Are you ready to stretch your creativity? Are you ready to step out of your comfort zone a little – or a lot? The 100 Strangers Project may be just the ticket. This project is just what it sounds like – an initiative to meet and photograph 100 complete strangers! The best way to take on a project this ambitious is to join an online learning group. The benefit is that you have a community of other photographers who are also photographing strangers to learn from and engage in discussion. You can take this journey with a group of like-minded folks and be involved in an amazing, collaborative project!
[This article references the Flickr 100 strangers project. Note, it has a specific set of rules and requirements for membership.]
[Top image Stranger Portrait No. 59 by Flickr user chris zerbes]
I don’t blame you for being a bit intimidated at this prospect. It does seem like a daunting task, but if you are stuck in a rut this may be just what you need to jumpstart your creativity and improve your portrait photography skills. I will explain the intent of this project and teach you some practical tips to tackle it.
Flickr Group Basics
You can and should read through the Flickr 100 Strangers Project page for all the details about joining this group. As of October 2013 the group has over 9,000 members and 40,000+ photos uploaded. The pictures are posted by beginner and advanced photographers alike from all over the world. It is truly an international effort. Each photo you post must be accompanied by information about your subject. This means you must not only ask for permission but also get to know them a bit. That’s right… you have to initiate a conversation with a complete stranger. Bring on the sweaty palms! This project is as much an experience in expanding your social skills and circle as it is photography. The group requires that you submit a description of the encounter that includes the subject’s name and a summary of your experience. They provide some suggestions about specific information to include. Basically, they want to know why your subject attracted your attention in the first place and what you learned about their life in the short time you spent with them.
Group rules allow you to post a maximum of one picture per day and one picture per stranger. The rules also state “no candid shots” meaning photographs taken of people without their permission. The photos may appear candid or un-posed, but you need to explain the circumstances under which the photo was taken in your comments. Some group members suggest asking for permission to photograph and then asking the subject to continue doing what they were doing.
The group page has lots of amazing, diverse photographs that you can view before you join. There are also numerous discussion threads you can read through to really get a feel for the idea behind this project. Discussion topics include how to get started, overcoming your fear, whether or not you should post every stranger photograph you take, and what to do once you reach 100!
This type of work is very different from studio work or formally posed portrait photography. If your experience has been photographing your family, or beautiful brides, this will be a big departure. As you engage in more candid or street photography, you move from straight photography to photojournalism. Photojournalism requires a subtle paradigm shift. It goes beyond exposure, composition, and lighting to truly explore the life of the person being photographed. Photojournalists attempt to tell stories with pictures. They go beyond photographing nouns (persons, places, and things) and attempt to capture verbs in their photos. Think of the emotion-filled pictures you have seen of poverty stricken families or people after a natural disaster. You will not be seeking news worthy events but instead attempting to capture the emotion and diversity that exists in everyday human existence.
The father of modern day photojournalism was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was a French photographer born in 1908. Cartier-Bresson began as a painter but eventually embraced the photographic movement of the day towards realism. The idea that there was beauty in ordinary people and everyday activities. He thrived on “trapping” life in photographs. Why the mention of Cartier-Bresson in this article? Well, his work was very much in line with the intent of the 100 Strangers Project. He is perhaps best well known for his statement about “The Decisive Moment.”
“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment….There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”
The first step to photographing a stranger is to approach them. Duh, right? It can be hard though to initiate a conversation with a stranger let alone take a picture of them. If just asking someone to hold the door or pass the salt makes you nervous, this may really have you shaking in your boots. But don’t be worried. You will likely be pleasantly surprised by how many people are open to it – flattered even. If you see someone engaged in an interesting activity and would like their photograph, you need to initiate a discussion. Let them know your intent. Explain to them why you are interested in taking their picture and try to find out more about them. Inevitably they will act differently after you’ve had “the talk”, but if you encourage them to ignore you and wait it out you should get some natural shots.
A suggestion for beginners is to choose a very public location like a parade or ball game where people will be coming to you. People are typically more at ease with being photographed if they are in a group. When a subject comes to you, ask permission to take their photo. A little casual banter about the subject, genuine interest in them, and perhaps a bit of flattery will go a long way here.
Don’t photograph children. Regardless of your intentions, that is perceived as creepy and can actually get you in trouble. It is also against the rules of the Flickr project. Stick with adults who give their consent to be photographed.
If you are taking a photograph specifically for the 100 Strangers Project, be prepared to explain that to your subjects. They will want to know what you plan to do with their picture. You need to explain why you are taking it and how it will be used. Some members of the Flickr group even have business cards prepared that they give to their subjects explaining the project and where the photo can be viewed. Be prepared for the possibility of rejection, and be willing to walk away gracefully if they say no. If you are photographing strangers while traveling familiarize yourself with local customs and social protocol before approaching someone for a photo.
Once you have mentally prepared yourself to approach someone, get your camera ready ahead of time and think about how you will compose the picture. Consider a small lens, like a 50 mm, if you have one. It can ruin the moment if you show up with lots of large, sophisticated looking equipment. You want to be unobtrusive. You don’t want to inconvenience your subject, so place yourself with the background of the photo in mind. Something simple that will not detract from the subject, or something that represents the person is best. You may have to shoot low or shoot high to get a good background in “street” conditions. If possible, explain to them where you want them to pose and approximately how much of their time it will take. Try to avoid harsh light or other conditions that will make for a poor picture.
For a beginner, aperture priority is probably the way to go. Choose a moderate aperture like f4 or f5.6. If you are shooting in low light conditions, bump up your ISO to ensure a quick shutter speed and a clear photo. Also be prepared to take a few shots. You are more likely to get “the one” if you take some verticals and horizontals and try both head and full body shots. You may want to use burst mode to accomplish this in a short amount of time.
One last note about posing is that you want the posing to match the subject. You may try to capture them doing something i.e. playing chess, or you can just naturally pose them. You are not going for the “hair and makeup” or “signed model” look. You are trying to capture your subjects in their natural environment being themselves! Think about what caught your eye about this person originally and try to capture that reality in your photo.
Keep those tips in mind, but also remember you can overthink this. It may be easier to just approach someone, give them your pitch, and shoot some frames. Preset your camera basics and go for it. If you plan every move ahead of time, you may lose your nerve. This is a project that requires you jump in with two feet. Once you have cleared the hurdle of asking the first stranger, it should get easier! Many group members describe the adrenaline rush that goes along with asking someone, getting a yes, and taking that first shot.
Joining an online community offers you the support you may need to continue and eventually complete a lengthy project of this nature. The moral support and understanding of other photographers with the same goal is invaluable. Setting out to photograph 100 strangers and actually seeing it through to the 100th photo are two very different things. Engaging in feedback and discussion with photographers with different skill sets from around the world will greatly enhance your experience. You will learn as much from looking at the other group members’ photos as taking your own.
Capturing a Decisive Moment
Don’t miss that moment whatever it may be! This project has a spontaneous element to it. Head out with your camera and do some people watching. You are bound to see someone interesting to photograph. Getting out and photographing real people living real life gives you the opportunity to capture those moments. Without the props, lights, and posed subjects of a studio setting you can explore a whole new photographic genre. Photographing strangers will stretch you and cause you to look for interest in the people you see. You will improve your eye and your ability to compose on the fly. You will expand your horizon and your portrait portfolio while doing something different and unique.
If you are in need of something fresh and different that may even scare you a bit, this is your project. Having a specific assignment is always a great way to get you out actively taking pictures. Photographing strangers adds additional elements that can greatly enhance your creativity and influence your take on the world around you. Think outside the box and start working on this new photography challenge today. You will be amazed at the interesting, inspiring people that are all around you!