When I wrote my photo essay “The Ethics of Being Invisible” — about street photography, its ethical dilemmas, and a few examples of conflict I had witnessed or experienced while shooting on the streets of NYC, I promised a follow-up post on the opposite — on moments where working street photography from candid images had later led to beautiful serendipitous human connections, facilitated by today’s social media dynamics.
I’ve often said that when it comes to street photography, in order to feel confident and bold and bring your best creativity out, it’s crucial to imagine that you’re on a mission to capture beauty in life. It’s almost a duty. This helps you be 100% self-confident that your intentions are pure when photographing a subject. You want to tell with as much fidelity as possible a perceived “truth” of that subject that you connect with. And as stated in my other essay, you have to photograph with empathy first and foremost and then respect, keeping in mind what you’d be willing to accept of yourself if you were to discover a photo someone had taken of you without your knowledge. By following those ethics and trying to “ennoble” my subjects I make a mantra: “If this person was to see a photograph I took of them, I hope they wouldn’t be upset or offended, and instead feel I’d flattered them.”
And it’s actually been happening for a while… What follows are several case studies, with what started as candid images on the streets of New York (taken without asking permission), and ended up establishing eventual connections with the people in the pictures. It was a process that allowed me to learn more about who these people were and of their lives. “Strangers No More” indeed.
CASE # 1: “The Kiss” / Andrew and Stephanie
From what’s probably the most well-known photo of my career so far: “The Kiss.” It was election night in November 2008, right after the historic first win of Barack Obama, and I was photographing in Times Square (NYC) in the midst of the celebrations. Suddenly, I saw this beautiful couple kissing passionately and I took a candid shot. When I looked at the image in the back of my camera I realized that, considering the historic night, this photo could have some iconic potential. And I thought to myself “If it was me, I would really want to be able to see it.”
So I approached the couple and asked them if I could take their portrait (it helped that I had a press pass around my neck that night). With them posing, I took a cute generic snap that would have been ok at best, but nowhere near the electric magic of the first photo. When I realized they seemed to be lovely people, I felt confident enough to confess that I hadn’t been able NOT to take a shot when they were kissing earlier, and I showed it to them. They were ecstatic and loved it.
We exchanged emails and I promised them to send them the file.
Later that night, I posted “The Kiss” on my Flickr account with other photos of the evening, and within hours, it exploded in views and faves, gathering more and more each day. I couldn’t understand why. A week later, I came to learn that NBC New York had linked to my image in an article calling it “The New Kiss” (in comparison with the iconic shot of the sailor and the nurse on V-Day in the same location). I emailed the photograph to the couple and they said it was a gorgeous gift. Serendipity struck again months after my first encounter with them. The day we finally got to meet in person to have coffee was actually the night before Obama was sworn in as president. During our conversation, I gifted them a print of “The Kiss,” and by afternoon’s end I took Stephanie and Andrew — strangers no more — to the original site of the picture and photographed them again.
From our chat, I learned Andrew was British, and was studying and working in the NYC finance industry. Stephanie (a French girl living back then between NYC and Paris) worked as an art dealer. And then the craziest thing happened: they invited me over to a party they were throwing later that week in Stephanie’s apartment, and they asked me to bring over prints of some of my work to put on the walls and see if any of their friends were interested in buying anything. At the party, seeing those brick walls full of my work, the very first year I was starting my photographic path, was an incredible and surreal experience.
Sadly, a few years later, Stephanie and Andrew eventually broke up. But “The Kiss” and its story would still reserve a final twist — when I posted the image on my Instagram feed a few years later, I received the following comment:
And with it, Joe Philipson entered the story of “The Kiss,” telling me how he was a photojournalist visiting from Hawaii on that election night to take photos of the celebrations. And he became immortalized in mine. Although I eventually had the chance to meet Joe over coffee and a lovely chat, I didn’t have a print with me that day, so his portrait is still pending.
CASE # 2: “The Undecided” / Luke
I was walking one afternoon near Soho in NYC with my husband Anton and some other street photography colleagues, a few months before the US 2012 general election, right in the midst of the tensions of the debates and campaigns all over the media those weeks. I saw this dapper looking guy walking towards us with a worrisome look in his face — a very distinctive facial expression. The American flag (and its reflection) on both sides of him. With a fraction of a second to compose, I took a shot from the hip with my phone.
I posted the image on my different channels under my “This is America” series, with the following caption:
“Faced with the prospect of the two radically opposite futures, societies and models of America that both main parties represent right now in this 2012 election, there are many out there who are rallying to battle for their ideas, perhaps a bit more enthusiastically to avoid that their opponents win the fight than to make sure their own candidate gets to keep or take the White House. But what happens to those in between?
Welcome to the America of the undecided… the independents… the swing vote. For all it seems, there shall NOT be an America available for those in the middle. For once, perhaps, it’s time to choose sides. Or just sit down in silence and see how the other two tear each other apart in the remaining 59 days before Election Day.”
A few hours later, one of my Instagram followers recognizes his friend in the photo and tags him so he can see it. I reply, and the friend responds…
Cut to a few days after… and voilà…
I get to meet Luke Dupont, a Louisiana native transplanted to NYC after some years in Miami. A former art director and designer, and then creative director / co-founder of some startups for online blogging and content distribution.
CASE # 3: “The Girl at the Bar” / Kera
Anton and I lived on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village for 5 years, right above this bar called Johnny’s. We walked by its window thousands of times — day and night — and saw many different patrons there…most of the time not really noticing them. Except… for the one day when the sun hit inside the window, and a mysterious beauty sat inside the bar, half in light/half in shadow. I grabbed the phone and took one shot only — one of those lucky breaks. I uploaded the picture to Flickr and Instagram and called it “The Girl at the Bar.”
A few months after, Anton and I left that apartment and moved to Brooklyn. A few weeks after meeting Luke (the previous case), luck struck again out of the blue. As one girl on Instagram was browsing the tag #JohnnysBar, she saw my photo, recognized her friend in it, and tagged her. “The Girl at the Bar” had been found…
I got to meet Kera, a gorgeous native from Queens (NY), who lived in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn), and told me she spent her time between her Psychology classes and her work as a private math tutor for the department of education, working with kids. Kera was enthusiastically happy about her photo, as was I to be able to share it with her.
CASE # 4: “Take a Bow” / Ted and Daniel
About two years ago, I stepped onto the L train in Williamsburg one summer night. The dapper (matching) outfit of the two guys sitting in front of me caught my attention. But, as a good empath, what really propelled me to pull the phone out and capture a candid photograph was the rapport I noticed between the two friends. There was an energy in the conversation that was almost palpable.
I sat on the image a month or more, and finally in late summer I decided to post it. Thankfully, one of my followers turned out to be a friend of one of these guys and recognized him and put me in touch. Because of schedules, it took several months to be able to meet up, but I was so happy to incorporate Ted and Daniel to the series. One is from South Dakota and the other one from California. The two of them became great friends working together at a Trader Joes years ago, and fueled by their fun individual personalities and their shared passion for acting/theater, they built one of those “best-buddies-who-have-a-blast-laughing-non-stop-and-goofing-around-when-together” types of bonds.
After I shared a drink with them and got to hang out with the pair for over and hour, I knew for certain that I hadn’t been wrong with my first impression the night I had first encountered them! And they truly had a blast having these new portraits taken.
CASE # 5: “The Marvelous World of The Hammer Man” / Daniel
In June 2011, I went to photograph Folsom Street East, the outdoor fair of leather and fetish lifestyle, which has always proved to be a goldmine for fascinating imagery to any photographer. On my way out, under a gorgeous sunset light, I saw this guy being photographed by someone else, and snuck a few shots of my own before I left. I published the image on Flickr with the title “The World of the Hammer Man.” Something about him always felt timeless, intriguing, almost mystical. And since my dear friend and mentor Giovanni had always said this was one of his favorite pics of mine, I held a special fondness for it, and I often wondered if I’d ever learn who the Hammer Man was…
Years later, I was navigating Flickr and stumbled upon a bunch of portraits of a guy with a beard — and as I stood there looking at the photographs, I thought to myself “Wait a minute… Could this really be the ‘Hammer Man’?” I wrote him and found out it was him indeed. Jackpot! When I finally got to meet him, I found out (among other coincidences) that he’s another Daniel, that he was born (like myself) in Spain but came to live in the US as a kid, and that he shares a passion for photography himself. Daniel told me of the several jobs he’d done (massage therapy, acupuncture, construction, etc) and vividly talked of his life and adventures. Soon enough, I realized I was face-to-face with a free and fearless spirit… who didn’t even hesitate to climb a rather tall public sculpture to have his portrait taken with the print I had gifted him.
CASE # 6: “Painting Beauty” / Ellen
Last year, I attended the launch party of the Clash by Dash fashion collection in a club in the MeatPacking District. I had collaborated with the designer in several photo shoots and it was a fun night — with models, performances, and a festive mood. I walked around the room taking photographs of people unnoticed, and I posted a few of my favorites to my social media.
Just a day later, the make-up stylist who was working on the model found herself in my picture. And months later, I got to meet while she was visiting NYC to attend a class. The lovely Ellen Geenty is a hair stylist and make up artist, born in upstate NY, but raised in North Carolina where she currently lives. We talked dreams, career journeys, daring to be adventurous, and seeing what path life can lead you in. She told me of the time she sold everything she had and took off to Puerto Rico for a change of air, and how she eventually had to return to North Carolina to start again from scratch. I heard that some good friends of Ellen’s were pushing for her to take the leap and move to New York. And considering she would love to be able to bring her skills with hair and make up to film or TV work, I applauded the idea.
At the end of the day, after basking in the joy of being able to establish beautiful human connections with people I had photographed once on the streets, without asking them for permission, I wanted to just convey a message to all the naysayers out there who always assume the worst when it comes to street photography (including some who have commented in that regard in some of my past posts): not everything in street photography is about creepy photographers, perverts or a negative connotation of “stealing” from your subjects. Not everyone who would learn that you had photographed them would get mad at you or beat you up afterwards. And not everyone who would willingly accept posing for you on the street if you asked them is a crazy person, an egocentric or a “celebrity seeker” for not being uptight about their image.
To conclude: If you create with heart and passion, these days, at any time, social media could bring you closer to those “strangers” you once photographed. And you never know what connections may happen and where they could lead you. Open up to that magic energy, and keep in mind the mantra as a goal: if your subject is ever to find you, make sure he or she will be happy with what you took of them!