street photography

Photographing 20 Strangers in Isla Vista

Step out of your comfort zone and photograph 20 random people on the street.

I studied photography at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. Known for educating students on the highest level of technical skill when it comes to photography there was one (amongst others) infamous assignment that dealt with approaching a stranger in order to photograph them. This was obviously not intended to teach a technical but a communication skill. It also forced you to deal with your fears and doubts. It challenged your comfort zone. It was called 25 Strangers.
Basically you had to produce a portfolio of 25 random strangers. Build a pop-up portrait studio in a park, photograph the strangers in a bar, at the pool, the retirement home or at the law firm on the corner of your street. I don’t remember the specific rules of the assignment but I put up a white background and had each of my strangers add a word to a sentence on a small chalk board and then I photographed them with the chalk board. I called it: 25 Strangers build a sentence. Surprisingly they didn’t. The sentence was grammatically and logically just … not a sentence. No idea what went wrong there…?

Anyways. The other day I remembered this assignment and decided to revisit it. 15 years and many strangers in front of my lens, from celebrities to homeless people in the back alleys of Mumbai, later I figured I should be a lot better at this. But it still was challenging the comfort zone a little. No control over the situation and you have to talk a random stranger into taking their portrait.

So Hugo and I went into Isla Vista on a Friday morning and approached a bunch of strangers. Isla Vista is a blend of University students, homeless people and middle aged surfers. Generally a demographic open to random experiences. This worked in our favor I think. Still, it took a little time to get groovy with.

The amazing thing about doing this was people opening up and telling stories. As you can see in the video some of the strangers shared memories, vented or maybe simply wanted to chat. It was amazing to see how quickly one can dive a lot deeper into a community by simply striking up a conversation with random people on the street. And using a portrait project like this is of course the perfect ice breaker.

I do this type of thing on assignment all the time but it is different when you go into your own community and when there is no agenda or story that you need to tell. Just letting your ego go, the creative juices flow and welcoming any input with open arms. Fun!