Stranger Photography

I find taking portraits of people, myself included, incredibly difficult.  People don’t stay still (not like trees and flowers, my favourite subjects); they stare awkwardly into the camera; they smile unnaturally or pull very strange faces.  Oh, wait, actually, that’s just a description of me.

I recently had a hair cut and I have been meaning to take a photo to show my friends and family via Facebook (for what other purpose does Facebook have but to show your friends and family your new haircut?)  I tried to take a few self-portraits but the camera distortion made my nose look big.  At least, that’s what my Partner told me.  I just assumed my nose was that big.

So I asked my partner to take my photo.  I tried not to pose.  I tried to smile naturally.  I tried to look serene.  In reality, I squirmed, grimaced and, in one exciting sequence taken via burst mode, looked like I was about to leap forward and attack him. (In my defence I thought I would look more natural if I just moved a bit and then settled, hoping the burst mode would capture me settled.  Alas, it caught me blurrily intent on homicide.)

So, we gave up.  I suck at being photographed.  And I now have much admiration for studio & professional portrait photographers.  How on earth do they manage to make people relax enough to take lovely photos of them?

I don’t tend to take many photos of people.  But I do occasionally, on my travels, sneak photos of people I think look interesting.  I’ve yet to ask anyone if I can take their photograph, although some people made clear they did not mind (the kids in Viet Nam and Thailand were happy to be photographed).

I’ve had a stranger ask me once if they could take a photograph of me.  I misunderstood, initially.  I sat outside the Musee d’Orsay (Paris, France) on a plinth, reading through my travel guide to work out where I might wander for lunch, when a young lady came up to me and indicated that she had a camera.  I smiled and said, “Of course,” and went to take her camera from her as she obviously wanted me to take a photo of her, right? Wrong.  “Oh, no, sorry. I want to take a photo of you. Is that okay?” Startled, I said (because I’d said it already and knew how it sounded coming out of my mouth), “Of course.”  I put my head to one side and looked at her and she kind of waved her free hand around in front of her face in a vague gesture I took to mean, “at ease”.  Helpfully, I said something along the lines of, “I’ll just pretend like you never asked, right?”

Before she could take a photo, a security guard came yelling up to us.  He was unhappy with me sitting on the plinth, and must have only just noticed although I’d been there a good 10 minutes or so.   We parted ways and I don’t think she took my photo.  Although I do hope that she took one before she asked.  I know I would have just taken the photo and walked on.

On another occasion, this time in Ireland, I was wandering around a tourist site – Glendalough monastic settlement in the Wicklow Mountains.  Pretty much everyone there were tourists and pretty much everyone had cameras and were out snapping away at the picturesque ruins, cemetary and autumnal trees.  There were also a group of men, clearly on a photography workshop, wandering around with enormous lenses and snap-snap-snapping away.  I was meandering about, with the Fuji dangling around my neck.  It’s big and bulky.  I was wearing a bright green jacket, blue stripey beanie with a pom-pom on top and my lovely rainbow glove-mittens.  I crossed a bridge, but there were too many people to take a nice photo of the bridge, so I did not bother.  I noticed that a few of the men from the photography workshop had turned their camera on me – or, perhaps, somewhere behind me – but I decided to ignore it.

As I got closer, I thought it was quite clear that at least a few of the lenses were definitely pointed right at my face.  One of the men said, ‘Hello’ and I said, ‘Hi’ back and stepped around the group to continue exploring.  I could hear the fast click-click-click of the nearest camera, with enormous telephoto lens I associate with wildlife photography, and knew he was shooting me on continuous burst mode.  Up until this point, I was reasonably sanguine about the whole affair.  After all, I was very colourful.  If I saw me, I’d probably try to get a photo too.  I darted my eyes down to the camera lens and then up to the face of the photographer. As my eyes met his, he said, “Machine gun.”  I knew he was trying to be friendly and I knew he was looking for a way to make contact but, well, I’m a pacifist. (Just a rather angry aggressive one).  And likening photographing me to shooting me with a machine gun just upset me, straight away.  My happy face turned into a scowl and my lips thinned.  I turned away from him.  But, still, he wanted to make a connection and the next thing he said really did not help him at all. “Japanese? Konnicha Wa!” “No!” I spat back at him and stalked off, round a corner, past a yew tree, behind a gravestone, so he could get no more photos of me.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he and some of the others continued to try to take photographs of me as I walked away.  Only one man put his camera down and looked a little abashed.

Really old cross at Glendalough, and really tiny person in the bottom left, if you look real careful like. Must be a leprechaun (albeit a blue one).

The group of photographers had finished their time at the ruins and set off.  Dusk was coming in and people were filtering back to tour buses.  The site got quieter and the light got lovelier, so we hung around and took some very nice photos (if I say so myself).  Exhausting the possibilities of the ruins, however, we decided to set off on a walk of the nearby forests.  We took off on the marked circular route, deciding to go anti-clockwise.  The path wound along beside the settlement, then through some woods and then on a boardwalk near a large lake.  At the lake, we paused and I could see across the way the group of photographers, set up with tripods and arrayed along the edges, probably working on an assignment about taking a photograph of a sunset as reflected in the still waters of a quiet lake.  They were quite far away, but as we rounded the lake, I could see that some had finished their water assignment and were moving onto the next thing.

I felt however as if I was the next assignment because, suddenly, most had turned away from the lake or from packing up their equipment and were clearly, undeniably, unashamedly taking photographs of me.  Normally  I would ignore this and let it happen but I was still riding the wave of anger generated from the innocent but misconceived machine gun comment and the ignorant assumption that I was Japanese.  What I started to do was watch the lens, and the men’s fingers, and as they pushed down, I would turn my head or step slightly to the left or suddenly speed up.  I was hoping, by doing so, that they would fail to get a decent picture of me.  I weaved in and out of my companions and I flicked my head from side to side and I kept a scowl on the whole time. Surprisingly, a few of them called out to me or hollered, “Yoo-hoo!” to get my attention.  I stiffened and scowled and darted some more.

A few steps after the last photographer, however, I suddenly felt remorse.  I had been very mean and I’d exuded anger as I marched past, and they did not really deserve it.  I was just a subject they wanted a photograph of.  Oddly, if they’d photographed me and pretended not to, I probably would not have minded.  They had big telephoto lenses.  It would have been very easy to take surreptitious shots of me.  Why draw my attention to it, if not to ask permission, and then fail to ask permission?

I still don’t really know how to feel about the incident, though I’m less confident that my anger was justifiable.  And now, knowing how absolutely crap I am at posing for portraits, I’d be quite interested to see whether any of them were able to take a decent photo of me.

So, if you see a photo of an Asian (Viet ethnicity but Australian, thanks) girl in blue-stripey beanie and green jacket with red trim, let me know.  It might be me.



  1. Yes, people are difficult to photograph. It helps if you have someone else talking with your subject while you shoot away. At least, it is for me — I can’t seem to talk and take photos at the same time. And I’m generally bad at small talk anyway.

    Your experience with the burst mode photographers sounds creepy. I wish they would’ve perceived your discomfort and found another subject. Why antagonize someone who has the grace not to yank that $5000 lens off your $3000 camera??


    1. Yes, I think that’s a perfectly fine reaction. But there’s a bit of me that thinks I should behave how I want others to behave, and I want to take photos of colourful / intersting strangers … and that day I was definitely colourful, so could understand them wanting to take a photo of me … but … but…
      See? Conflicted!


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