How To Photograph Strangers

A portrait of a young boy with his father watching on in front of their store in Kolkata, India.

When approaching strangers it’s important to accept a refusal for what it is. Not a personal rebuttal, insult or negative reaction to you as a person, but an indication of how your potential subject feels on the day in question. It may be that business is bad, that they are unwell or that they’ve just had an argument with their partner. Alternatively, they may never have had the good fortune of being photographed in a way that produces a pleasing likeness. How would you feel and respond in similar circumstances?

When approaching strangers it’s important, except in the case of cultural sensitivities (either yours or theirs), to ask for permission in a clear and straightforward manner. You may find it helpful to state your name and the reason for wanting to make the picture. It’s often a good idea to include a compliment as part of your request. For example:

Hi, my name’s Glenn, I’m on holidays and noticed the wonderful hat you’re wearing. We don’t have anything quite like that where I’m from. I’d really appreciate it if you’d allow me to make a photograph.

Or, alternatively

Hi, my name’s Jenny, I’m a student photographer studying at The Arcanum and this week’s assignment is to photograph artists and their artwork. I noticed your gallery from across the street and, now that I’ve seen your exhibition, I wonder if you’d allow me to photograph you with one of your paintings.

What’s In It For Them?

These are just a couple of possibilities that may help you approach and gain permission to photograph a stranger. Of course there has to be something in it for the subject. But that shouldn’t be a concern as you’ve already downplayed your importance and the potential usage of the photos you produce.

The subject should now not be concerned about their image appearing in print and, as a consequence, they are less likely to expect any more from you than your company during the process of making the image. That is, of course, if there is no chance you will be publishing the image for profit, particularly as an image used in advertising. If there is a chance you will you would be wise to secure permission to reproduce their likeness through a formal model release.

Don’t Underestimate Your Own Worth

Let me conclude by saying that none of us should exclude our own attractiveness to those we wish to photograph. We are at least as exotic to our subjects as they are to us. I’ve found this belief tremendously empowering in my own photographic endeavors.

Imagine meeting me, I’m hilarious. And I mean that in a somewhat self-effacing manner. My appearance, particularly in days gone by when I was so often loaded down with pretty substantial camera equipment, has provided local folk, whether in an Asian village or an exclusive Melbourne club or restaurant, with a fun and interesting diversion.

Confidence Is A Mindset

What’s important is that I believe I am bringing into the lives of those I photograph something greater than what they might otherwise be experiencing. Why wouldn’t they want to meet me and have their picture made? And if this mindset works for me, why would it not work for you?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru