This showcase series features the 100 Strangers Portrait Project of Matthew Howarth. Matthew is a photographer from Hertfordshire, England, he spoke to Photophique about this ongoing project:
Matt, thanks for speaking to Photophique. What inspired you to embark on your 100 strangers portrait project?
It took about two years from my joining the 100 Strangers group on Flickr, to my taking a first portrait for it. My main fear was not so much asking strangers to pause and let me photography them, but a concern that I’d only do an average job and could only offer them a “family photo” quality portrait at the end of the encounter.
That really came from never having shot portraits. However, we then had a daughter, and I obviously got into shooting pictures of her. When Getty images listed a number of them last year, I thought that maybe I’d developed enough to give the project a try. I spent a Saturday morning procrastinating in every possible way, including writing a nylon guitar mash up of “Man In The Mirror” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, before finally biting the bullet, picking up my camera and heading out to kick things off.
As to what appealed to me, it’s hard to explain. I just kept seeing amazing portraits – gorgeous girls with dark, smoky eyes, and rugged seafarer types with crisp wire-wool beards and steel jaws – and the idea that these people were all strangers, chanced upon, and convinced to collaborate seemed insane.
The key person that inspired me is Geraldos – who has his own, separate “30 seconds project” on Flickr. His work seemed, and remains, of such an intensely, unattainably high quality. I figured if I could get anywhere near where he is, then I’d have a massive, exciting learning curve along the way. That’s certainly the case – the adrenaline and discomfort that comes with asking strangers for their picture forces you to up your game hard and fast, and improves your photography in every way.
It takes some confidence to approach strangers and ask them to pose for a photo, do you find that you always get a positive reaction?
One of the greatest surprises from the project so far is just how positive people tend to be. All in, I’m running at about 70% “Yes” to 30% “No”. Those figures take account of the fact I’m getting more and more selective about who I ask; maybe just 1 in 200 people I see at the moment.
Of course, rejection is an inevitable part of the process. You get people who listen and politely say it’s not for them, and you get people who sneer and snort and march on by without stopping or acknowledging you. If you let it get to you, I’m sure it could wind you up, but what you learn very quickly is that a “no” is incredibly quick. You ask, they say “no”, and five seconds later you’re free to ask someone else. That’s why I’m very quick to explain what I’m looking to do.
The real, lasting disappointments are the people you don’t ask. Not asking is easily, catastrophically worse than getting a “no” of any kind. If you check out people’s tips for the project, it’s the first and most overwhelming thought you encounter; if you don’t ask, you will regret it forever!
What’s fantastic is just how positive the people who say “yes” tend to be. People are always interested, often excited, to take part and I’ve had some incredibly interesting conversations about the project, photography and their views on the world in general.
Where are the majority of these photos taken?
So far just about all my shots have been in urban areas. I’ve found artsy, “alternative” parts of town best; places like the Southbank or Oxford, where people are a little more open minded. I’ve shot strangers in London, New York, Venice, Las Vegas and Oxford; in some ways the project seemed a cool way to add another dimension to my travel photography.
I know other people pursuing the project choose their strangers more instinctively on the fly. Typically, I’ll scout a location first; an interesting wall or alleyway, and I’ll shoot some test frames there to check exposure and the look of things out of focus. Once I’m happy, I then try to find someone worth putting into that scene, ideally within 50-100m of the spot. Sometimes no one appears, so you end up with plenty of unused “background” shots for every stranger you actually shoot.
What photographic equipment do you use?
All the photos in the series are shot on a Canon 5D Mk3, all with the 100mm 2.8L IS Macro lens. Regarding the body, I’m one of those people who have always shot Canon. Once you can work the body in cave darkness, it becomes very costly to switch platforms. Maybe you gain 5% here or there on the functionality or image quality or what not, but having to relearn that instinct and blind knowledge of the controls is a much bigger loss.
As to the lens, I wanted a consistent look to the series – and the prime gives me that. It’s a beautiful lens for portraits. Everything’s shot at f/3.2 which gives just enough DOF for sharp eyes and facial details, but a smooth drop off into blur.
Perhaps the most important pieces of kit are my reflectors and an on camera softbox. The reflector especially makes an immense difference to the quality of the portraits. In terms of impact to IQ per pound spent, it has to be just about the best value investment you can make. I picked up a giant 1.2m 5 in 1 reflector from eBay for about £10.
Not only does it transform the light, but it gives a second person something to do. That means when you’re shooting couples, everyone is involved; it’s more of a team event, more collaborative, rather than some bloke watching arms crossed whilst you photograph his girlfriend. Which would be awkward!
Photophique has express permission to publish these images and Matthew Howarth retains full copyright to all photographs featured in this showcase series.
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