Sunday, September 27, 2015

Approaching Strangers for a Portrait

Visual journalist Richard Johnson wanted to do portraits of the homeless in Washington, DC, but it took a while to figure out how to approach them.

As he describes in an article for the Washington Post, at first he sketched them from a distance without asking. Then he approached them and asked permission, but he was usually rebuffed. They just wanted to be left alone. He offered them money, but that didn't work either. 

Eventually he made a connection with the organization and newspaper, Street Sense, and he found people there who would let him draw their portraits and hear their very individual stories. 

His sketches include written notes alongside the portrait drawings. He says, "drawing and listening at the same time was a not entirely new challenge for me – I recently covered the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber." 

Once people began to open up, he realized that drawing was a trust-building exercise. He says, "Something about the quiet process of studying and drawing I think allows even the naturally wary to gradually let their guard down and open up." 

But it was often an intense encounter, and "staring right into their eyes is one of the hardest things I think for an artist to do. There is a whole world of pain in there." 

Brandon Stanton is the photographer who created the wildly popular "Humans of New York" blog, which documents the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. He has successfully approached thousands of strangers on the streets of New York, Iran, and other places, and has elicited not only their permission to photograph them—and even their young children — but also has documented some of the most personal and challenging stories.

In his talk at the University College Dublin, Ireland, he demonstrates the approach he uses to begin a conversation that most often leads to a successful encounter. (Link to video) Bottom line: be small and unthreatening, show them your work, don't ask for too much at first, and be willing to listen.


erc said...

Hey james,
Enjoyed that article. Thanks.

BB said...

I´m watching the video and loving it. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hey James, loved the link just wanna thank you.