187 grams – Portraits On The Street

· 31.January.2017

About two years ago I bought a Fujifilm X-E2 camera together with the XF35 mm 1.4 lens. Until then I had been used to carry around a much heavier DSLR camera with equally heavy lenses. So when I first started to use this combination – Fujifilm camera and 35 mm lens – I was really surprised about the quality of the photos that came out. The lens is famous for its very smooth bokeh and when you see the photos it produces, you’ll immediately understand why.

Apart from photography, I make a living working as a journalist and translator. This means sitting down for (too) many hours every day. Physically I used to be very active playing football, tennis and squash. But problems with my back have put a stop to all these sports activities. So to keep relatively fit I walk a lot through the streets of Rome – from my home to my work place and often back again… a total of about ten kilometers.

Matt (UK) – I spotted Matt while he was having a cup of coffee in Rome’s Borgo neighbourhood. He had a camera in front of him, and when I asked if I could shoot a portrait of him he invited me to sit down. He told me about his business back in the UK – building boats – and we spoke about photography for about half an hour, before I did the portrait.

And at a certain point it sprung into my mind, that I could actually use all that walking time in a creative way, photographically speaking. That’s how the 187 grams project came about.

Back to my walks: as I walk I like to spot strangers with interesting faces and ask them if I can make a portrait of them. It’s a great photographic exercise. I only use natural light, and you really learn a lot about lightning. You learn how to interpret the available light. You slowly find out how the light “behaves” in a variety of different situations.

Andrea (Italy) – Andrea Camilleri is one of Italy’s most famous writers and “father” to the Montalbano detective. I did this shot in his home in Rome after an interview. He has almost completely lost his sight, so he kept sitting in his chair. All I had to do was to ask him to turn his head slightly towards me.

But that’s not the only thing. Because photography – especially the kind of photography where you decide to approach strangers – is also about psychology. In fact, doing street portraits of strangers that you have never met before is a great psychological challenge. The first 5-8 seconds of your approach are the most important. This is the time range in which you have to convince the subject that he or she should accept to have his/hers portrait taken. You have to be polite, have a good and natural eye contact, shortly explain why you would like to photograph the person, perhaps even compliment on the person’s aspect (for example hair color), but always in a natural and sincere way.

Kevin (Peru) – Kevin was a lifeguard in the swimming pool that my children are usually attending during July. One day he showed up with quite a trendy and courageous haircut – Mohawk style. And naturally I needed to make a portrait.

Most of the photos in the 187 grams-project are of unknown persons I have met on the streets of Italian cities like Rome, Bosa, Genova, Altamira, and Marrakech in Morocco.

Ingrid (Italy) – After a couple of days in the South Italian town of Altamura, where I had done interviews and photos for an article about the town’s famous bread, I met Ingrid at the train station. She was with a friend who was quite suspicious when I asked for the opportunity to make a couple of portraits. “Were will these photos end?”, “Will you put them of Facebook?”, and so on. But Ingrid did not bother and just sat down. We only did two-three shots.

Here below I’ve tried to set up a set of golden rules and hints for street portraits of strangers.

Golden rules and hints regarding street portraits

1. The three most important points are politeness, politeness and politeness.

2. Quite a few people will say no, so be prepared to accept rejections with a smile.

3. Believe in your project. If you’re not convinced, it will shine through.

4. Have your camera around your neck and not in your bag. The camera will make it clear to the subject that you are actually a photographer (as you claim to be).

5. When you see a good subject, don’t think about his/her reaction to your request. Stop thinking, just ask!

Kia (Finland) – When you see the photo of Kia I’m sure you understand why I wanted to photograph her. I saw her near Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo and followed her for one minute. When I approached her I think she was quite amused by my photo proposal. But she was also a very natural model and I like the outcome very much.

6. Have your opening sentence (which should be short and to the point) and your camera’s settings ready.

7. Give your business card to the subject and propose to him/her to send you an email, if they would like a copy of the photo.

8. Act natural, compliment your subject (if you feel like it) and maintain eye contact in a natural way with the person being photographed.

9. Tell the subject what to do, how to sit, where to stand in a gentle yet determined way. Your self-assurance will let the subject know that you have done this before. It will help him/her to relax.

10. Look for a subject that is already in the shade to avoid shadows on the subject’s face. Besides, you should not move your subject around too much.

11. Look for the ideal situations: parks, bus stops, metro stations, stairs in front of churches where people are usually waiting or relaxing.

Simone (Italy) – I spoke to Simone in a café in Trastevere. There was a great light, he had these classic glasses and we did a very simple shot, that I think came out quite well.

Vincenzo (Italy) – One morning, going to work, I spotted Vincenzo. I immediately saw the photographic potential. He was smoking a cigar with a well-who-damn-attitude, and when I asked him if I could do a portrait, he just said “yeah, go ahead”.

Amir (Morocco) – I saw Amir walk into a café in the centre of Marrakech, Morocco, when I was having a cup of coffee. And I couldn’t help thinking: “Hey, that’s really a haircut that wants to conquer the world”! At first I did a few candid shots, but he was really too cool, so I asked him for a portrait. And I think that he is perfect!