Overcoming Fear: An Exercise in Photographing Strangers

When it comes to approaching strangers for their pictures I tend to want to allow fear to take over resulting in a lost opportunity to obtain great images. Studio portraiture is safe. My clients have chosen to be in my space. They want me to take their picture. Outside of my studio, strangers are unsuspecting. They don't know me. They aren't asking to have their pictures taken. For some reason, this freaks me out. I tend to not want to offend, cause problems, or stir anyone's pot when it comes to pausing their day to take time out for me.

Unfortunately, the portraiture I am most drawn to is the kind that requires a little assertiveness, a little chutzpa as my Jewish friends would call it. Upon spotting an interesting face, I am required to confront my fear, stop that person mid stride or mid-whatever he is doing, and ask for a little time out of his day to take a picture that he is unlikely to ever see or have the pleasure of appreciating. In some cases, it requires a realization that I am in a sense, exploiting his circumstances to tell an interesting story for my gain. For instance, I find that beggars often have worn and sad faces which I find extremely intriguing; yet to ask for a portrait seems demeaning. I find children to have the brightest eyes and the most beautifully innocent faces, yet to ask parents for a portrait seems creepy and just odd. Almost any stranger I want to photograph possesses some quality that would lend itself to me feeling a sense of intrusion in asking for a portrait. So what shall I do? To never photograph strangers is to succumb to a fear of asking.. That is not an option. My only choice is to overcome my fear and in the words of a Nike ad, "just do it."

Seizing opportunity is the only way I know how to confront my own stranger danger. I recently had the luxury of visiting Berlin, Germany for a long weekend. While there, I was exploring the city, trying to permanently cement every visual detail I possibly could into my memory. I passed a park and was struck by the beauty of spring, the sunshine and warm breeze, and most importantly by the people sitting on the benches in the park. Each bench was occupied by only one person or group of persons. I would rather have just kept walking, but something in me challenged my comfort and prompted me to ask each and every bench of people for a portrait. It was a great opportunity to confront my fear of approach and to maybe grab some images for this blog post! I did it. I went for it. When I would have rather not, I did. I began by taking a few pictures of the park itself, to sort of make my presence known to those sitting on the benches watching me. Then, one by one, I circled the park clockwise and asked for a picture.

I knew I'd only be able to get a few frames from each person so I had to make sure I was fast, accurately exposed, and ready to shoot without much time to compose each image. My only introduction was that I was an American photographer seeking interesting pictures of the people of Berlin for my website blog, could I take their pictures, and if so, they should act naturally, looking at the camera only if they wanted to. Here is what I got. I will caption the bottom of each image with the details of that interaction.

The park

The park: I included this image to give a context for how the benches were set up.

Two Guys

These two guys were just hanging out. They were super cooperative, super chill, and unaffected by my request to photograph them. Somehow, approaching young adults seems the easiest to me. The young men pictured here were clearly just hanging out. They had a speaker, some music, their phones, and plenty of hydration. They were there to stay for a while and felt a little flattered knowing they'd be featured on my blog. This one was easy.

Man with Cigarette

This gentleman did not speak English. When I asked him if I could take his picture which required a pretty advanced game of charades, he obliged. He hid his cigarette, wanted to look straight into my camera, and at one point even stood up offering to me some different shots and expressions. He hesitated when I asked him to show his cigarette. His eyes appeared sunken due to the very dark circles under his eyes, yet he was cheerful and cooperative. When I asked him if he wanted to see the back of my camera, he did not. He refused. I found this so interesting. A man so open to being photographed, but seemingly so insecure of how his images may have turned out.

Mystery Man

This gentleman was the only one of the bunch that did not want his photograph taken. I never push. No means no, whether your a girl or a guy. I was very disappointed in his no because he was the most interesting face of them all. White pants, navy jacket, a top hat, glasses, and a book signalled a man of sophisticated class. I imagined him to be a well educated, old school kind of man, sort of stuck in time. He stood out as more of a character than a man living in an urban and "hip" city.

Man with Cap

This man willingly obliged my request for a photo. His demeanour upon being asked was one of surprise... surprise that I would stop to talk to him. He reminded me of the Hungarian man I featured in my previous post. He was shy, humble, but very willing to be part of my project. He spoke pieces of English, but not much. He wanted to look straight into the camera. Alone on the bench with his small stash of food and drink cause me to imagine he was lonely in a sense. One can never know from 30 second with a person, but sometimes we read people based upon a few seconds, and the small intuitions we have. Who knows? Either way, He was interesting and so kind to allow me to take his portrait.

Couple

This couple was a tough one to approach. Here I had two people deep in a conversation that I had to interrupt if I wanted the shot. I hate interrupting people I know very well, let alone perfect strangers in a park, but I did it. They spoke good English and it seemed as if they cooperated out of an altruistic heart...like they were helping me with a project or something. I guess they were in a sense! Before I could even instruct them on what to do or not do, they asked "Shall we look at the camera?" "Do you want us to move?" "Shall we sit closer together?" It was fun. They chose to stay put, but through their dark glasses looked straight into my camera.

Three Women

Once again, these young ladies were easy to approach. I began my fear confrontation with them since they seemed the least threatening! They spoke good English and acted sort of caught off guard, but completely comfortable with my request. They were three friends hanging in the park. That's their story. They were just hanging out, had no issue with my taking a photograph or two, and carried on as if I wasn't there. Again, those younger kids are super easy to talk to.

Man with Earbuds

This was the final man I photographed. He seemed very neutral in his demeanor. I was very nervous to talk to him because he had earbuds in his ears and usually that means "leave me alone, I'm busy". As I approached him, he saw me coming. He had probably seen me work my way around the park and was maybe hoping I'd pass by him. I wanted to pass by him, but I spoke to my fear of interrupting his solitude and made my request anyway. He pulled his earbuds out of his ears, agreed to a picture, and then put his earbuds right back in, as if nothing had just taken place. Coincidentally, I think this is my favorite portrait of the series.

In conclusion, I must admit, I thought that asking for pictures would have gotten easier with each passing experience. It did not. What I did learn is that people aren't as scary as they seem. They are as scary as my fear allows me to imagine them. Certainly I'll encounter a hostile no from time to time. And definitely, I feel a small sense of personal rejection and embarrassment when I am told no; however, overall, I know I can do this. I can overcome my fears, even if the fear never leaves. It's a choice, and I choose to make art, take pictures, and seize every opportunity for growth and advancement that I possibly can. Thank you Berlin Park People for allowing me to take your pictures and post them here.

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