The assignment, The Non-Familiar, can be summarised as follows:
‘Your first assignment is to make five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you.’ It is specifically required to leave one’s comfort zone. ‘The ability to concentrate on technical and aesthetic considerations whilst engaging with a complete stranger brings a plethora of difficulties. Added to the fact that most people aren’t that comfortable with having their photograph taken anyway, then you can see why this could become a minefield! ‘ (OCA)
My day-job means that I can spend up to 50% of my time travelling abroad, so I have an expanded horizon for ‘my local area’. During these business trips my evenings are mostly my own and also any weekends I am away. In anticipation of this assignment, I’d chosen a three-week trip to Bangkok as the broad area. After some research on specific areas that were reasonably accessible, I decided upon the infamous Patpong night market, situated in Bangkok’s red light district. The Lonely Planet succinctly describes, ‘you’ll be faced with the competing distractions of strip-clubbing and shopping in this infamous area. And true to the area’s illicit leanings, pirated goods (in particular watches) make a prominent appearance even amid a wholesome crowd of families and straight-laced couples.’
The location seemed to offer up a cornucopia of types, from street sellers and tourists to sex workers. Though I was not prepared to photography the latter, considering it too hazardous, especially in the context of Thailand’s legal system.
Being a ‘night market’, this would also add to the challenge by needing to photography in low light. I decided against the use of flashlight on the assumption that the lights of the stalls and streets would offer sufficient light and because I was concerned that flash would draw too much attention to what I was planning to do.
The aspect of dealing with complete strangers is familiar to me in my professional life as an auditor (‘one who listens’) and investigator, who often needs to quickly build rapport with strangers and encourage them to talk about situations. I’ve benefited from extensive training on investigative interviewing techniques (which tend to be about ‘good cop’, rather than ‘bad cop’). In fact, I am beginning to see portraiture as an interview with a camera with a visual output rather than a written output. This struck be when reading about the approach of EO Hoppé to his portrait work. The only significant difference is that when photographing complete strangers, they have no sense of obligation to agree to the ‘interview’ , so some rejection is inevitable and adds a sense of discomfort or, for photographers not familiar with dealing with the non-familiar, it can be a sense of fear.
The Lonely Planet [website]. Patpong night market. Available from: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/bangkok/shopping/souvenirs-gifts/patpong-night-market [accessed 28.7.16]
OCA (2015) [course document]. Boothroyd S & Roberts K. Identity and Place Course.