Both in theory and in practice Photographing a stranger is difficult.
In theory, not knowing someone can make the photograph feels either voyeuristic or like turning the person into nothing more than a visual spectacle. When you photograph a person you know, you have a list of traits or qualities of theirs that you know you want to convey. Something like my girlfriend's smile or the face of a friend who always seems calm and collected but you know behind it is struggling with the same things you are. As a person in your subject's lives, you can pull those traits out which give a photo their weight. Even knowing a person for a few minutes can impact the way you take the photo a lot.
In practice, it's seems beyond intimidating to walk up to a person on the street and ask them to take their photo. What if they get mad? What if they call the police? What if they follow you for the next 20 years of your life trying to make you miserable? I mean... none of that will happen... But, like... What if? How do I convince someone going about their day to take a few minutes to be thrust in front of a camera? "Hi, I'm Zac. I like your face. Can I photograph it?"
In Nepal I took photos of nearly every kid in the neighbourhood I volunteered in. Sometimes I would pull my camera out in front of the parents and take a photo without asking, only to be smiled at and even offered tea on occasion. I feel confident enough to walk up to someone in America and do the same. Iceland, Papua New Guinea, anywhere really... But until now I've felt like Japan was a personal black sheep.
It feels like every time I try to photograph someone in the country I consider home, theres a barrier. I find someone who I not only want to photograph, but also just talk to, and find myself stopping short. I put my camera away, put my headphones in and walk away. I have this feeling like I'm not supposed to. The reality of it is, however, that I've never once been faced with hostility or even discomfort at the sight of my camera in Japan.
In May I had the idea to photograph some of the owners of Ramen shops I go to a lot. The first place I went was by my school. I ordered a bowl of ramen, talked to the owner like normal and in the end asked if I could take his photograph. He said no and then apologised. I finished my ramen like normal, paid and left. No harm done to anyone, but from then on I felt a barrier in interacting with Japanese people. This feeling like I just shouldn't bother anyone.
A few weeks later, I was in a rice field a few towns away from where I live. A man working in the fields drove by in his pick-up truck filled with dirt and smiled at me. I left immediately. God knows if that barrier I built myself weren't there, the experience (and photos) I could have had.
Last week I talked to my girlfriend about how I want to reach out to people more in my own neighboorhood, and how I want to spend time in Hiroshima meeting people and photographing them. I told her about that weird barrier and she told me it sure as hell wouldn't be bothering anyone, and most people would even welcome it. I mean, the juxtaposition of a lanky college student from America approaching an old man in the middle of a rice field in rural Japan to take their photo is pretty out-of-the-ordinary in itself. I knew it was true but still didn't feel it.
Yesterday I went over to Kawagoe, a city nearby with a pretty cool (and touristy) historic area. I completely wrote off the idea of photographing anybody. I still felt out of place asking. There where street vendors everywhere, tourists, and not a soul in sight hurrying anywhere. Instead I walked around for 2 hours aimlessly looking for something to photograph. Not one photo. On my way back to the station, there were a group of guys selling rickshaw rides for tourists. They were standing in good light, and weren't busy at all. Slow day.
I snapped and asked the oldest guy there if I could take his photo. He said he wasn't up for it, but called to the younger guy holding the sign. He quickly agreed, honestly I think it was purely on the grounds that he was just bored. He asked me what he should do, and I froze. I didn't have any vision. I had no plan for this photo, no idea how to capture this guy who seemed to be only a year or 2 older than me. "Just do anything, really" I said, and he eased up and stood there blank. I felt weird, but I couldn't walk away now. I took the shot, and we talked for a bit. I handed him my business card in case he wanted a copy for himself and headed off.
This is the photo.
It was slightly over exposed. It's composition is too safe. It's not remarkable or powerful.
But it's a milestone.