Talk To Strangers: why you should start a conversation with anyone wielding a camera while shooting street photography.
When I first began street photography back in February I did not speak to people in the street. I would wander through Manchester remaining as low-key as possible and attempt to capture candid shots on the sly and at distance through a 50mm on a (crop-sensor) DSLR. Nowadays I make an effort to start a conversation with anybody wielding a camera. Well, almost anybody. I don’t approach anyone just taking a few snaps of their friends on a phone or compact camera, I usually avoid bothering tourist looking types, and I probably wouldn’t be running up to Bruce Gilden and starting a conversation with him (I would watch in adoration, maybe reach out my arms in hysteria and cry, like a school girl in A Hard Days Night).In all seriousness, I try to talk to anyone who looks to be taking interesting photos or is wielding a film camera, and I think you should too – even if only to smile and say nice camera.
I’ve met some talented street photographers in Manchester and some insightful camera collectors, all because of this new practice of talking to strangers. I have walked away from each encounter feeling positive and encouraged by the brief bond shared with a stranger; the recognition that we share a love for cameras and the documenting of human existence.
I wanted to write a short post about a couple of the people I have met, to share my photographs of them, and to put the case forward as to why you too should talk to your fellow (street) photographers.
Film cameras always catch my eye when I am out on the streets, and I almost always approach the owner and say hi. I work on the assumption that in this age of digital cameras and the prevalence of cameras designed towards ease of use, a film user is more likely to be interested in the art of photography rather than a tourist. The high costs of buying and developing film and the ‘inconvenience’ film is unlikely attract somebody with a minimal interest in photography. In addition, as I am often working with film myself there is a visual manifestation of shared interest between us which I find puts people at ease and allows us to make small talk centred around this common interest.
The other day I saw a young guy sporting this sweet looking Cannon AE1, arguably the most influential SLR in history, and so I approached him, complimented him on his camera and asked what he was looking to take photos of. I think this guy was a little surprised that a stranger was talking to him, and was at first taken back but we had a quick chat about his AE1 and he seemed to relax, I asked to take a photo and obliged. I bid him good day and walked away. Neither of us gained anything material from the encounter, I guess I got a photograph, but I came away feeling positive and I hope he did too.
Not all of my encounters have been brief; I spent a good portion of my lunch break a week or so ago chatting to a vintage camera collector. I asked him what he was photographing, and he showed me a broken drain filled with glass bottles that had caught his attention a few minutes before. The conversation later moved to the man’s cameras; he had an old Pentax on him and so I mentioned I had an ME Super which I loved shooting. He then told me about his impressive collection of film cameras, advocating the virtues of Russian rangefinders as a cheap alternative for Leica. We exchanged names, I wrote his flickr address down on my arm and then headed back to work.
I met another camera collector (pictured) in an arts and crafts shop, we passed upon the stair and I complimented his camera, asking if it was a Voigtlander. I think it was German but not a make I was familiar with (if you, unlike me, have a decent knowledge of vintage film cameras and recognise it please comment below). He collected cameras manufactured in the year he was born and when I asked how many, he looked over my shoulder to check his wife was beyond earshot and leaned closer with a grin on his face:
We ended up chatting for a couple of minutes, he didn’t have a website or flickr page so I have not been able to see his photos, but he recommended an online lens forum to me and let me take his picture. I love his expression, we assume that if someone has their eyes closed in a photo it must be detrimental, but here I think it adds to the shot; it makes him appear calm and friendly while drawing attention away from his face and toward his camera.
The Street Photographers
I don’t only meet and chat to street photographers, but as this is my main interest I wanted to briefly mention two guys I met who share my interest in documenting life in Manchester.
Tootdood (aka Mike R)
I saw this interesting looking guy on a friday lunchtime, he had a camera at his waist, a flickr badge and a big smile on his face. I think I initially said ‘nice hat’ and we got talking about photography, I asked if I could take his photo and he kindly said yes. Afterwards he leaned forward and showed me this:
I just remember finding it really funny that he had taken a candid of me taking his portrait, I don’t think I have ever seen a candid shot of myself on the street which was also cool. He gave me his photo-business card and I promised to check him out on flickr that evening. Mike just seemed to be a man full of positivity and character, I remember walking away with a smile on my face. You can check out Tootdood’s photo on flickr by clicking on these photos.
I first bumped into Tony outside the Real Camera Company, he was stuffing his taped up Fujifilm X100s into his bag so I had a strong hunch that he was a street photographer. We spoke briefly, he gave me his card and we went our separate ways. I remember being blown away by Tony’s photostream (click the photos to visit his Flickr), he is currently working with slower shutter speeds and panning techniques to achieve some visually stunning images, my personal favorite can be seen below.
I bumped into Tony again a few weeks later, we were both taking advantage of dress down friday to blend into the high street and take photos. He has recently bought a Go-Pro which I can’t wait to see in practice.
I personally think that making an effort to meet fellow photographers is good practice for a number of reasons. Ultimately we live in a world of strangers. Thousands of people pass each other in the streets, their paths cross and overlap constantly yet they very rarely meet. Life in big cities can be very alienating, everybody you see appears to be in a desperate struggle to get to work, get that raise, or just get home. David Foster Wallace once gave an incredible speech on this subject (if you have not heard it, stop reading right now and give it a listen: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVrn1Sz0H8); with an analogy of two fish too focused on the immediate centrality of their own lives that they fail to enjoy the water they live in, he succeeds in giving one of the most inspirational messages imaginable – I simply can’t do it justice so wont try.
A teacher at my school once gave an assembly on basic psychology; he told us to smile at people in the street because the physical act of smiling released endorphins and that if you smile at a stranger they will probably return the favor. He insisted that this small act of kindness can make somebody’s day and I believe he is right.
Imagine if the person walking next to you shared your taste in music or film, wouldn’t you want to introduce yourself? Unfortunately, you might not be able to see their film preference, but you can see their camera. As illustrated above, you might come away with an email address or flickr name, and this former stranger may become somebody you share photography experiences, or advice, with in the future. For me, the opportunity to study how other photographers document the city I live in has been very rewarding. I find that I notice things that I too have photographed, but perhaps at a different angle or with a different focus, other times I find myself looking at great photographs of Manchester that I simply would never have considered taking myself.
Believe it or not, I consider myself to be a very shy person and a year ago would never have considered anything written above as possible. However, when I am out taking photos, I become absorbed in the moment and in the action of photography itself, and I forget about my inhibitive nature. There is no set formula to how you should approach strangers and strike up conversation with them, this is something for you to do in a way that you feel comfortable with. That said, there are some techniques that I would recommend:
- Have a standard opening line. Think of it like a chat-up line, albeit without the cheesiness, creepiness, or latent sexual aggressiveness (actually don’t think of it like a chat-up line!). I often start the conversation either by asking what he, or she, is looking to photograph that day, or by complimenting them on their camera. You might try asking if they have taken any good shots that day, or if you can take their photos. The key thing is to seem enthusiastic and harmless.
- Focus on their camera. If this is what has caught your eye, and especially if they have a retro looking film camera, ask about their personal experiences with the camera; how do they find using it, how long have they had it, is it their favorite. You might get rewarded with an interesting tale, or if you are really lucky they may let you try it out.
- Ask questions. In these situations I feel it is best to encourage the other person to talk, after all you were the one attracted to them (or at least their camera), people generally enjoy talking about themselves so ask them a question or two, but remember to keep it light. During the aforementioned psychology assembly I was also told that even if a conversation is one sided and one individual dominates in terms of time spent talking, that person will recollect the exchange as a balanced, and engaging conversation. If you do less talking, and instead ask questions, actively listening to the response, the person you meet is likely to come away from the experience with a positive overall impression of you.
- Do not take the opportunity to simply talk at the person. SImilar to the point above, you chose to have a conversation, allow them to take it as far as they wish. If they simply say ‘thanks’ and walk off, let them. The worst thing you could to is to stand their blithering on at them about how much you love the camera on your iPad and how great it is for street photography, while they try desperately to escape. Don’t be the person who rants at unwilling strangers in the streets, if only for the reason that a street photographer will probably try to take your photo.
If anyone agrees/disagrees, has any tips of their own, or even any stories of interesting people they have met, I would love to hear them in the comment section below.
Thanks for reading.
Now go watch that David Foster Wallace video