For just over two months, I’ve made a daily practice of approaching complete strangers on the street, taking their photo (with permission), and proceeding to ask them personal questions about their life — stresses, struggles, fears, prides, passions — which they full-well know I will share publicly with a growing following of more than 2,500 people.
The project is NOLAbeings – a portrait project inspired by Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York.” I – like other photographers in other cities – think Brandon’s idea is brilliant; I decided to start a similar project in my city.
This process of interviewing and photographing strangers is a powerful experience. Every day brings new challenges, friends, incredibly awkward moments, and unexpected delights. I’m forced to learn how to engage with people on a real level quickly, without the luxury of time or the pre-conceived comforts of being introduced by mutual friends.
Followers of NOLAbeings often ask how I muster the gumption (though sadly, I don’t think anyone has used this particular term yet) to approach strangers and engage on a deep level immediately. So in an attempt to share what I’ve learned about talking to strangers, here are some observations and insights I’ve gained through this project.
1. Most people like to connect. At a very fundamental level, I think people are less averse to random human interaction than we expect. Maybe in other cities (like New York) someone would stare at you like you had three heads for saying “hi” on the street. But in New Orleans, I’ve found that folks generally appreciate some connection beyond the colloquial “alriiiight” we offer in passing (not to underestimate the power of “alriiiight”) — and once the conversation is sparked, most people I talk to have a lot to say.
2. Beyond connecting, people appreciate depth. When I first started NOLAbeings, I was afraid to ask hard questions. I would often ask people “what are you proud of?” or “tell me a memory that has affected who you are today.” I think these are great questions and I often get interesting answers from them, but I’ve also found that many people I approach are okay answering hard questions and these can often give me much deeper insights and longer, more meaningful conversations. If I ask, “What are you struggling with right now?” I learn more about what the person is actually dealing with in their life – not a sugar-coated hey-ma-I’m-gonna-be-on-television portrayal of themselves — and we often begin a real conversation about shared experiences and struggles that creates an actual friendship. The resulting quote on NOLAbeings might not indicate all that. Maybe that struggle taught the person something profoundly positive and that was the most fitting story to share with the audience. All this to say, shirking hard questions isn’t usually necessary.
3. When people are uncomfortable with something, their bodies and/or mouths will tell you. When you strike up a conversation with a stranger, you assume a mutual vulnerability. I make myself vulnerable to rejection every time I approach someone to talk and take his picture. Actually, I usually get pretty awkward and try to explain what I’m doing — and just seeing my vulnerability helps set a tone that puts the other person at ease. But if I ask a question that the person doesn’t want to answer, I can usually tell from his or her body language immediately. And at that point, even if they haven’t said they’re uncomfortable – it’s on me to provide an alternative. “Aren’t ready to share a sad memory with a complete stranger holding a big camera right now? That makes SO MUCH sense! Let’s talk about what you want to talk about.”
4. Everybody has something to share. It doesn’t matter how old or young, we’ve all had unique life experiences that make us see the world differently from one other. How incredible to live in a city with so many different histories and life experiences colliding [insert requisite gumbo metaphor here].
My hope for NOLAbeings is that it encourages people to see strangers a little differently, to assume a depth of knowledge and experience from each human, and to seek truth and meaningful interactions especially from those outside of our own bubbles more often.
What are your experiences connecting with strangers in New Orleans?