Shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed.
I looked at the hidden camera work of Sophie Calle, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Natasha Caruana, Walker Evans and Humphrey Spender each of whom had used a clandestine approach to photographing strangers.
Sophie Calle took a less invasive approach to photographing people unaware. A lot of her portraits are shot from behind her subjects or even less intrusive in her series ‘Hotel Suites’ she simply photographed their belongings without given away intimate details. This approach is a very sensitive one and appears to be less offensive.
Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s approach was more elaborate in hiding a camera and flash in public areas and using a remote trigger to capture his subjects walking by. diCocia would have planned and executed his setup in advance of any shooting in order to have not aroused suspition. Working during daylight his subjects would have barely noticed the flash.
In Walker Evans ‘Subway’ series he hid a camera in the button hole of his coat and photographed the people who by chance sat opposite him. The series is quite enchanting covering all walks of life with some surprising flattering portraits.
Natasha Caruana photographed details of her subjects without putting them in the frame quite literally. The series ‘The married Man’ saw Caruana meet married men from a website created for that purpose. She gave details away of the type of men who seek affairs with strangers through the places she met them in including London Zoo and a greasy cafe.
These are all different approaches to photographing strangers without their knowledge. I can see how Sophie Calle’s approach would be appealing and probably the first technique to try out as its poses the least amount of risk. However when reading about Humphrey Spender I was reminded of a previous experience of going out into the public domain and photographing strangers unaware; where I went to the local park and placed my camera on a picnic table and pointed it towards potential subjects to see if the outcome would be a positive one. Spender used this approach in pubs in the working class suburbs of Bolton. Subjects wouldn’t know they were being photographed and therefore Spender would have been able to capture the workmen in their natural setting, at ease and their true selves.
Another approach carried out by Spender was to put his camera around his neck and shoot from waist level which is the technique I decided to try out in my hometown.
I gave a huge amount of thought into which type of camera to use. I live in a tourist destination and cameras are commonplace so I didn’t think I would look out of place with my DSLR. I wanted to the photographs to have a quality about them despite the exercise being about photographing strangers and decided that my Canon 5D Mark3 was fit for the job. I was also thinking it was a ballsy thing to do, I like to challenge myself and it would have been far too easy to take photographs with my phone or even a compact camera.
My next consideration was which lens to use for maximum success. My go to lens is a 50mm, 1.2 prime which gives a beautiful dreamy narrow depth of field and a rich colour range. This is great if you’re standing still but as I planned to be walking I could only envisage a lot of blurred images if using the 50mm. I decided to use a zoom lens with a range of 24mm – 105mm with a wider depth of field and at its shortest focal length a wider angle.
I set the camera to auto ISO with an aperture of 5.6 and let the camera dictate the shutter speed. The light outside was very conflicting with dark clouds and bright bursts of light coming through.
I carried out a walk through in my head of where my camera would be positioned, putting in around my neck to see where it naturally positioned itself. I altered the straps so that the camera sat between my waist and my shoulders. I tried some test shots angling the camera ahead, slightly upwards and slightly downwards to get a feel for perspective.
When I felt ready I headed out for the two mile walk to the bridge and back.
Shooting people unaware
Almost instantly I had people walking towards me. I held my camera under the lens with my left hand and steadied the camera with my right hand placing my thumb over the shutter release. I hoped that my stance gave the subject the impression I was merely holding my bulky camera quite closely to avoid it bashing against me.
With the camera held against my body for support I randomly started shooting the first person to approach. I felt nervous and devious with a tinge of sympathy for my victim (yes, my victim! Thats how it felt to me). A few clicks later my first victim had strolled past without a care. I waited until the subject was out of sight and looked at a preview of my first few shots to see if I needed to make any adjustments. I had managed three photographs, one was blurred, was was too far away and the other had cut his head off.
I needed to wait until the subjects were closer and slow down my walking. The composition was difficult to control and I accepted that some photographs will contain nothing more than a leg but hopefully I will have enough successes for the purpose of this exercise.
Within minutes I was at ease with my mission and started to enjoy the challenge. The need to obtain portraits of strangers overtook any concerns I initially had. Eventually it felt like a game and I was winning.
My Selection of Five
My top five photographs from the series have one thing in common, they are all looking straight into the camera. I found this fascinating. They weren’t looking at me, they were looking at my camera, straight down the lens. This came as a huge surprise to me. I only looked at my subjects as I spotted them approaching because during the act of photographing them I would look away giving the impression my mind was somewhere else. This technique must have worked as I was never challenged. I was so worried about the sound of my shutter thinking it would give the game away but it didn’t.
Looking back over the images I captured I can see that people weren’t entirely oblivious and conflict is an ever looming threat.
This photograph almost made it into the top five even though the main subject is slightly blurred. He had the most menacing reaction out of all my images taken on this shoot. I wasn’t aware of the inquisitive face at the time because of my technique of looking away whilst shooting. If I was aware of how this man appeared then I may have stopped shooting there. In this photograph I love how the boy in the background, also holding a camera, is highlighted by the sunshine and looking towards my subject as if considering what the situation was almost waiting for conflict.
Out of the 329 photographs I shot, more than half were either completely blurred or contained no subjects. If working with a film camera like in the case of Humphrey Spender, this task would have been a mammoth one.
Some things surprised me about photographing strangers without their knowledge.
- People can be suspicious of the camera and not you.
- Most people take photographs with a mobile phone and carrying a DSLR will attract attention
- Capturing people with their natural resting face is far more interesting than asking them to ‘say cheese’. Their personalities are revealed more this way
- Surprisingly good portraits can be achieved without directing a pose
- Being sneaky is fun!