I walked by Frank and Scott three times before I stopped and asked to take their photo. The two tattoo artists were joking around outside Tattoo Paradise in Adams Morgan, and I was out shooting street portraits for my 100 Strangers project.
I love taking street portraits of strangers, but sometimes the first one is always the hardest to get out of the way. I thought of this when I heard Brandon Stanton reveal that if he gets “cussed out” on his first photo request of the day, it is sometimes hard for him to recover.
If anyone has mastered the art of photographing strangers, it would be Brandon. As the creative force behind the Humans of New York blog, Brandon has taken more than 5,000 street portraits on his photographic census of New York City.
With that kind of experience, I thought he might be a good person to help motivate those of us who enjoystreet photography but still stall every now and then. Here are some random bits of wisdom Brandon shared when he was the guest speaker on our recent Free Photo Webinar.
It takes commitment
Brandon says he shot several hours a day for six months - almost 1,000 pictures a day - before anyone noticed. He had posted 1,600 portraits on Humans of New York and seemed to get no real traction. He kept shooting.
“Don’t focus on getting attention. Trust your work. Do a lot of it, and prove yourself before you expect people to pay attention,” says Brandon.
The web is littered with photography blogs that people started and abandoned because they didn’t think anyone was noticing. Focus on doing good work - a lot of it - and sooner or later someone will notice.
Some of us can be so worried about taking bad photos that we don’t shoot any photos. It’s okay to take bad photos. “It was through the bad photos that I learned to take good photos,” says Brandon.
“I use my own aesthetic to determine what’s beautiful, then I ask ‘how can I make this more beautiful? What could I do differently to make this more beautiful?’”
The process starts when you permit yourself to take bad photos and continues when you take the time to learn from them.
On approaching people
“What makes Humans of New York unique is my interaction,” says Brandon. “The quality of photographs come out of interpersonal skills not photography skills. Engage the person as a person and not a subject. Relate as a human being and not subject-photographer relationship.”
There’s an old cliche that says ‘the camera looks both ways.’
“People mirror your emotions,” says Brandon. “If you look nervous, they will sense your nervousness. I would internalize the anger I expected from them, and they would sense it.”
Remember you can’t control anyone’s reactions to you, you can only control the spirit with which you ask them, he says.
Don’t let anyone’s reaction to you make you feel bad about yourself. Even the people who say no are usually nice about it.
Engage your prospects
Here’s one reason to ask for the photo. When you allow people to participate in creating their portraits, you can get them to do so much more. Once someone is fully on board with you taking a photo, you have permission to get closer, pose them, move them to a different location, or a whole host of things that can improve the final picture.
Ask more questions
You also engage people by being genuinely curious and asking questions. The interesting stories usually develop as you continue to ask more questions.
“A lot of times I ask these people very personal questions, and they'll answer. They'll tell me everything because a lot of times I'm the only one who's ever asked. I can just tell when I talk to them -- eight million people in this city, and nobody's ever asked about their life,” Brandon said in a Huffington Post interview.
The charm of photography is sometimes in the unexpected. Don’t try to control the situation. Sometimes when you are so focused on creating a specific photo, you risk missing the picture that’s developing in front of you.
We got so much good advice from Brandon, I’d urge you to listen to the entire webinar.
When I finally approached Scott and Frank outside the tattoo parlor, I found them to be pleasantly good natured, sarcastic and funny. We joked about life doing tattoos and how they started their profession. It was a wonderful interaction. I might never have experienced it if I’d kept on walking. Brandon was right.