Portraits of Strangers
28 Dec 2010
Every time I'm out in the streets, I would often encounter faces that make me look twice... faces that just stood out of the crowd without even trying... faces that are by no means ordinary. They range from the exquisitely beautiful to the strangely wonderful. Sometimes I would try to steal a shot without being too intrusive, most times I just stand there wishing I had the balls to just approach them and ask for their portrait. Thanks to my lucky stars ... I eventually grew those balls to do so.
So there I was, almost every weekend walking around in Orchard Road, waiting to be struck by a face. And whenever that happens, I ask "Is it ok if I take your picture?" along with an unassuming smile. I've always considered myself lucky whenever I get a 'yes' from a stranger. Some would say 'sure' immediately, which is always a wonderful surprise for me :) Others would be a little wary and ask 'what for?' I would tell them exactly what I'm doing: shooting portraits of people in Orchard Road... a personal project for my portfolio. It's surprising and touching how many people would be supportive of this. After taking their photo, I almost always hand over my name card that contains my website address in case they're interested in checking out the portrait I took of them. It's heartwarming that some would actually send me a message saying how they appreciate their portrait. In a few cases, it was their mother that thanked me! Those made me grin from ear to ear.
The one thing I wanted to capture with every portrait was that 'unguarded' natural look... that look that moved me in the first place when I spotted them in the street... the look that can give even just a little bit of honest yet mysterious sneak peek to who they are without actually knowing them. In trying to do this, I always tell them: "Look in the camera and don't smile". I wanted to avoid that usual snapshot smile.. you know, that smile that you've smiled a thousand times whenever you're in front of a camera... the canned smile that sometimes make you look... different, forced even. Portraitist extraordinaire Annie Leibovitz wrote in her book:"It took me years to understand that I equated asking someone to smile with asking them to do something false." She further notes: "You can almost hear the sigh of relief when you tell someone they don't have to smile." I took this as a way to make the subject comfortable about being suddenly photographed in public... no need to do anything, just be yourself and look in the camera.
Now once in a while, a subject manages to sneak up a slight smile in the portrait... this is despite me telling them not to. I still appreciate this because at least I know that this was a sincere smile, which to me still makes for an honest portrait :)
Being such a melting pot of different cultures, Singapore has given me the opportunity to capture different faces of different races. However, it has at times also presented me with a pretty difficult challenge: the language barrier. Sometimes I'm caught off guard when I realize the stranger that I just approached could not understand a word of what I just said. I remember when I asked this girl for her portrait, she just stood there looking at me quizzically... until I realized she didn't speak English. She finally said in a cute yet heavy accent "do you speak chinese?" It was a canned response like how you would say "hablo ingles?" I shook my head. So I tried to act out like we were in a game of charades: me... picture... you... She seemed to understand me. She nodded, stood still, and smiled. Back to charades: no... smile... She nodded and toned down her smile. The whole encounter was quite worth it.
I've received a lot of comments from viewers saying how much they envy my audacity to just simply walk to complete strangers and ask for their portrait... the truth is in most, if not all, of the portraits I took, I could literally hear my heart pound away as soon as I spotted a potential subject. And in some cases, my hands would actually shake while taking their picture. I can still remember when I was taking some of the photographs, I would actually struggle.. thinking: "Steadyyy... man, I hope she doesn't notice my camera shaking."
You'd think that somehow I'd get used to it. But the feeling of fear and anxiety was almost exactly the same from my 1st down to my 100th stranger. Despite that, I still kept on it. I remember Fleecircus telling me, "Hey, all for the sake of a good portrait, right?" Yup, she was right. Believe me, the high the I felt right after knowing that I just got a killer keeper of a portrait can be so strong that I sometimes literally see my hands shivering in excitement.
One of the obvious reasons for feeling the fear during the course of this project is getting that nasty rejection. I am not that charming of a photographer who can easily sway everyone I see to spontaneously pose for me for a portrait. I also get rejections, maybe about 25% of the time. I don't blame them ... I can understand the uneasiness of getting your photo taken in the middle of the street by a complete stranger. Most are quite shy and polite when they say 'no.' They even thank me at times, and I always appreciate that. It's the nasty rejections that get to me, that condescending 'no' as if I was an outcast of society. I can never get used to that crushing humiliating feeling that usually stays with me for the next 5 minutes... but then after that, I still eventually find myself up and about looking for the next potential keeper... or another rejection. But as I learned along the way, the regret of getting a nasty rejection is easier than the regret of not having that possible killer of a portrait because you were afraid of that rejection.
This project was an amazing experience for me. I can still remember each and every encounter I've had with all these strangers: how I spotted them, how nervous i felt, how they reacted to me, and the rewarding feeling afterwards knowing that I just got one more keeper in a set of a hundred keepers I was aiming to get. Now I feel so lucky having been able to connect with these people even for just a few seconds. Different faces, different races... all of them beautiful in very different ways.
To view all of the portraits I've taken so far, please visit my facebook album here: