A few years ago I found myself traveling upriver on the remote Pacific coast of Colombia. I was in an unstable little boat piloted by a half-drunk captain, clutching my camera bag nervously to my chest — and having the time of my life! I was on my way to do portraits in an indigenous village, part of a street project that I had started in Medellin.
I first started doing street portraits after seeing Richard Avedon’s famous project “In the American West.” I loved the way he used a white background to strip away everything except the subject of the portrait, letting the expression on the faces and the wrinkles on their clothes tell the whole story, without any further information from the environment.
One day I found myself having a coffee in a busy town square in Medellin, Colombia called Parque Bolivar. There were all sorts of fascinating characters walking past my park bench, and I wondered how to approach this scene as a photo project.
After a few days of pondering, I remembered Avedon and thought I could do my own white background street portraits with the people in the square.
My project, called “Faces of Colombia” eventually grew larger than the park, and took me all over the country. I went everywhere from remote jungles and rough areas of Bogota to the offices of the Colombian Vice President. I met murderers and nuns, fashion models and street kids, guerillas, and grandmothers. I worked on the project for about three years. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. Give Back With Pictures
Depending on where you are, people may be reluctant to pose for you. This happened to me when I started my project in Medellin. On my first day of shooting, I managed to get a few people to sit for a portrait. When I came back, I brought a few cheap prints from local photo lab to hand out, and suddenly everyone was excited and trusting.
Word got out that the gringo was a good guy, and all my subsequent shoots were much easier. I also kept a couple of small prints for myself to show people samples when I worked at new locations.
2. Use a Cloth Background and Light It
Richard Avedon used seamless paper for his project, but he wasn’t getting on tiny airplanes and then traveling down dirt roads in a jeep for two hours. He was also operating in the days before Photoshop.
For my project, I used a large white backdrop that I could fold up and easily tuck into my travel bag. I also carried a few battery powered strobes that I would use to light the background and blow out some of the wrinkles. You mainly want to light the background immediately behind the subject to make later Photoshop work easier (trying to clip out a dark wrinkle on the background that is located behind someone’s hair is no fun at all).
You should, however, be careful not to over light that background, as I did on some occasions. When you do this it’s a bit like shooting into the sun, causing flare in your images and a loss of contrast in your image. Set your strobes so the background is just barely white, not nuclear!
3. Pick A Shooting Location with Soft Light and some Privacy
For my Colombia project, I would find locations with soft open shade which would allow me to photograph at just about any time of day and provided a consistent look to the project.
I also looked for spaces which had a bit of privacy. No one is going to reveal their soul to your camera when half of the marketplace is standing around gawking.
For my first location in the town square in Medellin, I set up my backdrop in a parking lot a block away. That way I could grab an interesting character in the park (where there were hundreds!) and then walk the short distance to our quiet spot for the shoot.
4. Find A Rich Location
You’ll have more success and have a lot more fun if you find a location rich in interesting characters. In cities, this is pretty easy as there is such a large number of diverse people. Even then, you may find some days or times of day work better than others.
If you are shooting on a weekday morning, people might be rushing to work, whereas they’d be more likely to pose on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll also notice patterns in the same location that will help you find different subjects.
There may be a rush of school children walking home mid-afternoon or street musicians strolling around in the early evening hoping to get tips by playing for young lovers. Pay attention, and soon you will notice daily patterns of activity.
With my Colombia project, I sought out a variety of locations in my efforts to represent all aspects of the country. So I traveled to the government building of Bogota to capture the elite rulers of the country, to the Caribbean coast to photograph carnival dancers and musicians, and to a remote camp for portraits of sinister paramilitary soldiers.
5. Don’t Over Direct
One thing I love about personal projects is that I don’t have to worry about making a flattering image. In my professional headshot business, I have to make people look good or I won’t be able to pay my mortgage.
In a street portrait, I get to photograph what people are giving me. If they look nervous or angry or sad, I don’t try to coax a smile out of them. I photograph that.
As a final thought, I’d like to mention that you don’t have to travel to exotic locations to do interesting portraits. I literally did a whole project in the alley behind my house and ended up getting the project published in the Washington Post Magazine among others. I guarantee you have interesting characters walking around your own neighborhood.
So no excuses, get out there and make some portraits today!