The non-familiar: first thoughts

I will start blogging about each assignment with a ‘naive’ posting, giving first thoughts before starting to work through the relevant part of the coursework. Apart from giving my brain a jump-start, these postings are always interesting to refer back to once an assignment project is completed or well advanced – it is an indication of progress made.

Assignment 1 is about making portraits of people who are previously unknown to me. The operative word is ‘portrait’, rather than just ‘picture’, which rules out sniping away with a long lens. A portrait has to be up close and personal. A successful portrait has to tell the viewer more about the subject than simply what they look like. The course notes make it clear; we need to get to know the subject to some extent. The main challenges are going to be non-photographic; how to approach a stranger and engage him/her long enough to form the judgements that will inform the portrait. Operating the camera is a doddle by comparison.

There is some useful advice in Jesse Alexander’s #weareoca blog posting (Alexander 2015) and in the comments that it attracted. One of those comments was a reference to Roger Minick’s ‘Sightseer’ series and his approach to dealing with potential subjects (Minick 2012) by explaining in detail what he is doing, and his hopes for posterity. The latter part may be a little over-the-top for a student project but it does give a point of engagement.

There are some other approaches. I particularly liked a suggestion in one of the OCA Facebook groups about carrying and handing out postcards or business cards with a message on the lines of “Sorry it’s an odd request but I’m an art student” with some basic contact details and a note of the course I am doing.

Another idea is to start with people who are already ‘on display’, such as participants in military re-enactments or comic conventions, or who are attempting to engage with me such as tour guides or museum volunteers. This chap was a volunteer at Chatham Historic Dockyard, who had already spent 10-15 minutes talking about ‘his’ ship, HMS Gannet.

Dockyard Mar18 029-1

The advantage of this approach is that the circumstances of meeting the subject already tell me something about him, and provide a background.

This kind of thing can also happen in reverse. I find that if I am using an old or unusual camera (the image above was made with an RB67), people will be interested in it and strike up a conversation which should be easy to steer into, ‘may I take a picture of you with it?’

Possibly my best opportunity will arise because I have recently been asked to be a sort of photographer-in-residence for a local community choir, taking photos of their rehearsals, tours and performances. I have so far only met their musical director, which means that I have a group of (currently) strangers who are already expecting me to take pictures.


Alexander, J. (2015) Shooting Strangers [online] Available at [Accessed 24/5/18].

Minick, R. (2012) The American Psyche on Display: Roger Minick’s ‘Sightseer’ [online] Available at [Accessed 24/5/18].


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