young girl

“EMBRACING CONNECTION”: The Art of Approaching Strangers for a Portrait

Many photographers know that capturing people in public spaces can create powerful and compelling portraits. Whether it be people at a festival, street scene, or standing at the bus stop.  However, there’s an undeniable challenge that many photographers face—the fear of approaching strangers to ask for their portrait. This anxiety can be overwhelming, causing missed opportunities and preventing photographers from pushing their creative boundaries and capturing something that caught their eye in the first place, or even something that could get you a place in the National Photographic Portrait Prize.

After 20 years in the portrait photography game, I still get this feeling of anxiety. You might recognise some of these thoughts like, “What if they reject me?” or “What if they think I’m intrusive?” These anxieties can paralyze even the most experienced photographers like myself. It’s important to recognize that feeling shy and nervous is a natural human response, but it doesn’t have to hinder your creative aspirations. 

On a recent camping trip, I was struck by my next subject. With ruby cheeks, flaming red hair and a cool haircut,  I thought to myself, this boy would make a great portrait for my National Photographic Portrait Prize entry this year. I was too nervous to ask him, and anyway the shirt he was wearing wasn’t at all suitable so I wondered if I could ask him to change it. I hesitated for quite some time and watched as he disappeared into his caravan. Did I miss my chance? Should I have just plucked up the courage to go over and talked to him? Moments later he emerged wearing a gorgeous collared shirt. I thought, if that’s not a sign from the universe, I don’t know what is! 

Running on adrenaline, I crossed the road to ask a nearby adult,  who the boy with the red hair belonged to. She led me to the boy’s father in the caravan. I gathered my courage and asked permission to photograph his son for the National Photographic Portrait Prize. Thankfully, he said yes, and we spent 5 minutes together to create a magical portrait. 

It turns out, that portrait (nerves and all),That five minutes, while insignificant in a normal day, has become one of the most significant moments of my year. That portrait of the red haired camping boy was selected as a finalist for this year’s National Photographic Portrait Prize and is currently hanging inside the National Portrait Gallery. It showed me the power of facing my fears and taking action, and regardless of being announced as a finalist, I know the next time I’m struck by a moment, I won’t feel as scared. 

My message to other photographers out there: be bold, feel the fear, and do it anyway. Even if the result is not your best work, you won’t regret taking the chance. Keep challenging the fear and build your confidence, so it becomes easier to approach someone on the street next time. Create your masterpiece, and let your photographs tell the stories that would have otherwise remained untold.

Ask yourself this question, Will I regret not capturing this portrait, if I don’t go ahead and just ask the question?

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