Making “The Dreaded Approach” on the Streets: Flattery Gets Me Everywhere!


Lately I’ve been getting questions from various parts of the Internet about how I go about approaching people on the street in my quest to make street portraits.  So I figured it was time to pen a blog post that addresses this specific question…hopefully it will give you some additional insight into how I go about things.

Just so you know, I consider myself an introvert and a borderline recluse.  I had to learn how to come out of my shell and force myself to interact with strangers.   Part of the reason why I got into fundraising, and later, project management, was to gain the necessary confidence to assert myself and win people over to my cause or my point of view.

I apply the same skills and strategies that I refined over the years to making street portraits.  People are people, and they are always interested in knowing that someone else is interested in them.

Here's an image I made of a young man, Nile, who was waiting for the bus on Chelten Avenue. His hand tattoo of Philly's well known area code, 215, caught my eye. I made eye contact and asked if I could take a photo of his hand. Simple as that. Taken April 26, 2012 in Philadelphia, PA.

It’s important to understand that approaching strangers, whether to take their photos or to ask them to support a cause, is an important social skill.  As long as you conduct yourself with openness and transparency, you can’t go wrong.

With that said, here’s what I wrote in response to a message I received on the question of how I make my approaches recently:

“For street portraits, I try to approach people who aren’t otherwise preoccupied, i.e., on their phone, wearing headphones, etc., and seem amenable to stopping and talking to a stranger.

I walk up to my subjects, ask them if they have a few minutes to spare, smile and introduce myself as a photographer working on a street portrait project, give them my (business) card, and ask if they wouldn’t mind me taking their picture.

I don’t know why, but they always seem to be okay with it. I know that I only have about 5 minutes so I set everything up quickly and then try to make conversation while I’m shooting. Some people like to engage in conversation, some don’t. I respect them either way.

Part of my “spiel” is focused on pointing out something about them that caught my eye, something to make them smile, feel more comfortable in order to put them at ease. Like the lady Crystal with the big hair…I approached her and told her how beautiful I thought her hair was… as they say, flattery gets you everywhere! 

I made this street portrait of a striking young woman, Crystal, with the most beautiful hair. I got the impression that she was used to photographers asking to take her picture because she was very amenable to my request. Taken April 24, 2012 in Philadelphia.

In short, I put the principle of creating a win-win situation in project management to practice on the streets.  There’s something in it for my subjects, and it’s something in it for me.  Everyone walks away feeling like we gained something.

The beauty, to me, of making candid street portraits, is the opportunity to meet a wide variety of everyday people, tap into what it is that makes them special, and capture that uniqueness on camera.  I strive to preserve the dignity and self-respect of all of the subjects I approach, while keying in on their individuality.

I enjoy sharing these images with you and I hope you enjoy them as much as enjoy making them.

This is Queen Akilah Brown Bey Isra'el. After seeing (and hearing) her at the local library in my neighborhood, I approached her for a photo. The penchant for drama was evident and I knew it would translate well. By the way, this pose was completely improvised by her! Taken April 26, 2012 in Philadelphia.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We gain strength, courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face.  We must do that which we think we cannot.”

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Amarie says:

    Awesome piece, girl! I know it takes a lot of confidence to approach strangers these days. I’m still leery of taking photos in certain places outdoors, sometimes, for fear people will think I’m plotting to blow up something lol. This post-9/11 world we live in is TOUGH. Keep doing what you do, because you are doing it SO well!

    1. Thank you so much!

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