Portrait of a Stranger: Documenting People in Everyday Life

The countdown to 2019 continues! Each week from Thanksgiving until the New Year, I share one of my favorite photos of 2018, and what it means to me.

Episode Four: Portrait of a Stranger

This week’s Favorite Photo of 2018 reflects upon my journey this year as a photographer, rather than the story behind a particular photograph. Enter the impenetrable fog of my mind!

My passion for photography began a few years ago as a journalistic style of street photography. In my various Southeast Asia sojourns, I experienced fascinating cultures and people that challenged me to reassess my view of (and response to) the word around me. What truly brings joy? Why is inequality pervasive around the world?  And what the $#%& did I just eat?!?

There were stories on every corner, in every alley, at every food stall. Some stories were joyful and fun, others difficult and unfair. I wanted to explore them all, truthfully and honestly. But how could I ever effectively communicate these narratives to others? Would they even listen?

Photography became my tool for storytelling in a beautiful, messy, and complicated world. A camera invites curiosity and a picture is [proverbially] worth a thousand words. I love how it can evoke a powerful emotional response and humanize our social and political commentary.

When I started Musings as a food and wine blog last year, much of this exploration was pushed to the side. It was difficult enough to research, photograph and write about wine each week. Little time and energy remained for philosophical musings on culture, social justice, and the human condition. Over time, however, I realized that I was moving away from the very passion and reflections that inspired my photography in the first place. Commercialization was smothering compassion and curiosity.

This year, Indonesia brought me back. The archipelago was a street photography haven, but the shocking aspect was my newfound inkling to engage the strangers I was meeting on a more intimate level. Introverts are not supposed to have such desires! Nonetheless, throughout my travels I found myself seeking purposeful engagement with individuals around me, and trying to capture their spirit and narrative through the lens. Everyone around me had a unique and fascinating story; it was my job to tell it. This opened new avenues for insight, inspiration and reflection. 

The experience taught me that the character and intrigue of a face is a powerful foundation on which I can visually build social and cultural narratives. Portraits vividly showcase the beauty, joy, adventure, and grit that are inherent in the human spirit. There are many wonderful and inspiring stories to tell. At the same time, street portraiture challenges me to recognize inequality, social injustice, and other difficult circumstances on an individual level. A concept is easy to ignore; a face is not.

Journalism and street portraiture is not always an easy topic. People prefer their Instagram feeds to be full of happy things, like fuzzy puppies, stunning sunsets, and [ideally] fuzzy puppies at sunset. Of course, there is certainly nothing wrong with a fuzzy puppy. But while journalism and street photography might not be the most Insta-worthy style, it is nonetheless relevant and important. It reminds us that our response to the world and its citizens must overflow with grace, generosity and love.

Special recognition this week for Ed Taguba, who has offered recent chats and encouragement in this realm, and Keiger Bowman, who has journeyed with me from the beginning and never turns down a street photography adventure. Cheers to you, gentlemen!

To end, I offer a few honorable mentions from my Indonesian meandering. What do they tell you?