Nicola Davidson: The Comfort of Strangers

Do we have the best of intentions within the heart of each click and the 30-Second Street Portrait?

Words and photography: Nicola Davidson

Many photographers find it tough to approach strangers on the street and there are so many interesting tacks to pursue your passion for 'The Street'. My own strategy is, clear the mind. It can be as tough as you make it, or as simple and fun as you want it to be. I always say “Excuse me” first. I get them comfortable with the idea of my personal street portrait project by showing them my street cards (past individual street portraits on the cards with web address and contact details)- I suppose it’s like my mobile portfolio but unlike flashing them through my IG it is something physical they can take home with them. So then I am now in context visually—I become something they're interested in, something they have time for....or not as does happen.

Usually if they stop to listen, their curiosity takes over and their generosity kicks in and we agree and make a portrait together. It’s the people who rush by when you say “Excuse me” that don’t want to be bothered and probably think you are collecting for something or want them to sign up for something. Having a camera on show in some way also gives people visual clues. With my street cards, my conversation, and my camera, they can map out if they deem these moments to be of interest to them or not. I have found what doesn’t work is hiding your camera or rushing or being tired. As soon as I have one or two or maybe a couple more street portraits, I’m done for the day. I don’t want to be out trawling the streets desperate for a catch. That reeks of paparazzi-can't stand the paps. Keep it artful and each encounter special. I fall a little bit in love with each people who has offered me their street portrait. I select people by a combination of my own instincts, their style, their connection with me when they make eye contact, their gaze, their coat, maybe their hat, their eyes, their pace, their presence on the street.

I go to the towns and cities around my small town in the Midlands, U.K. It’s a small town where I live but central to many big cities, so there’s always a choice of where to go. I called it “30 Seconds of Street Portrait,” as that's the time it takes to take the portrait. I think to engage someone in my purpose any longer than that - I’ve blown it. Then after that, the exchange and the connection could be anything from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

I could recount a story or a valued exchange between myself and each portraitee - for example Muriel, the lady in the rain hat (1st photo). I was actually making a street portrait of someone else. Muriel is different in the sense that it was the first time someone approached me in the street for a portrait. As I was photographing another lady, Muriel walked in-between my camera and the subject. Muriel stopped and immediately, was curious. She watched me make the photography and said, “Could you take my photograph?” So this was a change for me. We made the portrait together. After the photograph Muriel took her hand out of her pocket and it was bleeding. She had caught it on a zip or something. I learned that Muriel has a blooding thinning illness. I walked her to her car, where her son-in-law was waiting. Muriel had just had her hair done (hence the rain hat) and she was off to watch the Nottingham Panther ice hockey team, as she is an avid supporter. She was kind, general, open, funny, warm, loving, strong, young at heart, and fun.

The people in the photographs have the opportunity to contact me so I can send them their digital file. Not everyone in the world owns a phone or a pc or is on social media (maybe they are the lucky ones.) One portraitee did not own any technology so I printed out his photograph and left them on his boat. Another had no access except through community hubs, I left his in the library for him to pick up.

Within the photography community of late I have noticed a leaning towards 'ethical photography ' and what it actually means in 2021. So much debate on how much is too much in regards to involving your community or your subjects in your street photography. I'm sure we are all aware of how the ground is shifting massively in Magnum right now. There has always been a huge question of, burden, privilege, mistake, when to photograph and when to stop, when to intervene. One example being Kevin Carter who documented the apartheid era in South Africa. The photographer, instead of helping the emaciated toddler who had collapsed, reportedly spent 20 minutes waiting in the "hope that the stalking bird would open its wings". Available to view here

Carter's Photograph became a case study in the debate over when, where, how and 'if' a photographer should make an image. Like any photographer taking photography 'on the street and 'with' the street within the community, I would like to think at the heart of each click is the best of intentions. Yet intention and motivation are two different things, you can still have the best of intention but if your motivation is twisted, I don't need to list twisted motivations here, then everything can become nasty. My point being, for myself, I chose to involve my street portraitees, albeit short and sweet, we would chat , more often than not go off on a tangent about their lives or about the subject of photography - I did not want to steal from strangers, I wanted to 'give' and 'make' rather than take. Conversely, I do think a carefully crafted street photograph on the coal face of the urban pavement, one that is brave and bold that is carved with clever elements, that does not seek permission, or a lucky decisive moment, can be diamond and very educative. Mr John Free is, I think a fine example.


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