Street Portraiture – the 100 Strangers Project, Part I

30 August 2015

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This post focuses on my photographic journey and some highlights from the set. I go into more technical details in Part II, specifically for fellow photographers.

What is the 100 Strangers project?

On 21 March 2013 something happened that sent me down an important path in my life. It set me off on a journey to become what you could call a ‘proper’ photographer.

That day, I shot my first street portrait with the subject’s permission. It was part of the 100 Strangers project. On 15 July 2015, more than two years later, I took my 100th portrait, and I can honestly say this project has changed my life.

Click the photos to view them in a larger size and to read the full stories of the people they feature!

#01 -- Kate
#01 – Kate, Camden Town, London

It was a gray British morning in Camden Town, London, and I was on my way to the office job as a project manager at an IT company. On most days I was indifferent during the journey and kept my eyes down, avoiding eye contact, as most people do on London public transport.

That morning, however, I was excited and enthusiastic. And really, really nervous. I was finally noticing everything and everyone around me; the possibilities seemed endless and I had no idea how to start.

I had spent the previous evening going through the street portraits taken by an Australian photographer named Evan Robinson, and the descriptions and stories behind the images. I randomly found his work on Flickr when browsing portraiture, and I was fascinated by the idea of ‘100 Strangers’.

#07 -- Alice

#07 – Alice, Camden Town, London

This is a global project, with participants from all over the world, that requires us to commit to photographing 100 people on the street, by asking for their permission explicitly, and getting to know a little bit (or a lot) about them. It’s partly documentary, partly portraiture, and partly an exercise in establishing a connection between strangers in today’s busy and crazy world. Most people have heard of a similar project, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, but at the time I started, HONY wasn’t a global phenomenon and I hadn’t heard of it, so 100 Strangers seemed really unique.

First steps…

My first few portraits were pretty average – I was extremely shy so asking people was difficult enough and I couldn’t focus on the technical side of things as much. That improved over time though, as I got more comfortable with asking, and getting used to how many yeses I received! I realised that being asked made people feel special and it probably brightened their days just as much as their ‘yes’ brightened mine, so this spurred me on to get even better shots for them too, not just for myself.

#16 -- Lena

#16 – Lena, Southbank Centre, London

Around the time I shot the above portrait of Lena, I started to become more confident in my abilities as a photographer, and arranged several practice shoots in order to build on new techniques I tried and liked during my Stranger sessions, such as manual focusing, getting the right expression, and lighting patterns.

Meeting other photographers: a huge step forward

In August 2013, some of us who had interacted previously in the 100 Strangers Flickr group arranged to meet up for a day in London to shoot some strangers and talk photography. There I met a small group of like-minded, enthusiastic and talented photographers who have since become friends I can always rely on to give honest critique on my pictures!

Being in that group for a day was so motivating that there’s a noticeable improvement in my work after that point. We set each other mini challenges to help each other get over certain blocks (mine was asking men to pose for a portrait) which was very helpful at that stage.

#23 -- Elen

#23 – Elen, Brick Lane, London

The first meetup was so fun that we organised another one later that year, and that marked another leap forward in my skill level. It’s incredible how much you can learn by seeing others do the same thing you were trying to do! We still get together from time to time, and the input and encouragement I’ve received from the group was invaluable. Thank you, guys and girls, you know who you are!

#34 -- David

#34 – David, Tobacco Dock, London Tattoo Convention 2013

Pop singer, Hollywood actress, balloon seller, pickup artist, and more…

There were so many strangers in the project who had interesting jobs or lives that it would be impossible to list them all here, but you can read all of their stories below their photos in my Flickr album dedicated to them. However, some of the highlights include…

#76 -- Stefanie

#76 – Stefanie Heinzmann, singer and talent show mentor. Soho, London

Stefanie is a pop/soul singer and a judge on the Swiss version of The Voice and the German version of Popstars. But what I saw was a friendly, open, down to earth girl who was one of the nicest strangers I photographed out of the 100.

#93 -- Robert

#93 – Robert ‘Rubbish’ Greene, Soho, London

Robert was a memorable character, thanks not just to his style but his constant joking around. He is an artist and performer, whose portrait I’m particularly fond of as it really captures his character based on what I saw of him.

#43 -- Diana

#43 – Diana, Covent Garden, London

 

There are artists, and there are pickup artists. Diana’s job (including her assignment at the time I asked her for a photo) was to help men become confident around women and be able to ask them out and be successful with them. It’s a kind of coaching session for dating, a bit like in the movie Hitch, which she referred to at the time to explain what she did. It was so interesting to hear that this wasn’t only the stuff of movies!

#21 -- Anne

#21 – Anne, Covent Garden, London

 

Anne’s story is that she’s been a massive fan of the band Status Quo for many years now, and follows them on tour whenever she can. She’s from Norway and works there as a dinner lady if I remember correctly, and her schedule allows her to be away for extended periods when convenient. She’s such a strong supporter of the band that many other fans of the band know her name within the community. Anne was a lovely, smiley, positive lady who wouldn’t even let the theft of her wallet the night before get her down.

This is only a small selection of the many stories people so kindly shared with me – if you have time, there are many others that are interesting as well, from all walks of life, and all are available to read in the Flickr album.

95 -- Lee

#95 – Lee, Soho, London

A journey ends, and another begins

When I took the 100th portrait in the series, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt I learned so much about talking to people, getting them to open up, making that connection, and also a lot about the technical aspects of photography, including light, composition, camera settings, lens choices and post-processing. The development is evident as the numbers go up and up. I have become a much more confident photographer and can now produce high quality shots in most scenarios, as I learned to make the most of what I have available in terms of light, backgrounds and such.

However, I still feel a bit of a block when it comes to asking certain types of people for a photo. I have the most trouble with men, especially older men, as my impression is that generally they are the kind of people whose personalities are the furthest from my own and therefore hardest to crack.

#60 -- Alan

#60 – Alan (Nottingham Balloon Man), Nottingham

While I have developed a recognisable photographic style (in others’ words, not mine) I feel I should do another round and experiment more, trying new compositions, expressions, and create portraits that make the viewer feel even more of a connection with the subject. In the past, sometimes I chose an aesthetically more pleasing photo instead of one that had more personality for the project, due to insecurity about my abilities as a photographer at the time. We all do it someties, even if we know it’s wrong, but what is a great portrait if not a great reflection of the subject’s personality?

Looking, and seeing

Part of the charm of this project was that it trained me to be much more observant, even when I didn’t have my camera with me. I inadvertently started to look more closely at peoples’ faces, how the light falls on them, a feature they have that I might find interesting, and so on. Sometimes it was an exchanged look or an interaction that led me to asking for a portrait, other times it was me seeing the person first and striking up a conversation, and there were also times towards the end of the project when I waited for the ‘right’ person for a nice background that I found.

99 -- Beth (Explored)

#99 – Beth, Soho, London

Nowadays there are times when I think to myself… “there are so many interesting people around me, how come I never noticed before?” which is true – while I may be a little pickier about who I photograph now than when I started, I now see people much better than when I walked around with my eyes down, avoiding anyone’s gaze, minding my own business. My shyness is still there but it’s far easier to overcome in most situations than before.

The buzz of meeting new people never wore off and that’s ultimately why I’m committing to continuing this project. Maybe another 100, maybe 300, 500, who knows where it will end? What I do know is that I’ll take it slow if I have to, and strive for steady progress, however small. In the words of a fellow street portraitist, it’s much more evident when you progress from a 2/10 to a 6/10 than from a 7.7/10 to a 7.8/10, but both jumps equally have lots of hard work behind them. I will talk about those more technical challenges and improvements in Part II of this post.

If you have read this far, I would love to hear what you thought about the project. What did you feel when you saw the portraits – do you have any favourites? Would you consider saying yes if someone like me asked to take your photo in the street? Please feel free to comment below, or share this article if you found it interesting. And if you are considering starting a project like this, we would love to have you over at the 100 Strangers Flickr Group!

Stranger 100/100 -- Xiao -- London, Soho

#100 – Xiaojun, Soho, London

17 responses to “Street Portraiture – the 100 Strangers Project, Part I”

  1. […] should also check out Barbara Asbothโ€™s work. I was so impressed by that I interviewed her for my book The Candid […]

  2. […] the course of my second round in the 100 Strangers project, I’ve been meaning to be bolder and try new things. This post shows an example of me trying a […]

  3. Danielle says:

    Hi thank you for you wonderful posts. I am wanting to start this 100 strangers project but am doing some research first. Did you have a card with the info about the project on it to give to the models and do they need to sign something to say you can use their photo? Thanks for you time Danielle

    • Hi Danielle!
      I have a little card that has the project name on it and my contact details so people can check out their photo online or contact me for a high res version. There’s no need to get them to sign anything; editorial use of photography doesn’t need a release whereas if I were to use these images commercially, for example to advertise an unrelated product, then yes I would need one.
      Good luck with your project as well!

  4. MCarmen Aguado says:

    Wonderful portraits. I am starting in photography and portraits are just the kind of photos I find more difficult. Any advice?. Many thanks for sharing your marvellous work.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Hello Barbara,

    I love, love, love your images as well as the thought process behind them and the project. It has inspired me to come out of my comfort zone as well. I do have one question for you, was there a favorite lens that you used for most of your pictures? It looks like you may have used a 55mm??? Just curious. Which lens would you recommend for this type of photography?

    • Hi Cheryl, thank you for your comments ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes I used a 50mm lens for a lot of these. Keep an eye on the blog as I plan to put something up about gear as many people have asked about this!

  6. Owain says:

    A lovely story of an exciting challenge. I love the resulting portraits. Clearly you have the skill to make your ‘strangers’ feel at ease, while composing great shots. As I dabble with the idea of moving into photography (from my graphic design background) I find your positive story of development very encouraging. All the best as you continue taking pictures!

  7. Marie Byrne says:

    Barbara, I enjoyed reading about your photographic journey and I think your portraits are really good. You were very brave to undertake this project and you deserve your success. I have done a little street photography and if someone looks up and sees me, I just remove the camera from my eye or train it on some other subject so I appreciate what a formidable task you set yourself. Well done!

    • Thank you Marie! It’s not easy the first time, but think of it this way: people will rarely say no if you smile at them and show openness and respect. Even if you don’t ask them directly, for 100 Strangers, you can always smile and indicate respect by not taking the photo until they nod at you!

  8. Steve says:

    Hi Barbara, Lovely street portraits. I’ve wanted to do something similar for a while now. Just need the courage i suppose.
    I have a question with regard you PP on #76 โ€“ Stefanie Heinzmann. It seems that you have added a texture or other PP trick to the OOF areas (background) and sweater? Could you divulge your process? It looks wonderful!
    Thanks and keep up the wonderful portraits. On a final note i think going up and talking to strangers is a wonderful thing in this current life style of head down in our cell phones. Public Conversation is becoming a thing of the past…

    • Hi Steve! Good luck on your journey – the first one is the hardest for sure, go for it!

      As for Stefanie’s portrait (and all my other stranger shots), it hasn’t got any textures on it, all I did in post was adjust the levels of blue in the image. Are you perhaps seeing some noise in the image, which wouldn’t be surprising? This was shot on a cloudy day and my ISO was probably around 800.

      Also agree about your comment re today’s socially disconnected society. Making someone’s day a bit better by picking them for a portrait is often enough of a reward for me!

  9. Carrie-Ann Els says:

    This is a great idea – definitely inspiring! Gorgeous poartraits too

  10. Ben Earl says:

    great post Barbara, I really enjoyed it!

  11. Peter McConnochie says:

    Excellent write up Barbara – loved reading about your journey and the growth over time. I am sure this along with yoru excellent images will inspire others to try out the project!

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