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How to Talk to Strangers

One of the greatest joys of being alive is having the opportunity to talk, engage, and interact with other humans.


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Why street photography?

I’ve been passionate about street photography for a long time now, and I have always wondered why.

A big element of it: I am passionate about talking to strangers.

Why strangers?

Contact sheet. Laughing Paris.
Contact sheet. Laughing Paris.

If you think about it, talking to strangers is kind of a “weird” thing in modern society. Ever since we were young, we were programmed to “fear strangers”, and to only trust our immediate and nuclear families.

But I think there is a beauty in interacting with strangers. The beauty is that sometimes when you see people who look differently than you, you cast them into a different category of the “other”.

However I’ve discovered in my life that humans are more similar than dissimilar. Regardless of our religion, race, ethnicity, or background, we all love our families, friends, good food and drink, and of course, good coffee.

We are adding joy to the lives of others

LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheets from MASTERS
LAUGHING LADY by Eric Kim Contact Sheet

I think the beauty of photography and street photography is giving us the courage to talk to other people, especially strangers. I genuinely believe that most people are lonely nowadays, and any sort of human interaction or engagement is a good thing.

Laughing lady eric kim. NYC, 2015

When it comes to strangers, we are often worried about “bothering” them or “wasting their time”. But in truth, whenever we talk with a stranger or engage with them, we breathe new life into them, and give them our warmth and light.

Woman laughing. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Woman laughing, NYC 2017

Also, I feel that when we interact with strangers, not only do we feel happier, our subjects feel happier as well. We feel happier because we have the opportunity to learn more about the life of another person, whose preferences and background might be very different than us. And the stranger is happy because someone else went out of their way to show them some human warmth.


The art of small talk

Mad men. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

I’m surprised that the smallest gestures, or how “small talk” can lead to great joy.

Small talk can be simple. It can just be about the weather, about how the other person is doing, or just giving the other person a compliment. I especially like giving compliments to strangers, because compliments are free, and cost us nothing, yet give great joy to the life of another.

Also, by engaging in small talk, you are communicating to the other person:

Even though we may be strangers and look different, I want to open up my heart to you, and give you a small ray of sunshine, however small.


Refreshing honesty

When I talk with strangers and ask them how their day is going, most people will smile, be grateful, and just say, “Good, and you?” I usually try to refrain from saying “good” and I try to switch it up by saying something like,

“Oh I haven’t had my cup of coffee yet, so I’m feeling tired as shit.”

Usually this surprises people, and makes me seem more “human”. Many people then tell me, “Oh, I totally know that feeling” and sometimes if I’m talking to a barista, they will even give me a free cup of coffee!

We are often trained in small talk to not “deter from the script”. However, I think if we really communicate with others how we really feel — it shows that we are much more genuine and real. And by being honest, you build more trust with the other person. And by building trust with a stranger, you feel warmer around them, and both parties benefit by having the opportunity to share their life stories with one another.

Uber conversations

eric kim eye contact street portrait

I usually always try to chat with my Uber driver by asking open-ended questions such as,

  • “What is your life story?”
  • “What is your dream in life?”

1-sf mcdonalds contact - eric kim street photography mcdonalds yellow man nose grin portrait

These sound like pretty deep questions, but you‘d be surprised — most strangers will actually tell you the answers to very personal questions (if you ask). It makes sense: I would trust giving away personal information about my life to a stranger that I will probably never see again, than tell my close friends and family who might judge me negatively.

Thus, when you’re riding an Uber, a taxi, or chatting with a stranger — see how far you can push the boundary or barrier with personal questions.

Sweat. Downtown LA, 2016.
Sweat. Downtown LA, 2016.

Sometimes people are shocked to hear personal questions. In these instances, I open up first, and share with them my personal life story, dreams, hopes, and aspirations in life.

Most humans follow reciprocal social patterns — if you open up first, most humans will reciprocate and also open up.


Street photography as an excuse to talk to strangers

eric kim photography bart lady glasses contact sheet

Consider, street photography is all about photographing strangers. If we didn’t have a camera, it would actually be more strange talking to a stranger, without a purpose or reason.

Woman with thick glasses and green hat. BART, 2015
Woman with thick glasses and green hat. BART, 2015

I like to think of street photography as my excuse to talk to a stranger. When I’m talking with a stranger, and I have a camera around my neck, they usually assume that I want to photograph them. However, if I didn’t have a camera and was making small talk, they might assume I’m trying to scam them or sell them something.

Therefore, don’t be ashamed of your camera. Rather, be proud of your camera. Your camera is an invitation into the life of another, and will open up doors for you.


Tips on interacting with strangers

1. Ask open-ended questions

NYC, 2016

When it comes to interacting with strangers, my suggestion is to ask open-ended questions, which give the other person the opportunity to talk more. Avoid simple “yes” or “no” questions. Ask questions that allow your subjects to tell a story about their life, and go into more detail.

2. Ask “why?”

Also, to keep a conversation going, ask the stranger,

“Why?”

This is the best philosophical tool you can employ to get into the deeper meaning behind a conversation, and to really get to know someone, their intentions, and their world view.

eric kim street photography - the city of angels - black and white-4-street-portrait-hearts-tattoo-downtown-la
Hearts. Downtown LA, 2011

The strange thing is that as adults, we are brainwashed into thinking that asking the question “why?” is combative and rude. When adults ask another adult, “Why?” it usually comes off as questioning their motives in a negative way. But in reality, the question why is the most innocent question of them all (something that children love to ask).

eric kim center eye nyc street photography portrait-1-1

I think when you ask the question, “Why?” ask in a non threatening tone. This will make your subject more comfortable to answer honesty.

3. Smile

Eric kim street photography laughing ladies NYC hanoi

The most important thing is to smile. A smile will disarm anybody, and instantly build trust. A smile is a universal communication symbol that works in any country or culture.

halmunee-grandma-eric kim photography seoul-0003562-2
My grandma laughing; I want to forever remember her like this.

Smile more, joke more, and open up your heart more. Nobody loses; everybody wins.

Conclusion

Girls laughing. Amsterdam, 2017
Girls laughing. Amsterdam, 2017

For more inspiration to interact with strangers, pick up a copy of STREET NOTES and attempt the “10 no challenge”, or attend one of my upcoming workshops to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Girl laughing with blue sunglasss. Kyoto, 2017.
Girl laughing with blue sunglasss. Kyoto, 2017.

My practical suggestion is try to make a little more small talk everyday with strangers, which will allow you to build more confidence interacting with those who look different from you. Ultimately I think the best reason of talking with strangers is to build human empathy, human connection, and love to others.

Mother Theresa

Smile, be genuine, and don’t be afraid of getting rejected by others. Let your heart and light shine.

BE BOLD,
ERIC

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY 101

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher