Pictures of Strangers

Watching strangers is one of the simplest pleasures. I do it in airports, city centers, beaches, restaurants, on public transport, etc. Even at the zoo, it is often the people who are the most interesting to observe.

While watching, I am analyzing and evaluating: What are they doing? Why are they wearing that? Where are they going? What are they saying? Is that food they’re eating as delicious as it looks? Sometimes my internal dialogue is catty (“My God, those harem pants are hideous.”), sometimes relatively it’s neutral (“Oh, they’re eating candied crab apples.”), and sometimes filled it’s with admiration (“Wow, that elderly woman looks absolutely majestic in her lime green sari and dark, heavy-framed glasses.”).

I’ve had the lucky chance to meet and photograph some rather captivating strangers through my former work with an internationally oriented NGO. My job was what brought me to the Rajasthani village the woman photographed above happened to pass through. I quickly snapped her picture from the window of the massive old white Ambassador we were being driven about in.

Similarly, I took the following three photographs of strangers I met on work-related trips to far-flung corners of the globe:

These have been rather lucky photographic opportunities, as I am far too shy to take pictures of strangers on-the-sly.

Once in a while, I have had the fortunate chance to take an un-obtrusive picture of someone swiftly passing by me. This is how I caught on film this dapper Vietnamese gentleman cycling through Hanoi:

I suppose I could always ask permission to take pictures of total strangers, but it seems rather intrusive and I am not so bold.

In China, however, many people have absolutely no qualms about asking to take countless photographs of my two children. This request is always accompanied by the Chinese-language version of: “What golden-hair and such blue eyes! Like baby-dolls!”

Being watched and watching back, from the window of a Starbucks in Shanghai.

This boldness on the part of many strangers in China, has given me an idea. I will strike up a one-for-one deal: you can take a picture of my kids, if I can take a picture of you. The only downside is that rather than ending up with a diverse range of interesting pictures of Chinese from all walks of life, like this:

I will end up with many, many pictures of young, friendly Chinese woman holding up two fingers, like this:

17 responses to “Pictures of Strangers

  1. LOL! Its like that in Taiwan too! I’ve never been such a superstar, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask to take photos of other people. Not to mention I don’t speak the language. Lovely post. I can relate completely.

    • In Hong Kong a lot of folks say “hi” to my kids, but it’s only been in Mainland China that groups of people will come up and stroke their hair, shakes their hands and take their pictures. Sounds like Taiwan is more similar to the Mainland in that regard. Interesting!

    • I think I will ask the Chinese admirers of my kids for photos, but I’m probably far too bashful to ask anyone else. But…I could get a telephoto lens!

    • Truly a fantastic way to pass the time! I’ve spent loads of time watching my fellow Americans during my home leave trip this summer. Lots of fun!

    • Funny you should mention Chunking Mansions. The June 2012 issue of National Geographic I read last week called it “the ghetto at the center of the world” and “a Third World gentleman’s club.”

      • Oh, you don’t pay your respects too often there? The South Asians bothering me in the front of the place notwithstanding, that’s my go-to for many of my meals when in HK (‘course, the side entrance does it much better). Is it the HK National Geographic or the US one?

      • I’ve always been very curious, but haven’t been inside. Maybe one day soon I’ll brave it. The article was in the US version–good article all around, but the big “tell” that the author had never lived himself in HK was his assertion that all the maids on the pavement on Sunday are from Indonesia, rather than the Philippines.

      • “Tell” indeed…unless he/she was ONLY in Causeway Bay. That’s my new hangout for Indonesian food, or in other words, not Cantonese food. As for Chungking Mansions, if you were ever (suure) interested in where all of sub-saharan Africa got its mobile phones, that’s a good start.

  2. Pingback: Hong Kong Juxtaposed | Expat Lingo·

  3. When I was a kid, my favorite photos in the National Geographic that arrived monthly were the faces of people (NOT necessarily the naked people! LOL). Now that I’ve taken up photography, I still hope that I may capture some intricate, detailed life story that is written on someone’s face. But, being a person who respects privacy, I find it difficult to take photos of people – it feels so invasive so… I bought a bigger zoom lens 🙂

    • Just today, I passed an alley full of street barbers, but it also felt too invasive to take their photo since most of them were dozing or reading the paper between customers… There may be a zoom lens in my future!

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