Anonymity in Street Portraiture – The Book of Strangers

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I’ve noticed a pattern of behaviour in taking street portraits. While the majority of people I approach are willing to be photographed, albeit with some degree of persuasion, very few of them ever get in touch afterwards. Despite me giving them contact details and promising them both a hard and soft copy of the final image for free as a thank you, the rate of contact is probably only around three in ten.

Given that the person has invested their time to stop and talk to me, has listened and engaged with the idea I am presenting to them and then been brave enough to let a complete stranger take their picture, you’d think that they would be curious enough to want to see the result.


And yet I wonder whether the answer is that it’s precisely because I was stranger that the subjects behave this way. The preservation of anonymity is what drives this behaviour but it is also what allows the subject to be photographed in the first place.

A lot of people, perhaps most you might know, seem to hate having their photograph taken. Certainly in my experience, both of wanting to photograph friends and, in the past, having my own picture taken, I’ve experienced resistance. The painful refrain of ‘I hate having my photograph taken’ is so familiar and has been the cause of many a family argument.

When a person’s image exists constantly for everyone to see, everywhere they go without restriction, it’s strange to think that the simple act of creating a two dimension photographic image of that person would cause such stress and anxiety. It’s true that the frozen moment is in some way lie; it’s only a facsimile of the person in that one moment and we do not experience people in such frozen states; we experience them on a continuum. The old adage that the camera never lies isn’t might not be quite accurate then but we are getting a little too metaphysical. It still doesn’t explain why people are so reluctant to have their picture taken.

I suspect that the more likely explanation is that the act of taking a picture forces you to confront the fact that you are indeed being very closely ‘looked at’ and that the existence of the photograph forces you to also look at yourself, an act that is deeply uncomfortable for most of us even if there is an inbuilt pleasure associated with the act of looking, what Freud called Schauluast and what was subsequently interpreted as scopophilia.

This project started out as an exploration of self through the exploration of engaging with others. I have previously written about Laing’s argument that we are ‘all strangers to one another’; that we cannot know each other because we cannot experience each other’s experiences. Be that as it may, I wonder whether the greater obstacle is actually that of being a stranger to our own self. Looking at our own image us is a challenging experience; it forces us to look at who we. So when a complete stranger approaches us and asks if we can take our picture it is precisely the anonymity between the subject and the photographer and the subsequent distance between the subject and the image that is made that allows that process to work. It is the anonymity that is important.

Why then agree to be photographed in the first place, what does the subject get out of it? I suspect that the process appeals to our in built altruism, our desire to do things that please other people because that makes us feel good about ourselves. I also believe that the subjects share the same process of engagement that I as the photographer experience and crave. Which side of the camera you are on then becomes immaterial to the experience; it is the temporary unravelling of the inherent strangeness between people that is pleasurable. An exploration if you will but one where ultimately the preservation of anonymity is critical to the success of that experience. Once the image has been made, photographer and subject part company, the strangeness between them is preserved and so the experience is a safe one.