Iwona Pinkowicz: Telling Street Portraits of Strangers

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All images by Iwona Pinkowicz. Used with permission.

“After sometime of secretly photographing people on the street I decided that I wanted to interact with my subjects and learn something about them before taking more intimate photos.” says photographer Iwona Pinkowicz about her latest street photography project. Iwona, who you’ve read about previously, is all about facial expressions. Indeed, one of the pillars of portraiture is that the eyes are the windows to the soul. And if you generally approach strangers in the right way, you’ll see that we’re just human beings afterall.

Iwona has been working on this project since the start of January–photographing what she says is a rich variety of folks. “I’ve also been quite taken aback and pleasantly surprised by how open and willing most people have been to having their portrait taken.” she states.

This project will continue to evolve for her through until the end of the year. And today, she wants to share some insight.

But what’s even more amazing is the obvious connection between both Iwona and the person being photographed.

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Phoblographer: You’ve previously been a photographer that shot street and captured candid moments, but what made you want to start doing street portraits instead?

Iwona: I’m still shooting candid street shots, and will never stop doing that, but I wanted to try something different and challenge myself. I’ve always wanted to work on a 365 project but never really known what to focus on until this idea popped into my head. I also feel that many people in today’s world, particularly in cities, tend to get too caught up in the fast pace of life and rarely spare time to interact with one another. I wanted to change that for myself and use photography as a vehicle to achieve it.

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Phoblographer: What typically attracts you to your subjects? There’s a clear connection between you and the people that you photograph.

Iwona: It’s quite hard to explain to be honest because, like everyone else living in big city, I walk past literally hundreds of people every day. I sometimes feel dizzy scanning crowds for someone who stands out to me but when I see a subject I know straight away that I need to stop them. I can’t really put my finger on exactly what attracts me to my subjects as it could be anything, for example something they’re wearing, their smile, or an energy around them. It’s very quick and impulsive.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about your approach and the first time you asked someone for a photograph? When you approach someone for the first time about this, what’s the conversation usually like?

Iwona: I was terrified the first day I went out to shoot for this project. I didn’t know how people would react to a stranger asking them for an intimate photo and was afraid that the majority of people would refuse. To my surprise however, everyone I stopped on that first day said yes and seemed genuinely interested in the project. I remember shaking, sweating and mumbling my words when I approached my first subject, that’s how scared I was! I was hugely relieved that she said yes, it filled me with confidence to carry on and take more portraits that day.

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Since then I have become much more confident and, through lots of practice, now feel completely relaxed approaching people. I think it’s important to be relaxed as, if people sense you’re nervous, they tend to get nervous too and this can negatively impact the portrait you take. I now usually start with a quick chat with my subjects by firstly introducing myself, explaining what I do and what I am working on, and then asking for their name and what they’ve been up to. Most people, as you would expect, are quite surprised at first but quickly relax which is when I get my camera out to take a few shots.

Phoblographer: Has anyone ever said no to you? How do you deal with that?

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Iwona: So far I would estimate that I’ve spoken to as many as 150 people and only three have very politely refused. I’ve been quite taken aback by that and pleasantly surprised by how open and willing most people have been to having their portrait taken.

Phoblographer: What do you prefer more? Telling stories about people through images in the way you are with this portraits, or just shooting plain street?

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Iwona: To be honest I like both equally and think it’s hard to compare the two. The thing I’m enjoying most about the 365 project is talking to my subjects, getting to know them a little before I press the shutter. I have met some lovely and intriguing people since the beginning of the year and I’m in contact with several of them now via social media or email. It’s also a great feeling knowing there are so many nice people out there I am yet to meet. As for candid street photography, I still really enjoy it. You can never replace the thrill you get when you capture a special moment that will never likely repeat itself ever again. 

Phoblographer: It looks like you’re very specific about both the background and the depth of field that makes the subject really stand out from the rest of the scene.

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Iwona: I’m not a fan of clutter as I have fairly severe OCD so having messy backgrounds would bother me more than most! This is why I always try to position my subject in the place where I can get the cleanest background possible, which can sometimes be hard on a busy street. As for depth of field I typically use f4 as it gives me that nice bokeh I’m after with the face nicely focused.

Phoblographer: So what’s the end goal here? A book? A gallery?

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Iwona: Well, in an ideal world, both! I’m going to continue working hard to produce as many striking portraits as possible every day, to make my work worthy of publication and exhibition. It’s ambitious but I’m driven and can see it happening one day, but there’s still a long way to go.

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