Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Approaching Strangers

I don't approach people with children. Or those who are encumbered with goods: if they're weighed down with grocery bags in each hand, I let them get to where they can unburden themselves, in peace.

I don't stop people who walk with purpose, who have a focused stare about where they're going.

I don't interrupt somebody who is reading or typing on his or her tablet or smartphone. I let them concentrate on the task at hand. Nor do I bother someone who is obviously talking to another on said device.

I don't intervene in a conversation. I don't try to break the bonds of communication.

I don't bother someone who is eating. No one wants to be photographed with a mouthful of food.

I do take "no" for an answer.

I am less than halfway through the 100 days in which I promised myself that I would overcome my shyness to ask 100 complete strangers to pose for my camera. More than a dozen have said no: one person said yes, but, sadly, in the glare of the sunshine, as I showed him the photo, neither of us saw that on the display screen, his eyes were shut. I didn't use the photo because I don't wish to make any of my subjects look bad.

As of last Saturday, 53 strangers appear in my project. Some asked me what I planned to do with the photos, and I was direct and honest with my answer: he or she would appear with 99 other strangers, online, in a Flickr album. There would be no names, no information, no identification other than his or her face. Some chatted after the photo was taken, and let me know a little more about them. This made them a little more than strangers, but we were strangers when the photo was taken.

Some gave me their names. I repeated his or her name, but didn't retain the information. I didn't forget on purpose: I'm just really bad with names.

One invited me to join her at the patio table she occupied. I declined, not wanting to take up any more time than I had in discussing my project and taking the photo.

One followed me around for a while, having felt he made a connection, wanting me to know more of his story. I felt uncomfortable, having started to regret asking for his photo, now feeling like I owed him something.

I don't ask people who appear to be living on the street. I don't want to come across as though I'm exploiting them or for them to feel that I would owe them something in return for the favour.

A friend of mine, who has looked at my collection, commented on how the faces I have shot seem to be predominantly of one type of demographic. There are a lot of white strangers. The fact of the matter is that I have approached a wide variety of people, of different ages, genders, skin tones, and cultures. The majority of those with a darker colour of skin than mine have said no to my request.

And Ottawa, for its cultural diversity, is still largely a white city. This project has shown me this truth.

You might also note that the majority of these strangers are young. I think this generation are more open to social media and being digitally captured than someone who is older. After having been rejected by several seniors, I have avoided bothering more.

While I have tried to approach as many men as women, I have found that women are more likely to agree to me capturing their image than men. This fact surprised me, as I thought that a woman would be more suspicious of a strange man asking to photograph them.

I thought that this project would become easier as I progressed, and in a way it has. While I am shy about approaching strangers, and each day it does take me a while to gather the courage to walk up and talk to someone, each day it takes less time to gather up that courage. And, once I get started, I have no problem going up to the next stranger.

But I do hesitate with each person or group of people. As I walk down a street or stand on a corner and watch the people approach, I observe them and I think, should I ask this person? Are they likely to agree to my request?

I filter through the crowd: she's carrying bags of groceries. She isn't going to want to stop. He's walking with a small child: he's not going to want to be distracted on this busy street. He's going to want to give his full attention to the child. She's texting someone. He's walking quickly and isn't looking around: he has somewhere that he wants to be.

I often approach people who are waiting at a bus stop. If the bus isn't imminent, he or she has time on his or her hands (as long as the person isn't on a device or chatting with someone else).

I stop people who appear to be strolling, who don't appear to be in a rush.

I approach people who are in a group of no more than three or four, if it looks like they're in a good mood and aren't fully engaged in a conversation.

I have approached people resting on benches. I have approached people who are sitting, alone, on patios—either enjoying the day or who seem to be leisurely reading, who seem to be relaxed.

I always ask, before saying anything else, if I can take a moment of their time. If the person says no, I apologize for my interruption, and it's over. If he or she says yes, I introduce myself and explain my purpose in less than 10 seconds, and then ask for the photo. If I get a "no," I thank the person for his or her time and bid a good day. If I am permitted to take the photo, I do it quickly, in less than 10 seconds--sometimes 20 seconds, if I can see that the photo didn't turn out (I've only had to reshoot three times) I show the photo on the display immediately after shooting the photo, so my subject can see what I plan to use. I want the stranger to feel comfortable with what I will post online.

If asked, I provide a business card and explain how the person can see the project. I thank the person: often, several times. I bid a good day.

I'm 47 photos away from the end of this project and already I can anticipate the sadness at capturing stranger number 100. This project has been the most challenging of any photo project I have undertaking, but at meeting the people of Ottawa, I have learned that we have some great people in our city.

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