Street Portraiture – the 100 Strangers Project, Part I
30 August 2015
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!
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, 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.
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, 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, 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, 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 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 ‘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, 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, 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, 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 (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, 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!
#100 – Xiaojun, Soho, London