The brief was to take 5 portraits of people from your local area who were unknown to you.
Until starting the OCA course portrait photography was something I avoided at all costs. I would happily take snapshots of others using there’re cameras if asked to do so, I have a plethora of shots of my children growing up, all informal – but no formal, or even semi-formal portrait images. The first project my first tutor asked me to do was in assignment 2 – Collecting, when he asked me to do the collection of faces. I was terrified. I went down our local park with my dog and allowed her to choose who we approached – I then asked them for an image and surprisingly few said no. Since then I have become more confident, but mainly with people I know. I took many of the pictures at my daughter’s wedding – not the formal ones, but those of her friends and family. I have taken pictures at ‘work do’s’ – and given people the resulting images. However, I still approach taking pictures of strangers with trepidation.
For this assignment I expanded on a thought I had had earlier in IAP when we were asked to think over our very first assignment The Square Mile. I had thought it would be interesting to take portraits of people in my street and ask them why they were there – so I decided to do exactly that. I picked a site just outside my house, where I could set up a table and chair and where a reasonable number of people might walk past in a day. I was initially worried that none of them would be strangers as I have lived in that house for 25 years, but in practice that was not the case
Prior to doing this exercise I read the link provided by OCA and found it interesting that so many people are anxious about talking to and photographing strangers – but that most had similar experiences that when they actually did it people were generally friendly and helpful.
This assignment was heavily based on the work done earlier in part one looking at portraiture and typologies.
- I decided that I needed to inform the people who I was and what I was doing – so I had some very simple business cards made up with my name and an email address.
- I needed to test out the site, my son and our neighbour became test subjects.
- This led on to some cutting back of overhanging tree branches to minimise distractions.
- I needed a day with reasonable weather – so people would be prepared to stop and talk to me – this was a case of being ready to use the first opportunity.
- I thought I should have something to offer people in return so baked cakes.
- I set up my stall (a table and chair, with cards and cake) outside my house.
- I linked my camera to an iPad so I could show the subjects their images immediately
- I waited!
- Over the day I managed to get 12 portraits of people. I offered them all a card and said that I would be happy to send them a copy of the portrait – but nobody has asked for one (everybody took a piece of cake).
- I spent some time talking to each person, recording their first name, their occupation and why they were in the street.
Talking to the strangers was easier than I had expected. Almost everybody was prepared to stop and talk to me, even the postie, the dustbin man and the person digging up the burst water main. They were happy to tell me about themselves, some were very chatty, others fairly brief. I got 2 refusals, with just a wave, and a ‘too busy’. I got one person who stopped for a long chat, saying he took photos himself – but he was always the person behind the camera and didn’t allow any pictures of himself to be taken.
Most of the people walking past were complete strangers, even the ones who also live in the street. Two had just moved in, but one had also lived there 20 years. It is worrying how little I know about my neighbours, even in a quiet, residential street, where most people live long term. Two of my close neighbours also asked to be photographed when they saw what I was doing – but I have not included them in this collection.
Everyone was interested in looking at the images I had taken on the iPad. Some asked for me to redo them as they were not happy with their pose. Some pulled very silly faces, then couldn’t stop laughing.
The light changed dramatically over the day, with changes between flat light under cloud cover to bright sunlight. I was also out all day, so the position of the sun changed, initially to one side then overhead then directly behind me shining into the people’s faces. This caused some problems with reflections. The project could have been carried out over a much longer period of several days, going out at the same time every day, but I was interested to catch the group of people who went down the street over one day – so had to allow for the changing light.
I wondered about cropping the images to a square format – and am still not sure about the better option – more space versus close detail.
I also considered a black and white conversion to echo the images of Sander more closely – but decided that these were 21st Century images, not 20th – so felt better in colour.
I took pictures of: the postman, the dustman, a water repair man, a teacher, a policeman, a retired businessman, a social worker, another teacher, an entertainments manager (his description – he puts up bouncy castles), a sheriff court official, another retiree and a stay-at-home father.