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Stopping strangers — embracing the street portrait

In one of the online photo communities I belong to, one of the group members opened a pretty common debate in street photography circles: Is it exploitive to take pictures of people without their permission? While the discussion raises plenty of questions about privacy rights, the value of art and fair reportage, I’m not going to get into all that here.

Instead, I’ll use the discussion to offer an alternative to those just starting off in street photography — the posed street portrait. This is a situation where you stop a random stranger and ask their permission to take their photo. Street photography purists will argue that this type of street photography (like the kind featured on Humans of New York) is not real street photography.

It’s somewhat of an esoteric debate. As photographers, I think we should be more concerned about whether we walk away with a great image — something that tells a story or evokes emotions from our audience.

In some ways, the posed street portrait is a more difficult one for some beginning street photographers because there is the intimidation factor of stopping a stranger and asking them to pose for a picture. As an introvert, I get it. But as a former journalist and someone who has done many “person on the street” interviews, I know that the worst thing that can happen is that the person says “no.”

If you’re nervous about approaching people, festivals, parades and other public events are a great place to start. People who attend these events are usually not rushing on their way somewhere and are more likely to have the time to stop and talk to you. They are also usually in a better mood — and people who look happy are definitely going to be the ones who are more amenable to spend time posing for you.

I went out in Washington, D.C. on the Fourth of July and stopped 10 random people and asked if they would pose for a picture. All of them said yes (though a few needed some gentle coaxing) and all of them were quite pleasant. You might be surprised at how willing people are to have their picture taken if you ask them nicely.

When people ask what the picture is going to be used for, tell them truth, whatever that may be. I told people that I might post it on my blog and then I gave them the URL. If you’re just out practicing your photography, tell them that.

And take the time to chat them up a little before, during and after taking the picture. It will make the whole experience a lot less awkward for you and for them.

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Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

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