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Why Photograph Strangers?

Lesson 3 from: Street Photography: The Art of Photographing Strangers

Ashley Gilbertson

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Lesson Info

3. Why Photograph Strangers?

Carrying a camera gives you permission to be curious, to meet new people. See why strangers make such great photography subjects. Gain insight into how Ashley gets strangers to open up about their vulnerabilities.

Lesson Info

Why Photograph Strangers?

Why photograph strangers? I think that my favorite thing about photography is I I'm a curious person when I'm walking around on the street I maybe I'm a freak I don't know, but I when I'm walking out of the street I see people in society whether the interacting with one another orders walking and I think of what this what their lives must be like I think of what their stories are, what sort of like moments of joy or tragedy they've had in their life and I build these the's narratives about all of these different people I mean, it feels like sometimes it feels like I'm lacking oxygen I've had like a a spliff or something I don't know, but I start imagining like like these millions of thousands of different stories that will be a grand central terminal in new york and I look across the grand concourse and these thousands of stories and I'm I'm really inspired by the fact that each of us has some sort of amazing story some something that makes us so unique and I love finding that when I m...

eet people on the street like it's so inspiring to me uh like nobody has a boring story and as a photographer it's my role teo enter a situation, meet somebody and start trying to find out like what their story is, you know why they interesting and they will share you have to give them a reason to you have to build the trust in order to get that except you know there's different you know there's there's moments like the grand concourse in new york where maybe you want to do a wide shot of looking the whole scene but then to me what's what's really beautiful about photography is when you start exploring that curiosity that you have so you know, as a photographer I'm allowed to be professionally curious that's my job so the it's to me is the best job in the entire world in the camera is what gives me my ticket I think I'm allowed to be anywhere with a camera I get caught in a bunch of place and they've thrown me out and I'm just taking pictures they're like you can't do that except you asked permission later in cases like that um I've been in the oval office and met the president and I was there because I had a camera you know there's no there's no way I would have that chance but then I've met amazing people like you'll see in the video that we shot for this course that we came across like a really amazing inspiring guy that has had a difficult life in seattle except you know, we came across him on the street and he started sharing some of his stories and I ended up following following him around and it's really to me that that adventure in a meeting you people is is makes me the luckiest person in the world it's what I want to be doing anyway and if I didn't have a camera it'd be even weirder than already it already is but representing those stories in an honest manner you know I feel I feel really lucky that I'm actually able to do that people tell me their stories and they trust me that I'm going to try I'm going to communicate that story that they told me in a factually correct and honest manner and then when I'm traveling I think now when I travel unless I'm on holiday with my family um now when I travel I'm usually on assignment so I'm trying to get access to things that we don't normally see if we were traveling in these areas but when I was younger and I was just sort of go places and b you know you lived a lie a little bit to actually become the person you want to pay so I was trying to be a photojournalist so I'd like buy plane tickets and go places and was back backpacking but all shooting pictures um but you would get access to these places because you had a camera that would say you know this is in west papua I was there I was photographing a resistance movement who live in the jungle they fight against indonesian occupation or indonesian rule and I went into the bali and valley and they have these war dances that occasionally tourists can see but there they said like okay, so you're here taking pictures of our culture we'd like to show you everything that happens around it so I got to go very you know, become part of this ward at these ritual war dances that they have and I'm right in the middle of the circle they're all dancing and fighting around which is what the first pictures from and then I got to photograph the like the preparations and then the feast they had in the village afterward and that was purely is the result of being a photographer and being curious so you get to see and experience all of these different things is a photographer because you're putting yourself out there you know you're not just standing back you're engaging with people and with that they start inviting you a little bit into their lives whether that's you know, donny tribes people in west papua or people in downtown new york although I will say that new york is that it is a little bit difficult I gave one intern an assignment he was with me for I think six months and I said your assignment for the next six months is to try to get into somebody's house and he couldn't do it theo is a kind of tough um so we have to explain whywe you know, what I need is to actually photographed these people that we meet sometimes that's very serious on dh, you know, requires deep levels of trust, like these photographs. And I talk to you about amanda earlier on the photograph. In the middle is of no appears he was a veteran who killed himself and his mother after we'd spent many, many days and a month's worth of phone conversations together ended up bringing out his telephone on which he took his last picture of himself before he ended his life. And that was such a, uh, it's a photograph, yes, but I have difficulty divorcing my photographs from the emotional content when I was taking them. Like this picture to me is an absolutely beautiful memory that the mother is sharing with me. I mean, traumatic but it's also the last picture of his son that she'll treasure. And I had the opportunity to photograph that to me. That's very, very special and something that I treasure. Um, so you have to, and you can do this with your families. You could do this with your kids, but you have to learn how to do it with strangers as well. You have to show people that it's okay to be vulnerable with you, sometimes I do that unintentionally by sharing my own vulnerabilities, I think that there's a lot of situations in which we have to keep it together but then there's other situations where it's ok tio essentially lose it was a few weeks ago I was in greece on the island of lesbos photographing for unicef looking at the refugee crisis I'm like I'm pretty used to emergencies and things like that on photographing people in difficult situations, but the first boat came in from turkey and it landed on shore and the refugees started streaming off and some of them were screaming and some of them were shouting but a lot of them were joyous that they had landed in europe that they had made this most dangerous part of their journey and survived and they were thanking god they were hugging each other and kissing each other they were kissing the ground and I had to stop shoot well, I couldn't shoot because I was I started crying on dh it was then they saw that the volunteers were there saw that and all of a sudden I realized, you know, I'm not a vulture they're coming in tow to steal pictures and like feed it feed a news organization I'm very much empathizing with the story and with the subject and I think that in a lot of situations when you start showing your vulnerabilities than the subject will start showing their vulnerabilities this is, um this this man is actually um kanaan and he himself is a syrian refugee and he came to europe five years ago uh moved to belgium where he's learning flemish and trying to find work and he flew back to greece teo help with the refugee crisis so he had just pulled this little syrian boy off the butt and he told me later that it was there on that beach that he found his soul so it's moments like this like I love this I love this picture is my favorite picture from that assignment but it's also such an inspiring moment you know yes, I think that's like so powerful for some of us here to to hear how did you get that story out of him? Like how did you what was the engagement with that image? Because that's so powerful that you were able teo like did you how did you do that with that one? Okay, so that's a really weird example? Uh, normally what I would do, um okay with that picture, I posted the picture on social media on instagram with the unicef feeding with the photo agencies feed on, people started engaging and saying, hey that's kanaan on they tag cannot in the picture and then so can on and I started engaging one another and then kanon started engaging all of the different viewers of these pictures you know, like the pictures like that of getting, you know, tens of thousands of blacks on instagram so he comments so people would be saying thank you and he's like don't thank me you know anybody should be doing this it's really inspiring and it's a beautiful thing to do and he's engaging directly with the audience so, you know, we started talking privately um we're going to be offline but in messages on I started interviewing him so that I could put a longer caption on the picture so that was the first time that's actually ever happened it was really weird, but this is I mean, I think it shows the you know, it's a new frontier and it's really interesting like it's a great new way of engaging and having the subjects that we photograph actually represent themselves like this this is where it's gotten better yeah it's really like now when we take pictures on the street were actually more transparent than we were in the past because the people that were photographing probably on instagram as well and I'll look you up like you can't mess up, you can't mess up their story, otherwise they'll correct you um so be careful when you're taking notes except normally what you would do what I do is I engage with people you know in the case like this as volunteers on the beach there's a boat coming in you've already engaged with volunteers I can mash the gilberts and I'm a photographer with unicef and when the boat comes in you start photographing people you photograph the movements and the action is it's happening then used when things slow down a little bit then you start into interacting introducing yourself taking information finding out people stories why did you leave how was the trip what is your next step you need warm clothes there's people over there like helping um giving advice but as a human is a human being exactly exactly that's that's really I think e and what we do like we have to remember that we human beings before anything else thank you um and so as I said like sometimes the scene is just really visually compelling s o this is in afghanistan in two thousand one watching your cricket match that afghans were having in a little old airstrip outside of kabul and so this kid was just watching cricket amongst these like destroyed helicopters and it's amazing it doesn't have to be you know like kanon pulling a five year old syrian refugee off about you know these movements that make me want to cry sometimes it's just a beautiful image and that's okay you know there's nothing there's nothing wrong with that like I think that photographs like this we can celebrate the beauty and the joy in the world that's what it's about, you know, in the end it doesn't always have to be awareness campaigns and saving the world sometimes it can just be admitting that it's not such a bad place that we live in s so this is what I start sounding like a freaking apologize, except I've got a really weird upbringing in photography I've got two mentors emanuel santos who's in australia and then miss a window who's in japan um, they taught me instead of going to college, I learned under those guys, so they told me through samurai traditions through stories of miyamoto musashi and hug a koala and he's very zan approaches to how we should live. So a lot of these things that I've learned over the years I still apply to my photography today, and sometimes it sounds pretty brutal because you know, these air like fourteen center a sporting generation, fourteenth century samurai warriors talking about killing each other, but I think that these lessons still apply today in humanistic photography and street photography. So when I'm when I'm photographing in crowds like this protest in times square, I'm looking across the whole crowd, I'm I'm taking, I'm surveying the scene and I find somebody that I think is interesting and then I start working towards that person, so the quote is the oldest, said it's, a quote from hagar currie the courts, the oldest said taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird even though enters into the midst of a thousand of them it gives no attention to any bird and the one other than the one at first marked does that raise a shout vision that I'm using as a photographer? You know I'm not going to stop going through there because I see something else I see something that I think is compelling and that's moving and I start working towards that and I don't let my vision you know, be taken away by something else on the way to that picture so I apologize if it's really were hard to connect with hopefully it's not because I think that I hear that a lot of people on wall street actually read a lot of these samurai text but um federal les I don't know it's just how I understand photography and I think we all have different ways of understanding you know why we do this and that's my way? So to do this you need absolute commitment like absolute commitment to photography to taking pictures too, to forcing yourself into a really uncomfortable situations you have to be constantly challenging yourself the other thing and this again comes from well, this could come from meditation and come from reading these texts in my case, but you have to be completely and utterly in the moment when you're with these people that you meet for the first time at a train station on the street in a cafe you were all about them you're listening to their stories you're telling them your stories but there's no yesterday or this morning or that annoying conference call you have to do in an hour like none of that it is all about right now um being in the moment means that you can really empathize and people people feel and notice that they feel special and they are special and it's it's out role as a photographer to make sure that you know we put ourselves in the moment and don't don't disengage I'll start checking your phone or like looking over their shoulder at the next person you might want to photograph like you're there with that person engaged with that person be in the moment so forcing yourself to engage with people the hardest thing is the introduction obviously but as soon as you've done that and it gets easier with time my problem well it gets a little bit easier with time I covered twenty years but it's still weird sometimes but eh? So I'm I'm still forcing myself to engage sometimes often don't be afraid of showing vulnerabilities and being honest as I said that honesty is key people people know when you're not telling the truth and get ready for a lot of no's

Class Materials

Bonus Materials

Street Photography Gear List

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Street Photography Pitch Kit

Ratings and Reviews


I have taken more than a few of the Creative Live courses. I have, in general, found all of them to be very good and I have learned something important from them all. Not always enough of exactly what I was looking for, but something useful and important. This course was absolutely amazing. The best I have taken. I would like to download it and see it again and again. Ashley's style was authentic, humble, yet confidence inspiring. The information he gave was focused and totally useful. He shared both philosophy and thinking as well as real tools to learn - whether they be soft stuff (like how to approach someone) or hard stuff (like gear and settings and such). I cannot recommend this class highly enough. If you want to learn to do "humanistic photography" (his term which resonated with me), this is best I have ever taken!


This was a terrific and wonderful class. Ash was superb. His stories were awe inspiring, his passion was evident and his ability to teach was flawless. I would take any other class by him and actually can't wait for more of the VII agency programs eminating from Ron's class during photo week 2015. A great great addition to Creative Live's orbit.


Wow, I loved this course - I watched the whole thing, and most of it twice, during the first run. Ash is is intriguing, a good teacher, honest. I found this class to be so inspirational. I especially loved his encouragement about talking to strangers, asking to take their picture- "what's the worst thing that could happen?" And the videos watching him in action were motivating- you saw him make connections but also saw him get rejected too, but he keeps such a positive outlook. Love this class, please more photojournalism!

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