A few months ago I did something scary. I’ve only just got around to writing about it. I’d like to say it’s taken me months to pluck up the courage to write about it but that wouldn’t be true. (It’s taken me months to summon up the guts to blog as well) Anyway here’s what I did: I went out on the streets of Newcastle and asked strangers if I could take their photo.
Now the people of the North-East have a justified reputation for being welcoming, warm and friendly to all, so you’d think this’d be a walk in the park, or a stroll down Grey Street at least, but it wasn’t.
As part of my course at Newcastle College, I’d already overcome my fear of taking pictures of people by shooting portraits in the studio but this was different. Why?
Shooting landscapes and architectural shots, I’m used to getting funny looks as I lug tripod and gear around and try hopelessly to ‘blend in’. I’m perfectly fine dealing with people too, replying politely to amiable enquiries such as ‘Got any good ones?’ with a smile and a joke or listening to snippets of local history (I love that stuff) but I’m also used to people moving on, leaving me to it. Maybe this was why this assignment was so scary: instead of being invisible, an observer, I needed to interact with my subject, make myself known. No more skulking.
Leaving college, I headed down into town towards Central Station. Photography (at least with anything bigger than a smartphone) isn’t permitted within the station so I headed for the taxi rank. I dithered, rehearsed my opening lines (possibly muttering them under my breath – not a good start, on reflection) then approached a couple of cabbies. Would they mind having their photo taken?
Yes, they would. Okaay….
A hen-do outside Station Hotel were also unwilling to take part, maybe it was too early in their night. Passers-by changed course as soon as I made eye-contact.
This wasn’t going well.
And then turning into Westgate Road, my luck changed. Two builders were bundling equipment into a van outside a shop unit, packing up at the end of the day. Would they mind? They looked busy. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. Shy bairns get nowt.
I burbled something about a project and they stood at the back of their van for a shot.
Standing out in the road, I took a couple of shots.
‘Job’s a good ‘un’ – 50mm, 1/1600sec, f/2, ISO 200
And that was it. The ice broken. Just getting that yes made all the difference. Filled with confidence I thanked them and headed off looking for more subjects.
Walking up through the Bigg Market, it became clear there was a match on. Men in black and white shirts stepped out of pub doorways for a smoke, but nerves got the better of me again so I headed closer to St James’ Park to watch the fans arrive.
On St Andrew’s Street, I grabbed this shot of a window shopper outside The Back Page looking at the memorabilia.
‘Just Looking’ – 50 mm, 1/320sec, f/1.8, ISO 200
This shot was a lot easier because I didn’t have to engage; after one successful attempt at approaching random strangers, I was back to skulking.
I still had to keep going though. My brief from college required 3 environmental portraits of strangers so I continued up towards the football ground.
On the outskirts of Chinatown I got talking with one of the programme sellers and eventually broached the subject of a portrait.
‘Programme Seller’ 50mm, 1/800 sec, f/1.8, ISO 200
Nearer the ground, people were more reluctant to get involved. There was a big police presence and although the mood was good-natured, (promotion to the Premier League was a possibility) I began to feel out of place and out of my depth again. A few more knockbacks followed and then I got talking to the parents of a group of boys who were fundraising for their sports club in Killingworth. Having cleared it with everyone involved I got a couple of shots while the boys rattled their buckets.
‘Fund-raising’ 50mm 1/800sec, f/2, ISO 200
And then, having bumped into a couple of fellow students from my course, we headed back to college.
Later, looking through the shots I’d taken, I wasn’t happy. I deleted most of them immediately and felt completely deflated. Then I realised that the experience of taking them had been far more rewarding than the results. Okay the shots weren’t anything special but that wasn’t really the point: the challenge and the reward came from trying something different – anything else is a bonus.
You can see more of my street photography here.