Street Portraits: Talking with Strangers

Myanmar - Street Portrait

I’ve taken two Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality tests over the years. Once in college for a psychology course. The other was a few years ago while serving in the U.S. Peace Corps. The one I took in college was  following the end of my military service. I don’t remember the exact results. Still, I’m certain there was variance from the post-military one and the one I took in the Peace Corps.

I’m aware of some personality changes over the years. However, one thing I know that has remained the same both in reality and according to the two tests…I’m highly introverted. Regardless, despite my general preferences and tendencies, talking with strangers has become a significant part of my photography. Capturing street portraits is something I particularly enjoy and talking with strangers is big reason why. 


Photographing Strangers

When it comes to street photography, one of the most difficult things for some beginning photographers (and not only for beginning photographers) tends to be taking photos of strangers.  This can mean taking candid photos, when your subject is aware or unaware, or asking for permission to take a stranger’s portrait. For candid photos, the difficulties tend to arise when shooting specific individuals within a certain distance. 

This distance of comfortability varies by photographer and situation. Most often, the closer the subject the more difficulty people have. The range of discomfortable generally starts at the distance that we assume the subject is well aware you are focusing your lens on them. That and/or the range at that meshes with your escape and evasion plan to dodge angry glares, verbal malice or worse.

The fear can be a bit different for street portraits, at least for posed shots, otherwise the candid portrait fear is often the same. First of all, a posed street portrait is what is sounds like. A photo of a person in an uncontrolled environment, although not necessarily on the street and not in a studio. For street photography these will usually be strangers. 

Just like the fear discussed previously, the barrier here generally comes from hesitance regarding the stranger’s response. Usually, it’s a fear of rejection.  More specifically it’s a fear of an unpleasant rejection. Forms of rejection vary. The rejection can come in the form of verbal denial or physical responses that key disapproval or disinterest in being photographed. The fear is essentially the same as candid photos, except for the possible awkwardness that we ask for permission and the subject with pose to some extent. This can be done verbally or non-verbally. Nonetheless, we must interact and that potentially leaves us with a stronger feeling of vulnerability and insecurity compared to candid photos.

Why You Should Talk with Strangers

A few studies have been conducted around interaction or talking with strangers. 

Despite the fact that connection with others tends to increase happiness, people generally chose to ignore strangers while in close proximity. A series of studies sought to understand some of this. The assumption was that either solitude is a more positive experience than communicating with strangers or, as the researchers considered, people misunderstand “the consequences of distant social connections.”

Public transportation commuters on buses and trains, were asked to either connect with a stranger near them, remain disconnected, or commute as normal.  Participants reported feeling more positive and a no less productive commute when they connected to a stranger than when they did not. Interestingly, this went against the expectations of participants, who predicted solitude as providing the more positive experience. 

The researchers surmised that the mistaken preference for solitude can be partially blamed on underestimating others’ interests in connecting. This prevents most people from even attempting any kind of interaction. They also considered that when talking to strangers we tend to be friendly. That, in turn, translates to a positive mood simply due to the positive interaction.

Although this certainly isn’t the case for everyone, this study seems to show that you never know. Making a connection with a stranger not only could be a positive experience, but something others’ are interested in as well. 


A Cafe Study

Another study found that people who engaged in small talk with a barista in a cafe felt happier when compared to people who were in a rush and left immediately after receiving their order. The researchers explained that brief talks with strangers established a sense of belonging, which resulted in an increase in happiness. Dr. Fingerman,  a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, holds a similar position to the findings of this study. She has stated that casual connections through daily encounters can give people a feeling of belonging to a community, which she describes as “a basic human need.” Conversing with these “consequential strangers” also help the brain because they can be “more stimulating than with people you know well.”

Researcher Katherine L. Fiori, chairwoman of undergraduate psychology at Adelphi University, has conducted research that supports the ideas behind these findings. She claims that benefits of activities that support “weaker ties” (connections with individuals less close than family and close friends) support greater life satisfaction and better emotional and physical health. 

What about Introverts?

There seems to be mixed results when it comes to introverts. It is possible that simply acting extroverted may lead to some benefits. However, the most extreme introverts might still prefer their innate traits. 

Rowan Jacques-Hamilton, Jessie Sun, and Luke Smillie published their findings from a randomized controlled trial of around 150 Australians.

The participants were assessed through a Big Five inventory to determine their degree of Extraversion. Afterwards, approximately half of the participants were assigned to act extraverted for a week. They were specifically told to be bold, assertive, gregarious, and outgoing. The rest of the participants were instructed to be quiet, sensitive, and modest (traits that introverts, as well as others, tend to display). 

Six times per day, the participants were asked to rate their positive and negative feelings, feelings of authenticity, and level of tiredness. 

Overall, those who were told to act extraverted experienced more positive feelings and felt life they were acting authentically. However, participants with the lowest level of assessed extraversion (those more introverted) had difficulty acting extraverted and felt somewhat more tired. Furthermore, they experienced lower levels of positive feelings and higher level of negative feelings when compared to those higher in extraversion. 

All-in-all, instructing people to act extraverted had a positive impact with limited negative effect for people with moderate to high extraversion. Although for us introverts, this tactic may not be effective. 

Nonetheless, the study did show some benefits of acting extraverted for some. There are always possible different responses from acting extraverted, from both extraverts and introverts. If this was conducted over a longer period perhaps there might be different results. Ideally, more research should be conducted as this study was only a week long and a limited sample size. 


On the other hand...

Several other studies have shown the opposite of the study about. Introverted participants of these other studies were also asked to act extroverted, being more outgoing and talkative than usual.

The participants found that just acting introverted felt good. This confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that introverts underestimate the amount of pleasure they could receive from increased social interaction. Reasons for this might be that introverts overestimate negative affects and find themselves self-consciousness with extroverted behavior.

Scientifically, it appears there are some potential benefits of talking with strangers. So, even if you’re introverted, consider giving it a shot and seeing how it works for you. Have a quick banter with the barista. Initiate a conversation next time you sit beside someone on the train, bus, metro, or whatever. Try a brief chat with the cashier at a check out line. You never know what will come from it. 

What about for Photography?

Ok, so there appear to be some benefits to talking with strangers and acting extroverted. At least for some of us. But how does this apply to photography? In terms of photography, why can it be beneficial for us to speak to people we don’t know?

I suppose there are several take aways that could be applied specifically for photography, but I’ll focus on just a few. 

A few of the big reasons to talk to a stranger are the following:

1. Gain new perspective – Understanding more can help you develop your artistic vision for the photo. 

2. Learn something new – Okay, this is similar to number one. But whatever you learn could be beneficial to future shots. You can learn about locations, activities or events, especially if you are speaking to a local and you’re from out of town. Last year, I went to shoot a traditional event in a village in Bulgaria. After talking to someone I was invited to go house to house to eat, drink and photograph the festivities, which include chasing away evil spirits, while wearing ornate costumes. See photo below. Furthermore, I have been invited to join the group this year as well. 

3. Open up the subject – People can be suspicious, hesitant, nervous, or whatever. Making a connection can sometimes lessen the chances of a rejection. I also believe it leads to a better portrait too.

Essentially, what can be gained from talking with strangers is the discovery of information to apply to your photography in some way or another. 


Street Portrait - Kuker

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

– Aristotle

A Short Story

The following short story is a brief journal entry. I was writing about interesting interactions with people, mostly strangers. I never had any intent on sharing any of them, so they aren’t exactly developed and they’re somewhat like notes from a meeting.

However, many of the interactions resulted in obtaining a photograph so I thought I would share one. Not only was I able to get a photo, but more importantly I was able to learn a little bit about the person. I also have the type personal experience of human connection that we often take for granted or miss out on completely. 

Sure, a photo can show or teach us things about a person. But it’s very limited and what is inferred is often based on the viewer’s analysis, beliefs, education experience, and so forth…and that can be an inaccurate understanding of the person.

Lastly, despite some rather apparent technical errors on my part, I like the shot. Imperfections and all. Part of that is because we talked, enjoyed a meal and had some drinks. The shot won’t win any awards, but that’s not the point and really doesn’t matter. It’s not why I take photos and not why I like street portraits or talking with strangers.

The General

“It had to be you, it had to be you. I wandered around and I finally found, the somebody who. Could make me be true, and could be make me be blue. And even be glad, just to be sad. Thinking of you. Some others I’ve seen, might never be mean. Might never be cross or try to be boss, but they wouldn’t do. For nobody else, gave me a thrill. With all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you be you. Wonderful you. It had to be you.” 

The lyrics spring out spontaneously, and genuinely. He has a decent voice, not quite on par with Sinatra, Holiday, or Crosby, but truly heartfelt.

“Why the song out of nowhere? This is the second time you sang it. Your favorite song?” 

“No. It was her favorite song.” I think some tears start to form in his eyes, but he doesn’t cry. “She was bed ridden and paralyzed for 6 years. But she’s in heaven now.” 

He starts to sing Cheek to Cheek by Fred Astaire. “I’m in heaven.” Just one line this time. But equally as committed as the near entirety of “It Had to Be You.” 

“She visits me in my dreams though. Tells me to keep my clothes on. She knows me well,” he says with a mischievous, albeit love-bound smile. 

Born in Tennessee. 45 years of military service. Special forces. Korean War. Vietnam. 90 years old on Sept 9. He’s written a book or two. Shows me a photo of himself from one of his books. “I was a good looking son of bitch.”

“Yes, General. Still are,” I reply not holding back a grin. 

His regular driver never shows. So the bar calls him a taxi. Helping him to the taxi – he’s somehow equal parts frail and sturdy. Still has a firm grip, but it takes some time to get him into the taxi. He’s slumped over in the backseat, but says he’s good. Probably drained from the sitting in the sun too long. And the wine might not help. He shakes my hand and says, “Thank you.” 

We promise to speak again soon. Then off he goes to his regular spot, The Prime Rib in DC, and probably back to Mylo’s afterwards for a red wine nightcap.

The General - Speaking with Strangers

Street Portraits

We have previously discussed a few elements of Stoicism and Buddhism. In both cases, we discussed a certain kind of detachment. If you’re interested in going back and reading about those concepts and how to apply them to photography here are the links, Stoicism and Photography and Appreciating Imperfection

Point being, taking the Stoic approach can be helpful when you’re looking to take a street portrait. Part of Stoicism is accepting what’s in and out of your control and remaining somewhat detached from the results. 

I’ve found being genuine is usually the best approach to talking with strangers. There are certainly times I’ve forced a conversation with someone to get a photo. In any case, if you think about a few general questions it can help out to come up with a basis for a conversation. Not only can these questions give you something to ask about or discuss, but it can help you determine the important elements of a photograph and how/what to capture.

Here are the questions:

1. Why are you interested in taking this persons photo? 

2. What, specifically, is drawing your attention? 

A Few More Tips

Finally, here are some additional tips for street portraits and talking with strangers:

1. Be honest and sincere. Refer to the answers from the two questions above.

2. Smile. Begin the conversation in a friendly manner. (Obvious, but yeah…)

3. Generally, people like to be seen as in being acknowledged as part of a community. People also tend to like genuine compliments. People like to feel important or appreciated. Let them know this. Explain why you want to take their photo. Sometimes it’s better after building a bit of rapport. Or sometimes I explain immediately. I’ve found that even if they know you are taking photos and even if they know that’s why you initially approached them. If you build rapport that doesn’t matter.

4. Be curious and genuinely interested in them. Be respectful. It helps to understand some of the culture and society if it’s not your own. 

5. Active listening. Be a good listener and fully present.

6. Find common ground to connect to the person. Again, it’s helpful to understand the culture, but you can always ask questions to learn more.

7. Focus on their interests (or your shared interests). Remember, why were you interested in taking a photo or talking in the first place? Observe a bit. Ideally, without being creepy. Learn to see and understand what you see so you can genuinely explain. Some people will be hesitant and reject regardless. 

8. Empathize and see their point of view. This can be as simple as understanding what it would be like to be approached by a photographer. Understand if they don’t want their photo taken.

9. Be yourself, these approaches might not work for you. You’re trying to build a connection and make that person comfortable with you so you can get the photo. Lack of authenticity can come across as awkward and possibly shady. Also, some people can just sense bullshit so might as well be honest and be yourself.

10. Know if it’s not an appropriate time to approach. Don’t be a nuisance and disturb a person. Just use your judgement. Also, if you have struck up a conversation,  use your judgement and know when to make your exit if you have become a nuisance. 

11. Stay safe. Listen to your instincts. Although talking with strangers can lead to some unique experiences – such as being in Tokyo and going from talking with a businessman at an izakaya, to ending up at a swanky hostess club in Ginza and being stared down by longtime pro MMA fighter Yoshihiro Akiyama – you can also find yourself in trouble. So use sound judgement.

12. If you do decide to take their portrait, consider offering your e-mail or some other contact so that you can provide them with a copy. It’s a nice gesture and it can result in future business if that’s your thing.  

Final Word

I’d like to quickly mention one more study. 

The study found that when participants received eye contact from strangers passing them on the street, they reported feeling more socially connected compared to when people just looked through them. Essentially, just the eye contact was enough of an affirmation of shared existence. 

Nobody really likes rejection, but rejection can become a catalyst for growth and development. And although unpleasant or even aggressive rejection is always a possibility I have rarely encountered them. The positive interactions and human connections, despite being fleeting, are well worth the occasion reject or moody response. They also provide the chance for sharing that sense of belonging. 

So, I suggest giving some street portraits a try and definitely spend some time talking with strangers. 

 Feel free to reach out on Instagram@ted_stanton_photography

And check out my free ebook, 5 Unique Photo Challenges, for some inspiration. Sign up for the Photography Insight Journal using the form at the bottom of the page to receive the link to download a copy.

1 thought on “Street Portraits: Talking with Strangers

  1. Greg says:

    Your empathy for the subjects of your photographs shines through this marvelous essay. You are a very good writer. What is also clear is that you are a very good man.

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