100 Strangers | A Street Portraiture Project
I first came across the 100 Strangers project back in 2014 or 2015 on Flickr. The idea is a simple one: to photograph strangers on the street, with their permission, and to build your portrait photography skills and confidence along the way. When I first discovered the project I wanted to try it too, but I didn’t think I was good enough to call myself a photographer. I also didn’t have the confidence to approach people to ask for permission to capture their portrait. Back then I was a PhD student planning on a career in academia, and photography was just my hobby. I photographed animals, pretty light, and still life scenes, but rarely people.
Life happened and I eventually started filming and photographing weddings as a stopgap after I finished studying. Weddings involve a fair amount of capturing strangers, but they are a mix of posed portraits and candid photography or footage. Before the pandemic I was starting to build my portrait photography work outside of weddings, but since the physical distancing restrictions came in I have had to put all my work projects on hold. Out for a walk earlier this week without my music and headphones, I remembered the 100 strangers project and thought about how it would work in the current climate whilst I am unable to work on my other projects.
I almost always take my camera with me when I go for a walk, and I walk a lot. Especially at the moment with the gym and pool closed. The only trouble is that whereas the city centre is usually full of people to photograph, with the pubs and shops closed it is very quiet. The backstreets and suburbs are busier, but since late March people cross the road to give each other space when they encounter one another. Between that, and people having earphones in listening to music, or eyes occupied with their phones, it’s hard to find potential subjects.
Last night I took my camera with me for my usual loop of the neighbourhood and met Guy as we were turning a corner in opposite directions. Smartly dressed and with a warm smile, I made a snap decision and asked him if he would be happy for me to capture his portrait. He kindly agreed, and so now the project is officially underway.
A note to the people who kindly pose for me
The photos on this page are lower resolution for the web. Please get in touch with me so that I can send you a higher resolution copy of your portrait.
After a confident start, I ended up taking a few months away from this project. The pandemic actually made things trickier than I thought it would. Because of the pandemic, people often cross the road to the other side if they see you coming, which makes it a little awkward to approach someone for a portrait. Furthermore, Birmingham isn’t a tourist city and street portraiture isn’t very common, and I worried that combined with the pandemic people would just be a little bit more cautious or suspicious of my intentions.
A daytrip to Oxford broke my dry spell though, and I approached Beth to ask if I could capture her portrait when I spotted her stood opposite the Bodleian. She kindly agreed, and posed for me with her five month old Labrador, Blossom. Beth had travelled to Oxford to raise awareness of and protest against animal testing at Oxford University. She explained that she often attends group protests around the country but sometimes takes to the streets solo, too. I think she is very brave to undertake a solo protest, as I’m sure she has in the past and will continue in the future to be on the receiving end of a lot of venom and anger.
Like Beth, I am vegan for animal welfare reasons and I am against all animal testing – including medical testing for research purposes. During a global pandemic when we are racing to develop a vaccine, many people will be hostile to animal rights activists, thinking that we as a group value animals above humans, and that we haven’t got our heads screwed on straight. The truth is that supporting medical research for the benefit of humankind and standing against all animal testing don’t have to be polarising positions.
I would like to see more efficient, cruelty free alternatives to animal testing come on stream in medical research, so that the dated, wasteful, and painful animal models that still dominate medical methods can be relegated to the history books. This is a position shared by many within life science research, as animal testing isn’t just cruel, it is also expensive, and often doesn’t produce the desired results. Ethics aside for a moment, animal models aren’t a perfect fit for human drug development and a positive result in a drug or procedure test on a rat or pig often doesn’t translate to success in humans.
To find out more about efforts within science to move to non-animal models, read here about the work of the Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing. As with climate change and the use of fossil fuels, I wish it was as easy as simply deciding one day to end all animal testing, but transitions take time.
I took my camera with me to the market one Saturday during the November lockdown and, after explaining the project, asked several market traders if I could capture their portrait. The answer was “no” and then a confused – why would I want to capture her portrait and where was I going to share it – and somewhat hesitant “yes” from the trader who runs one of my favourite stalls.
Needless to say, I didn’t ask her name as I didn’t want to make her feel any more uncomfortable than I already had. This project is hard. Birmingham is really not the sort of place where street portraiture is seen as normal or everyday, and lockdown makes everything so much more difficult. I really don’t know where I’m going with this project at the moment, I think it’s going to be a slow burn though.