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Using Cigarettes to Connect with Strangers in SF

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I visit San Francisco often to walk the streets with camera in hand, hoping to capture life as it happens. Invariably I am asked for change and/or a cigarette. For the most part I try to be generous, but as a non-smoker I’m not able to oblige. I then wondered what would happen if the situation was reversed: instead of being asked for a cigarette I would offer them to random people from all walks of life.

My next visit to San Francisco was to the Mission District on 24th St., I purchased a pack of Malboro and a lighter and began to seek out opportunities. My plan was to be bias free and offer a cigarette to all and sundry, but it soon became apparent that this would be no easy task. There was a great deal of hesitation and it took half a dozen attempts to off load the first cigarette.

My initial approach with me asking “do you smoke?” failed. More often than not the response was “sorry I don’t have a cigarette” with the individual thinking that I was asking for one. I made an adjustment and simplified the question, “if I give you a cigarette, can I take a picture of you lighting it up?”.

I received a lot of “sorry I don’t smoke” or “no thanks,” but soon I got my first bite. After a little explanation of my objective I was able to capture a few images, and soon I had handed out ten cigarettes whilst walking up and down five or six blocks.

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It wasn’t meant to be a social experiment but when analyzing the day’s results, it was easy to see a trend with the less well off grateful for the free handout no matter how small.

This project generated a lot of smiles that day from recipients and from me, I enjoy talking to people from all walks of life and that’s a huge reason why I enjoy street photography.


About the author: Photographer Wayne Dollemore is originally from London, England and is now living in San Jose, CA, where his photography has thrived in the California climate. His work has been shown in many galleries and festivals in California and Florida and presently in Connecticut. Wayne’s images can be viewed on his website.

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