I love street photography, especially portraiture. I’ve taken candid shots of people before and caught some interesting moments. But I’ve never gone up to a stranger and asked them if I can take their photo. The main obstacle was fear, I think. What if they said no? Plus there’s that innate English awkwardness: who am I to go around interrupting people?
Then last week I was killing some time in Canterbury, taking a few photos of not much in particular. I was standing next to a friendly looking guy with a beanie hat and a beard. I though to myself, ‘you know, if you don’t ask this friendly looking guy for a photo, I don’t think you’ll ever ask anyone.’ So I asked him: “Can I take your photo?”
He said, “Sure”, and went to take my camera; he thought I’d asked him to take a photo of me. “No, I want to take your photo,” I explained. He said ok again, and went back to what he was doing: looking out across the street.
I fired two quick shots, showed him one of them – he smiled and said “nice” – asked him his name – Andy – and then walked off.
It was exhilarating. Like reading a story to an audience for the first time or performing live-lit in the street.
Having overcome the fear of… well, of whatever I was scared of, I wandered around seeing who else might catch my eye. Pretty soon, I found Mavis. “Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. No questions about why, or what would I do with it, or why her. She just seemed pleased that I’d shown an interest.
Then I went for lunch in the Boho Cafe – cheese and cauliflower soup. When I paid the bill, I asked the owner, who was working behind the counter, if I could take his photo. He said ok, and then his wife, who was waitressing, joined him. They are Kristian and Kate. I was too slow to catch it, but right after this frame he kissed her on the cheek, and they had a quick hug.
I went away reflecting on my first stranger photos. I’d like to be able to take photos that look better than this; improvement will come with practice. But what feels more important to me is that the request to take a photo created an opportunity for me to connect with new people. Without a camera in my hand, I wouldn’t have spoken to Mavis or Andy; Kristian and Kate wouldn’t have had that mid-afternoon kiss.
A couple of days later I was back in Canterbury for a writing workshop. I met Deke, a performance poet. Asking for his photo seemed like a normal thing to do now.
Then walking around town I saw Carol. She was standing outside the Cath Kidston shop, waiting for her husband. Again, I don’t make any claims for the artistic or technical quality of these photos. For me they are reminders; visual mementoes of brief, unexpected encounters.
I walked around a while longer after photographing Carol. I asked one other person if I could take her photo and she said no: my first rejection. But it didn’t feel so bad.