My name is Carlos Chavez, and a couple of years ago I completed a “100 Strangers Project.” I never expected this project to become as important to me as it is.
Even now, two years after its completion, I still go back to it often and review the images. I try different treatments and crops. I talk about it with every new person I meet. And when I shoot now, I try to remember the lessons I learned and put them to use.
It was by no means a groundbreaking project. It was never meant to be.
It all began as a response to my trip to Thailand in June 2012. Fellow photographer David Hatfield and I spent 16 days there, moving around from place to place. We started in Bangkok, then flew to a coastal town in the south, Krabi, then a boat ride to the island of Ko Phi Phi, then another flight, to the north, to Chiang Mai, and back down to Bangkok. Each day we’d hit the streets with our cameras, usually with no particular plan or destination, and just shoot.
But something was off. I was off. The first day in Bangkok, I was sure there was something wrong with my camera. It wouldn’t focus. My exposures were way over, or way under. A couple of times, when I pressed the shutter release, nothing happened. I thought maybe I accidentally changed a setting, flipped a dial or switch I didn’t mean to, or maybe the camera’s electronics got jostled during travel and were damaged. But the camera was fine. The problem was with me.
I couldn’t point my camera at people. It felt wrong, somehow, as though I hadn’t earned the right to photograph them because I wasn’t a good enough photographer. Every day I went out and tried again to make pictures of people, but I felt like I was imposing, like I was being rude. I was afraid I’d be “caught”. I was sure they’d see right through me and I’d be chased away. I was sure every picture I took was automatically bad, insincere, and counterfeit. As the trip wore on, I became increasingly hesitant and restrained. I shrank. I withdrew. Any doubts I had about my abilities as a photographer were confirmed. The circuit that connects my eye and brain to my trigger finger, was broken.
There was one day, towards the end of the trip on our second time through Bangkok, we were walking down the street and Dave was charging ahead, snapping away; I was lingering behind with my camera on the strap, not even in my hands, when Dave stopped, turned and came back. He’d seen me struggling like this through the trip and it was happening again that day. I was so intensely anxious and completely withdrawn. We sat on the sidewalk and he tried very hard to get me to talk about it. He offered his help, again, like he had throughout the trip. But I would not accept. “Do you want to be here right now?” he asked. I didn’t know how to answer that. I just told him: “I have a lot of work to do when I get home.”
It didn’t help that I had such high expectations for the trip. I had been daydreaming about a trip to Thailand ever since my college days when I learned about Southeast Asia through my electives. I wanted to photograph the Muay Thai kick-boxers at their training camps. I wanted to photograph the Buddhist monks receiving alms from the community and giving blessings in return. I didn’t get either shot. This was supposed to be the start of a new portfolio. Signature work. Instead, I returned from my trip with about 2,200 flat and uninteresting images, and not a single one was portfolio-worthy. I put my camera down. I stopped shooting. I gave very serious thought to selling all my gear, even making a list and estimating how much money I could get for each piece. I went back to my job. I tried to resume a normal routine. I gave up on photography. I was done.
For better or worse, I didn’t want to leave Thailand. Going home without a single image for my portfolio, to me, meant failure, and I didn’t want to end it that way. But it did. The trip was over. I was home. The daydream remained a daydream, and only that. I languished for months. I knew this feeling, because I had felt it before. This feeling was heartbreak.
I was confronted with a hard truth: that I was nowhere near where I wanted to be as a photographer and that there were a lot of problems to fix. And not just technical problems or a lack of experience. I had to do some work on myself. But I would hesitate for a couple of months before I started that work in earnest. And it would be a year before I began my 100 Strangers Project.
I first learned about the project years earlier, well before Thailand, in an article at the Digital Photography School website. The photographers there shared their images and stories; they wrote about making portraits as a means of connecting with people on a very personal level. I was inspired. It was a brilliant idea. But I was sure there was no way I could do it. I was too shy.
Up to this point, photography, for me, had been mostly about observing. It was about showing others what I had seen, as I had seen it. I had very few photos of people, and those portraits I did have were of friends and family, people who already knew and trusted me. The idea of photographing total strangers on the street was exciting, but at the time I dismissed it. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in portrait photography. I was. The most interesting photographs to me then, and now, are portraits that allow me close to the subject and tell me something about who they are. It’s exactly what I want to do with photography. But the 100 Strangers Project was just too big a challenge. Someday, perhaps, I’d give it a shot.
After Thailand, the project gained an entirely new significance. It wasn’t just this interesting project I’d heard about and wanted to try at some unspecified time in the future. It was one I had to do, and I had to do it now. It was the only way forward. It was a test. I had to know.
When I finally began to shoot for my project, it was a challenge, to say the very least. I needed help. I needed a push. Dave was there, backing me up, and I’m glad he was because I was more than a little nervous just taking my camera out in public. I was painfully awkward with those first few strangers. I talked too much or not enough. I stammered. I fumbled. As soon as I raised the viewfinder to my eye, I would instantly lose 50 IQ points and forget how to operate my camera. I couldn’t lock focus. I made really weird crops. I shot too few frames. I’m pretty sure I held my breath the entire time I was behind the camera. And yet, through that, somehow, I made usable pictures.
After each stranger’s portrait was done and I had a decently lit, in-focus shot on my LCD, I could finally take a breath. I was exhilarated. It was such a relief to say thank you and watch each stranger go after their portrait was done. I was grateful for each of them, even those that said no. I needed to experience rejection, too. I needed to be ok with it and move on to the next stranger. And I was. I was ok. I moved on. Once it happened and I learned it wasn’t a big deal, the anxiety surrounding it was gone.
My confidence grew with each session. The photos improved a little each time, if a bit inconsistently. I started to get really excited about this project as I made progress and racked up numbers: 10 portraits, 25 portraits, 50 portraits. My approach became more confident. I knew what to say. It got easier. I was unfazed by rejection. I talked to people, learned a little about them, shared a little about myself. I got them to say yes, to lower their guard. I became comfortable where I had been so anxious before.
I didn’t suddenly become an extrovert overnight. I hadn’t suddenly overcome my shyness. But once I started, I was determined to get all 100 strangers. I had to see this project through to the end. I couldn’t have a repeat of Thailand, which is why it was so frustrating when there were missteps, setbacks. There were times when I went out and didn’t take a single photo. I’d see a potential subject walking by and I’d hesitate. I’d take too long to decide whether to approach, and by the time I decided, they were gone. Or I might decide not to approach because I was convinced, for whatever reason, that they would say no. And I obsessed about every photo and every person I photographed. Did I choose a good subject? Did I get a good shot? Did I get critical focus? Did I get a natural expression from my subject? Was I making any real progress dealing with my shyness?
Was I awkward?
I spent a lot of energy worrying about that.
Being this kind of photographer, talking to strangers, trying to gain their trust, trying to form a connection, however brief, and trying to make a photograph to preserve that; it was exhausting to an introvert. A little more than half-way through the project, I started to waver. It was hard to find the energy to keep going and I was easily discouraged when the pictures were not as good as I thought they could be.
I caught myself hoping for bad weather on the weekends so I could have a day off. I’d wake up in the morning, go straight to my window, and look for clouds. Worse still, I caught myself hoping for rejection, failure. That was surprising, to say the very least, because I really did want to finish this project. But if I was rejected, if I failed, then I’d have my answer, and the next step would be clear. I’d know I wasn’t cut out to be a portrait photographer, and I’d be off the hook. It would hurt, but I could stop trying. I could rest. I could stop obsessing. I realize, of course, how backwards that all sounds. I don’t expect a lot of people to understand.
It was my friend Nick Mansfield that kept me on track. He backed me up, Saturdays and Sundays. He was an extra pair of eyes scanning the crowd, a pair of hands handling the reflector, and a good motivator. He pushed me. I was not always appreciative, though. I should have been. Sometimes, on Wednesdays or Thursdays, before I had even had a chance to ask him, he would text me first and say: “We shooting this weekend, or what?” Without Nick, I would not have made it past 15 strangers. We made a big push towards the end and got it done.
I hit 100 portraits on January 26, 2014, just a little over a year ago now.
If ever I doubt my ability as a portrait photographer, here’s proof that I can do it. Here’s 100 people who said yes. And this was all in spite of my shyness. I’m still an introvert. I’m still a shy person. That hasn’t changed, nor would I expect it to. My aim was to get confident approaching and photographing strangers, which I had failed to do in Thailand, and not to try to change something fundamental about myself that didn’t need to change.
I learned that being shy is not so much a personality flaw, as it is simply a personality trait. It’s not a bad habit I need to kick. I just need to find a way to work around it. Putting a camera in my hands, ironically, was one way to reduce the anxiety of approaching strangers. It was an ice breaker. It gave me a reason to talk to people, and something to talk about.
At the start of the project, and at the start of each session, especially when approaching that first stranger of the day, I’d get nervous. But there really was no cause to be. The worst they could do to me was say “no”, and that wasn’t a big deal, as I had seen. I learned that rejection was only bad if I allowed it to be. If I approached a stranger and asked to make their portrait, the key to overcoming the fear of rejection was to not be attached to the outcome. If they said yes, great, I’d make a portrait. If they said no, I’d thank them anyway, and move on. They had their reasons for saying no. Obsessing about it, making it somehow my fault, making it a reflection of my ability as a photographer or a reflection on me as a person, was counterproductive and exactly what I had to avoid.
I learned that people, for the most part, would reflect whatever emotional state I was in when I approached. If I was nervous, they’d be nervous. If I was guarded, they’d be guarded, and I was more likely to get a rejection. If, instead, I approached with confidence and just made my request as if what I was doing was not unusual, as if it was totally common and ordinary, then people would be more likely to say yes.
It came as a surprise, each time someone said yes, even after I’d shot 60 or 70 portraits. But it shouldn’t have. I’d seen this before, time and again. I’ve spent a lot of time around photographers who gain access to people, locations, and resources, and all they do is ask. They ask where someone else might not out of fear of rejection, or because they fear their request might be seen as “weird.” They ask as if the answer is already yes. And if the answer is no, they don’t make it personal, and they move on.
For some photographers, and for some friends of mine, winning trust from strangers and building rapport is easy. It’s second nature. It’s an aptitude. A valuable gift. They have no inhibitions when it comes to people and social situations, and it can make all the difference, not only in photography, but in building relationships, business, personal, and otherwise. I envy their gift.
I may not have the very same aptitude. For me, it takes a little extra work. And that’s okay. If anything, it makes each of these hundred strangers’ portraits that much more significant. I had to work for each one. But being an introvert has its advantages. It makes me more attuned to people, more sensitive, especially to other introverts. Maybe I can’t enter a room and take command and become the center of attention. That’s ok. I don’t need or want to. But I can engage one person. I can pay attention. I can listen. I can ask questions and move us past the small-talk where there is something interesting for us both to learn. That’s how you connect with people.
The most valuable part of the 100 Strangers Project was that it helped me to understand this. It helped me to clarify my interests within photography: I want to use photography to meet, know, and connect with interesting people. I want to get to know them in photographs. I want to keep moving in this direction.
Making portraits can be an extremely personal and intimate act, for both the subject and the photographer. Each has to reveal a little about themselves. Each has to allow, if only for that fraction of the second when the shutter clicks, a totally unguarded moment. It’s no small request, and no easy thing to capture. I learned that people, total strangers on the street, will say yes to such a personal request if your intent is genuine, if you’re ready to be as vulnerable as you’re asking them to be, and if you have the courage to ask.