, and so this can be extremely important to create that moment of good feeling for them to agree. I believe agree it is critical to accept a “no” graciously, and certainly never try to take photos of people who have refused. I am currently working on another article, hopefully one of a series around Asia, where I talk about the benefits of being the “foreigner” (or other, or outsider). Language and culture are strange things that often divide us, whereas out humanity can unite us, and I think it is that which can allow us to become a brief part of someone else’s life when we capture these “stolen moments” with them. Somewhat ironically, I quite like the first picture, not necessarily because of the composition or what you have created, but perhaps because of the expressions and atmosphere created by the subjects. Your favourite is striking, although the woman looks worried! I also like the black and white man working a food cart, but agree there isn’t any context at all, and I also like the man with his scales for it’s very staged deadpan quality. Without wishing to sound patronising, keep it up and try to find your style or “voice” to decide what you want to say. One last thing, and something that perhaps I will touch on in a future article, is the importance of personal safety, which you touch on briefly in your opening paragraphs.

    • Avatar
      Adam Bonn August 04, 2017

      Hi Adrian, no I hadn’t read it, but I just had a quick look – it warrants more of my time when I have it.

      There’s definitely truth to the foreigner angle – I’m not at all confident to ask in my native country and so far I’ve only managed one street portrait there (not featured here)

      The Portuguese are surrounded by the English language, they don’t dub films, and even many cartoons on kids TV are in English, so they respond very well to hearing someone English (attempt to) speak Portuguese. This will be different in other countries.

      Yes the first one (in which they asked me to shoot them) has many human qualities that magically came together, the facial expressions, the sense of movement and the context.

      My ‘favourite’ was only my favorite from that day – it’s not my all time favorite (I probably didn’t make that clear in the text)

      I didn’t find your end comment at all patronising TBH, possibly a little redundant – as whether encouraged or dissuaded I tend to stick to my own path 🙂

      That said, “style and voice” are often things that others assign to us, and are seldom unified in their application as the same things mean different things to different people (although I guess if a photographer shot only blue hats or red cars) – for me I feel my work all looks like it was taken by the same person (which was a goal from a few years back) above and beyond that, people can label it as they wish.

      • Avatar
        Adrian August 04, 2017

        What I was suggesting by my “style and voice” comment relates to some of the narrative in my linked article, and based on my own photographic journey. One of the pieces of my own journey of discovery has been understanding what I want to photograph, and why. The “why” is for me an issue of style and voice, as the “why” defines the stories or messages that we want to convey. In the comments in the link, I mention that a well known national-geographic type photographer saw some of my travel portfolio and made a comment about me having a simple style, which felt like damning with feint praise. I don’t think there is any obvious relationship between my photography at physique sports competitions, my physique sports portraits, and my travel and street photography – the subject matter is so different that I personally feel it is impossible to unify the work as it stands. However, I have started to understand what it is that draws me to street photography and street portraits, and by understanding why it is that I want to take certain photos in the first place, it has allowed me to understand my motivations and therefore my “message” or intent – again discussed in the linked article and some of the discussion that followed. As you seemed insecure about asking people on the street for a photo, I was alluding to a need for you to understand what it is that motivates or attracts you to certain situations or people, to better understand what you want to say. I believe that this is an important part of my “journey”, together with specialism, to understand what I like to photography and what I want to say by doing it. Pascal recently wrote an article about “what is your story”, which is his words for the same thing. I think a lot of amateurs (including myself historically) undertake a lot of “random snapping”, or specialise in a way that merely apes other photographers they admire (I am thinking of some/much UK amateur landscape work, which too often seems to ape people like Charlie Waite or Joe Cornish, rather than having anything that is obviously original to say) – both of which may limit artistic growth, if that is the desire and intent. Of course, some people just photograph things to be happy and please themselves, and that’s fine too.

        • Avatar
          Adam Bonn August 04, 2017

          Surely the link between your various photography pursuits is you? You might not approach and deliver sports portraits and competitions as you would travel and street, but it’s your eye, your taste in colour (or mono), your taste in exposure etc that makes the shots you? Even if (for example, I realise this isn’t actually the case) you strictly shot B&W for street/portraits and colour for events then it would still be YOU behind those compositions and tone changes.

          And whereas we have to accept that an audience is unlikely to see a shot and say Oh that? THAT’S an Adrian or THAT’S an Adam I can tell by looking at it I do feel we should be able to have a style that places our work into some sort of context within what we shoot.

          My fear of street portraits was asking, I’ve never really struggled to understand why I want to take the pictures… (Possibly a bad analogy as photography isn’t really a competition) but one might enter a competition to try and win, but one might be fearful of the challenges that presents, I mean like say a quiz, where you know some things and historically you’ve done ok in quizzes, but you don’t know the questions so maybe this time you’ll struggle!

          I’m living in a completely different world to the one I knew for about 90% of my life – I’m not on holiday here! To document, capture and share that world is truly motivation enough and that expands to the people I see – besides people skills, people photography and impromptu Portuguese lessons never hurts either 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Steffen August 04, 2017

    I once took the plunge and asked for street portraits in Asia. For me, it was easier to jump somewhere where I was alien anyways – and was in that mood already.

    I later deleted all photos because I found them boring, compared to my usual uninterrupted, candid snaps of life.

    However, I salute to anybody having the balls to approach strangers in a street for unrelated stuff. I don’t have it (now). And two of my planned portrait projects are on hold because I struggle to ask my subjects (maybe I write a WIP article about them).

    • Avatar
      Adam Bonn August 04, 2017

      I think there’s still a large component of candid in street portraiture, it’s just a different type – you have very little control over the outcome above and beyond how you might approach any street situation, you could perhaps say that candid street seizing a moment, but street portraiture is asking for a moment, but you still only have a moment – I set out to do it because it interested me and I was scared, and I don’t like to be scared to try something I want to do! (Compared to things I’m scared of and have no compunction to try, like swimming in the open ocean)

      • Avatar
        Adrian Turner August 05, 2017

        In reply to both of you, both my street photos (reportage) and street portraits have mostly become about capturing a moment – for street reportage its something about every day life in a foreign place that might be interesting to others, and for portraits it is about the often quiet private moments that happen in public places. Sometimes the act of taking the portrait creates that moment, but often it is “stolen” by the camera as it what attracted me to someone or a situation in the first place.

        Often people will go to change (their position, stand up etc) which undermines what I saw that I liked, so I try to get them to carry on doing what they were doing, but looking at the camera. Some might argue that they should be candid, but actually I prefer the subject looking at the camera as it creates what I’ve previously described as a direct but “prophylactic vicarious” view into someone else and their life – I like the viewer of the photos to be able to meet the eyes of the subject, for that stolen moment together. If the photo is candid or someone is looking away, then there is no longer that direct connection between viewer and subject.

        All I can say to Stefan is that there is a benefit to being the outsider, something I hope to touch on in an item I have drafted about photographing in Kuala Lumpur, I think you learn who to approach, demeanour and attitude are very important as Adam highlights in his article, and the worst that has ever happened is a “no”. I think the risk of trying to candidly photograph people who don’t want to be is greater, as they may react badly.

        • Avatar
          Adam Bonn August 05, 2017

          I think they inherently retain their candid nature, but it evolves. Some like to stare at the camera as if it’s a mug shot, others try for their Sunday best smile.

          I like that as it shows a candid reaction to a situation they have little control over

          One of my “tricks” to pause, longer than needed, so that I get to see what they do when they’re being ever-so-slightly inconvenienced, many then give a genuine smile and a little laugh (as if they’re thinking hey I thought you wanted a picture), others scowl a bit (in a sort of bloody get on with it then sort if way), often (and this is just me, YMMV) I find this candid recation more appealing than whatever attracted me to them in the first place

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