What I'm Working On: Loreen May's 100 Strangers

We're starting a new feature here on the blog today called "What I'm Working On." We know photographers often take on personal projects to keep their creative juices flowing, and we want to celebrate that with a feature that explores the passion and inspiration driving the project forward. Our first project comes via Loreen May, an aspring photographer who has started a 100 Strangers project. Learn more about why she's doing the project and the things she's learning along the way.

Home is a small town in the middle of Alberta on the Canadian prairies. It hasn’t always been home as I grew up traveling extensively with my family mostly in the Middle East and then in Europe. I am mom to three teenage boys, and my husband works in the oilfield as a construction supervisor and consultant. His position takes him to wherever a project is happening, so I have had the opportunity to see many interesting places in Alberta that I may never have travelled to otherwise. A year ago I retired from eight years of interior painting and am working to make my dream of transitioning from amateur to professional photographer a reality.

The project I am currently working on is "100 Strangers." The idea is to keep my eyes open for interesting people I have never met before and ask them if I can take their photo. It’s about getting out of my comfort zone, setting aside my assumptions about who someone is, and trying to get a little bit of their story. What is life like in their shoes? Where have they been and where are they going?

Where'd my inspiration come from? I had finished two years of doing Project 365, which is basically taking a photo every day for a year. I wanted a greater challenge—something that would force me beyond where I am comfortable. I had heard of the 100 Strangers project, and it both fascinated and terrified me. Last year we were traveling in Montana, and I met a man I call "The Guru." He had this awesome long white beard, and I asked him if I could take his picture. While he wouldn’t let me shake his hand, he was okay with me taking a photo. He told me he teaches wisdom, but I didn’t pursue any further conversation as I was in a hurry to get somewhere. I have since then wished I had taken the time to hear his story. I would have to say meeting him really inspired me to take more photos of strangers and slow down and hear their story.

There are other photographers out there doing this project, and a little bit of research turned up some good advice. Flickr has a group called "100 Strangers," and there are lots of great examples and discussions posted there. I decided on a few guidelines for myself: I wouldn’t find strangers in the town of 3,000 I live in; there had to be something interesting about the person that made me want to take their picture. It was going to be about the experience for me and not just a photo. I made up a "100 Strangers" business card and got started. I walk up to a stranger, introduce myself as a photographer, tell them about the project, describe why they caught my eye, hand them a business card, and ask questions while I shoot.

I am using the Canon 5D MarkII, the 100mm macro, and the 50mm 1.2. So far I have used available light just to keep it simple and unobtrusive. I chat and ask questions while taking shots, and if they forget I have a camera, so much the better!

The biggest obstacle, as one might imagine, has been fear and a lot of nerves! Once I decide on a potential subject, I have to overcome this nervous inner dialogue. Generally this works best when I just ignore it, get up, and go do it before I have a chance to talk myself out of it. Using higher ISO and shutter speeds helps, too, because I get a little shaky when I’m nervous!

My favorite part about the project thus far has been realizing that barriers between me and a stranger are really just ones that I have erected. No matter how different from me they look, we have in common the fact that we hope, dream, and struggle along the path of life, and for a couple minutes, we took the time to reach out and connect with a fellow traveler. I have found people to be more friendly and open to share than I had initially expected. I've even gotten a thank you or two!

To keep up with Loreen, check out her blog! She lists all the stories for each photo there. You can also catch up with her on Facebook and Twitter.