How to Interact With Strangers

Dear friend,

I was thinking at the gym, and I had the realization: my number 1 skill in life isn’t photography, art, philosophy, sociology or whatever; it is the “art of people”, or the art of interacting with strangers, and people I know/love.

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I just put up a preview to my new and upcoming “Street Photography Starter Kit” course, which is about an hour+ of me shooting in the streets of Downtown LA and interacting with strangers. I know that I have a certain gift of interacting with other people; something I learned from my mom, something I honed as a teenager until now (I used to be very shy), and I have carried over that skill to street photography.

To me, ultimately my passion lies at the intersection between art and philosophy. I love photography because it is instant art, and I have very little patience, and get bored easily. I am also passionate about philosophy, because I have always pondered questions about the meaning of life and self-empowerment ever since I was a high schooler.

The word “interact” means for two (or more) humans to act between and with one another. Philosophically I think this is beautiful, because any form of action is good for us as humans. The more we act, the more “active” and empowered we are in life, the more we feel like we have control over our lives and destiny, and the more free we feel (philosopher Diogenes once said that freedom was the ultimate human good).

Anyways, we can interact with other humans in many different ways. We can talk with them, joke with them, play with them, sing or dance with them, or make stuff together/collaborate together.

There are a lot of people who say they are “antisocial”, but I think what they’re really trying to say is, “I am social, but only with close friends and family, and I don’t do as well with strangers or big groups”.

As humans, we are the happiest when we are doing things which either directly or indirectly relate to other humans. For example, if you’re passionate about street photography (taking photos of strangers), you will know what I mean.

We like watching movies, which of course, have lots of people (actors) in them.

We have the most fun in video games when we play with other “real life” humans. Even though a computer AI player can be as good (if not better) than other humans, we feel more satisfaction when we are playing with (or beating) other humans.

As photographers, of course we get a lot of satisfaction in our own photos for ourselves. But we also get a lot of joy when others say they admire or like our work. Anyone who says they don’t is probably lying.

Why interact with strangers?

A basic question: Why interact with strangers?

For myself, I like to interact with strangers because it opens up my mind. Sociologists call people you don’t know that well as “weak ties”, and it is actually these people who we are most likely to get a job recommendation from, find our significant other, and have business opportunities. When we only stay within the small bubble of our “strong ties”, we don’t have as many opportunities in life.

Also for myself, I’m always hungry to learn and grow from others. The more foreign the other person is, the better. I’ve actually learned more about religious tolerance from my first trip to Beirut, Lebanon (2011) than any church I’ve been in. In Beirut, you have Christians and Muslims living with tolerance with one another. I’ve also found the Lebanese to be some of the most open-minded, beautiful, elegant, erudite individuals in the world (most Lebanese are fluent in Arabic, English and French). There’s a reason why Beirut was once called the “Paris of the middle East”.

Anyways, I’ve learned a lot from strangers, especially when traveling. When I’m interacting with strangers, I will usually ask them a bunch of questions. Some of them include,

  • ‘What are some misconceptions that people have about “Country X” or “Religion X”?’ I’ve learned a lot from this question.
  • “What’s your life dream?” (sounds very personal, but most people will actually answer this truthfully, moreso to a stranger!
  • “What are your passions in life?”

These are some basic open-ended questions, which are so much more interesting to talk about than the standard question about current events, weather, etc.

First lesson: Be willing to take a small risk of asking total strangers very personal questions. Most people will be open to it.

Second thing: see everyone else like they were your friend, cousin, parent, brother or sister, cousin, grandparent, etc. By thinking this, you actually humanize other strangers, and the more likely you will have a meaningful interaction.

Third, shake someone’s hand as quickly as possible. This is the best way to quickly build rapport with someone else.

My theory: when you touch or hold hands with someone else, perhaps there’s something wired into our human DNA that instantly says, “Friend” or “Person to be trusted”.

And the funny thing is this: 99.9% of people you extend your hand to will actually instinctively shake your hand back! Just try it out with anyone; it almost seems to be a human instinct.

Fourth, make them part of the process. For example when you’re taking photos of strangers, show them the lcd screen! I did this thing recently when I’m taking someone’s portrait, I will flip back my LCD screen to them to show them what kind of photo I’m shooting. It’s almost like I’m shooting a selfie of them, for them.

You can also show your lcd screen to your subject after you take their photo, and ask them which photo of theirs they like, and offer to email it to them!

Fifth, smile, laugh, and crack jokes! Very simple, but with strangers, the quicker you can make them laugh or smile, the better! Tell a bad joke, or my favorite tactic: use self-deprecating humor!

For example I met a bunch of cool black guys at a Downtown LA coffee shop, and I gave them my email for my products ( Then, they said, “Oh, I thought you said half-dick!” And then I said, “Yeah, it’s hard being Asian. I wish I was black” (suggesting that black guys have big dicks). They then laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s true. It’s pretty big down there!”

Sixth, try to find the common ground between you both. No matter how different you and a stranger are, there will always be a common ground between you two; you just have to dig a little to find it!

For example, I’m Korean and I will often ask strangers if they like Kimchi or Korean BBQ. They mostly say yes!

If not, I’ll try to figure out where they’re from, and then try to figure out the common ground we share. For example, I was once shooting in NYC and chatted to a couple, who I discovered were from Michigan. I lived in East Lansing, Michigan for 2 years, and I knew this “Michigander insider” thing:

You stick out your palm, and make it look like the state of Michigan, then you ask them to point where you’re from.

When I did that, they instantly felt so much more connected to me!

Lesson: Ask lots of open-ended questions, and realize that you probably have more in common with strangers than differences.


Some ideas on interacting with strangers:

  1. Find a stranger you find interesting and ask them, “What’s your life story?” Listen and ask them more open-ended questions, and also tell them what your life story is as well.

  2. Try the “10 no challenge”; Approach a bunch of strangers and ask for permission to make a portrait of them. You must keep asking for permission until you get 10 people to reject you! Pro tip: Look for really scary people to ask for their portrait, and you’ll be surprised; they’re often the nicest subjects! More assignments in STREET NOTES: Mobile Edition or STREET NOTES: Print Edition on Amazon

  3. Find a stranger, and ask them to make your portrait. This will help you better understand how it is like being on the other side of the camera.

Conquer Your Fears and Meet New Peers

If you want hands-on guidance and to be pushed outside of your comfort zone, join me at one of my upcoming workshops.


If you desire more street photography assignments to respark your motivation in street photography, pick up a copy of:

Street Portraits

All shot with permission/interacting with my subjects:

How to Master Shooting Street Portraits

Laughing lady. NYC, 2016

If you are drawn to interesting people, faces, and subjects, I recommend you to shoot street portraits!

Lecture: How to Master Shooting Street Portraits

Learn more >


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Street Photography 101

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