With this portrait of Katherine, I officially conclude my 100 Strangers project!
We met in Albuquerque on a Saturday morning outside the Centennial Engineering Center on the campus of the University of New Mexico (UNM). Katherine was facilitating event logistics for participants in the MATHCOUNTS® NM State Chapter tournament for middle schoolers who compete individually, and as part of a team.
I dropped off my mathlete with his teammates and then had time to fill. Because it was Spring Break, the UNM campus was empty of people. That made it easy to spot Katherine. She was standing outside a nearby building that was the location of the MATHCOUNTS Countdown Round for later that morning. I observed her using her mobile phone. After she finished the call she remained in her waiting-place. Opportunistically, I approached her.
Katherine was meeting a custodian to unlock the building door. She had several minutes to spare and was an easy enlistment for my portrait project. We were in an area with open shade. I made several fruitless attempts to direct light on her using a light reflector and even had her hold the light modifier. Eventually, I set it aside and we continued on while she sat patiently to be photographed.
During this project, I encountered numerous subjects who were wearing eyeglasses. Many of these individuals removed their glasses at my gentle suggestion. Katherine was disinclined to take them off. This gave me an extra challenge: avoiding undesirable reflections and haze on her lenses. I moved around her to find a better position to diminish lens glare. Our strangers present. We have to sort it out.
In post-processing, I used Photoshop to create a “lenses only” layer, where I could tweak the light levels and remove the majority of the unavoidable reflections.
We spoke for a few minutes. Katherine was born in Dallas, TX, surrounded by her mother’s family. Her father, born and raised in New Mexico, decided to raise his children in his home state; they moved west.
“Long ago, I was interested in Mechanical Engineering,” Katherine said. “I didn’t do well enough in math. I was much better at writing and communications and found my way to science writing. That’s how I got to be part of science. Now, I work at the School of Engineering at UNM. I coordinate community outreach to middle and high school-aged students to get them interested in STEM learning. We want to show them possibilities and excite them about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Events like today’s MATHCOUNTS serve as a portal for these young people. At least that’s the hope.”
I asked if there was anything she wanted viewers of her portrait to think about when looking at her. Katherine paused thoughtfully. After a few moments, I captured what she shared, verbatim:
“Dream. I remember a painful time of my own life, from way back as a child. Some adult told me, ‘Your problem is that you dream too big.’ Don’t let anybody tell you that. I was only a child, but I knew there was something wrong with that. This applies to any aspect of life. Just follow those big dreams and don’t let anyone tear them down.”Katherine, Stranger 100/100
In this shot of Katherine, her head is tilted slightly upwards at my camera. Her posture conveys her message of encouragement and self-confidence. I thanked her for the important job she was doing: influencing and encouraging young minds to pursue STEM education.
It was a pleasant, meaningful encounter. A few days later, I emailed her a high-resolution file that she could print as an 8×10, or share with her friends and family.
I completed the 100 Strangers Project as a personal challenge. I wanted to strengthen my photographic muscle. I wanted to shoot with confidence, act with expeditiousness with my equipment, and apply learned techniques in my photographic efforts. I accomplished this and so much more.
In the pursuit of my subjects, I had many more interactions with people who do not appear in my catalogue. Not every subject made the final cut. Meeting and photographing strangers with their consent, produced humor and humility-filled experiences that I carry with me as I move forward. I am forever changed.
Aside from growing as a photographer, this project humanized the world and allowed me to recognize and value individuals in new, deeper ways. People reveal circumstances from their lives, and with that, vulnerabilities of the human condition. These encounters gave me the luxury of seeing others with more grace, empathy, appreciation, and sensitivity.
Photographing strangers brings people into close contact who, otherwise, have no other impetus for doing so. I endeavored to capture images of my strangers with authenticity. While revealing and acknowledge them, I wanted to render what lay beneath their surface.
The 100 Strangers Project may be daunting for some. I enjoyed it immensely and welcomed the unexpected. I proved to myself that I can maneuver with my equipment to avoid missing “that perfect moment.”
This project influenced how I see, what I look for, when I time my shot, and how to manage and edit images after I click the shutter. In sum, it was a very fulfilling experience.
When the world reveals itself to us again, after the COVID-19 nightmare is over, and it becomes normal again to take to the streets, to mill about among humans in public places, and slow time down for more than quick-as-possible errands for essential at a supermarket or a doctor office, I will look forward to another round of street portraits. Maybe. I miss this sort of photography and human contact so much. For now…