A cultural census of downtown Salt Lake City's people, the Strangers [SLC] project has made 288 portraits thus far. The photographer, who has asked to remain anonymous, tries to capture the essence of random passersby in less than two minutes on average.
As of press time, the most recent Strangers [SLC] post was in May 2015, with no indication when it would resume. Regardless, we think this interesting project dovetails with the mission of 13% SALT, which is to create a photo journal and digital archive of Utah and its people and places.
Inspired by Humans of New York—and excelling stylistically, in our opinion—the photographer behind Strangers [SLC] shares a few hand-selected images and discusses his inspiration and process with 13% SALT.
Why did you start this project?
I was having post-travel withdrawals and was refusing to go back to real life when I stumbled upon the Humans of New York (HONY) photo book. The book sparked my creative impulse. I realized how much I missed photography, so I went home and grabbed my camera and started shooting. So really, I was convincing myself that I had better things to do than job hunting.
My first reaction to your project was that it was like like HONY, but with better photography and no stories. So, how would you describe it?
Thank you for appreciating the photography. Yeah, the inspiration was HONY, but it has definitely evolved in the process. I dropped the stories, because I found that it’s really difficult to get stories out of people. Well, at least for me, especially with the limited time you have with them. I felt like, maybe, I don’t have that gift, and I was forcing it to the point that it became stressful. I definitely didn’t do this to stress myself out, so I decided to focus on something I love, which is photography. It’s the reason why I started the project in the first place. My challenge for myself was to take creative portraits of strangers in but a minute or two of their time. It’s been a great experience thus far.
Why strangers? Does it intimidate you to approach them ever?
I was fascinated by the idea of approaching complete strangers to take their portraits. I loved the challenge of it. Oh yeah, I don’t think I have ever not been intimidated. It was specially tough in the beginning, and I got turned down a lot. But you know, it got better over time. I also became more comfortable in the process, or maybe, I eventually got numbed by the rejections. It helped a ton when I got the Tumblr account set up, so I was able to show to people where the photos are going.
Where were most of these photos taken? And why those locations?
It’s mostly downtown—like Main Street, around the library, 2nd & 2nd, to name a few. No particular reason. I walk a lot, and I usually hang around in an area when I see good lighting or a nice background for photos. Then, I wait for people to pass by. Salt Lake City is no New York City, so it’s definitely an added challenge because there’s just not that many people in the streets.
Talk about your creative process in those two minutes you have with a stranger.
I probably have photographed 90-percent of the people within two minutes—some in less than 30 seconds. But there have been a few with whom I’ve actually had nice conversations; those were the most fun. As I’ve mentioned, I try to be creative with my portraits, so when I walk around town, I look for interesting backgrounds and good lighting, then I just wait for people. I also try to test my shots before I approach people, so I don’t waste their time. I feel like there’s a certain level of intimacy and vulnerability that the subject and the photographer experience together when creating portraits—at least that’s how you get a good one. And with this project, it doesn’t help that it is a pretty awkward situation to start with, so I really try my best to get them comfortable, so they don’t look stiff and forced in the photos. I am genuinely interested in people and hearing their stories if they let me.
Have you actually ever known any of the subjects, even though it's called Strangers.
Nope, 100-percent of the subjects were strangers to me when I took their portraits.
Talk about your editing process. it seems like you are trying to push yourself and not stay to one style.
Yeah, I am still learning, so I keep trying different styles. Initially, I wanted to process the images in the same way, but I ended up not doing that because I am really using this photo project as my platform for learning and developing my skills and that includes post-processing.
Tell me an interesting story about photographing one of these characters.
Well, I’ve been yelled at a couple of times and been asked if I will be using the photos for porn. But nothing super crazy.
What have you learned from this project?
It definitely helped hone my photography and rekindle my love for it. Aside from the photography aspect, I learned a lot about myself —I’m not gonna bore you with that.
I learned the value of initiating conversations with people. Most of us were raised by our parents not to talk to strangers, and I understand there are good reasons for that when we were kids. I think at some point in our adulthood, we need to let go of that mentality. Talk to a stranger, you might be surprised how they’ll impact you or, better yet, how you’ll impact them.
Do you have any goals with Strangers [SLC]? Where do you see it going?
Honestly, I don’t have any specific goals with it. As of now, it’s my creative outlet. I hope to keep it going, although I haven’t done a good job doing that recently.
To see the nearly 300 portraits of Salt Lake City strangers, visit the Strangers [SLC] Tumblr page.
Editor's Note: As mentioned above, the photographer of the project has asked to remain anonymous, so we have respected that. If you wish to reach out, then visit the Tumblr page.