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An introvert’s guide to taking photographs of people

From Friday the 23rd to Monday the 26th September, Cape Town-based photographer Retha Ferguson took over the 10and5 Instagram account to post a selection of her work and speak candidly about taking portraits of strangers as a natural introvert.

These are the images and words she shared.

The most important aspect of photographing people is being interested in the individuals you photograph. If you have that curiosity, you’ll eventually overcome the obstacles of approaching people you don’t know. When I first started photographing people I was too shy to approach them directly so I only photographed faces in reflections or as seen through windows. Step by step I got closer to my subjects and now I very often approach and have conversations with people before I photograph them.

This photo is from my How We Lived for Saturdays: Killarney project which looks at the drag racing subculture in Cape Town. The boy in the image got this car for his 12th birthday for the sole purpose of spinning. The spinners get tyre companies to sponsor used tyres and would usually discard these after one round of spinning, at which point they’re often in a state of falling apart.

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I’d like to share a quote by Alec Soth, where he talks about approaching people to photograph. “I started out with kids because that was less threatening. I eventually worked my way up to every type of person. At first, I trembled every time I took a picture. My confidence grew, but it took a long time. I still get nervous today. When I shoot assignments I’m notorious amongst my assistants for sweating. It’s very embarrassing. I did a picture for The New Yorker recently and I was drenched in sweat by the end and it was the middle of winter.”

Reading a quote like that is encouraging in that it reminds you that even the masters sometimes feel like they are fumbling around. Photographing people is a complex and challenging craft but anyone who is interested enough can find their own way to transcend those challenges.

This photo is from my How We Lived For Saturdays: Killarney project which looks at the drag racing subculture in Cape Town. The boy in this picture lives on the race tracks with his mom and dad. His dad does maintenance on the tracks and built this motorcycle for his son from spare parts other racers had discarded.

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An easier way of approaching people is to seek out people who want to be photographed. A lot of people feel flattered when you ask to make their photo, so it’s just a matter of finding them. This girl undid her ponytail for me because she wanted to be photographed with loose hair. She is very much in control of the way she’s represented and it makes for a very dynamic image.

The photograph is from my How We Lived for Saturdays: Killarney project which looks at the drag racing subculture in Cape Town. The girl in the picture is a junior motorcycle competitor. Around 3% of the competitive drag racers are female.

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A good way to ask someone whether you can take their photo is to give them a reason. Often people are just unsure why you want to photograph them, and if you give them an honest reason they are much more likely to relate to your motivations. With this lady the reason was obvious for me – I loved her hair. Once I told her I would like to photograph her because I liked her hair, she knew my intentions and was glad to participate.

This photograph is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. The lady in this picture works at a women’s hair salon.

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I love photographing children because they understand what it’s like to be shy. I feel like every child goes through a shy phase, so the feeling is still clear in their memory. You can be coy and stumble over your words with a child and instead of being dismissive they will look at you with recognition.

This photograph is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. The boy depicted in this photo and his sister made friends with the Congolese barber shop owners and stopped there every day after school to say hello.

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I have a small pocket printed photo album with some of my candid photographs which I often show to people so they can see the type of work I do. The great thing about photography is that it’s highly relatable, so anyone can look at a picture and find their own meaning in it. This is a great way to introduce people to your work and explain to them that you take pictures because it’s your passion. I find that when you introduce people to your work in this way they are often glad to share their space and be photographed.

This photograph is from my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. I love the sense of pride that you get from the facial expression of the man in this picture.

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The photos I’ll be sharing today are all candid and un-posed. One of the most rewarding ways to get portraits when you start out taking photos is to ask your subject’s permission to take photographs in their space and then to disappear and become invisible. It allows you to get very sincere pictures, and it’s not as stressful as taking posed photographs.

This photo is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. The picture was taken at a Fullness of God International Ministry where people from various African countries congregate to find solace and peace every Sunday.

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If you are embedded in a space and want to become invisible in order to get candid photographs, a good way to do this is to use a small camera and move around slowly. I feel like I’m naturally someone who finds it easy to disappear behind the scenes. Shyness is not always a burden and can work in your favour.

This photograph is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. It was taken at the Maitland Community Church. It used to be the NG church, but was transformed into a more inclusive religious space after 1994.

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Because I’m shy and I find it hard talking to people I sometimes find that the best way I can relate to people is through the photos I make. It’s an outlet which connects me to people despite my verbal inefficiency. This photograph reminds me of a scene from the church I was raised in, and brings back complex memories from my childhood. 

It is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. It was taken at the Maitland Community Church. It used to be the NG church, but was transformed into a more inclusive religious space post 1994. It looks like a typical scene from the old NG church, but if you look carefully you can see in the background that it’s a mixed space with church-goers from various cultures.

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Taking posed and set up portraits is extremely difficult for me. As a shy person it takes a lot of courage to set up a post portrait. My comfort zine is candid portraits, where I can disappear behind the scenes. Sometimes I go out and force myself to do posed portraits in order to broaden my scope. Over the years I’ve been getting better at it, but it still makes me anxious. Everyone wants to be photographed in great light though. And sometimes I take a photo of just the light and show it to the person. When they see how beautiful the light looks, they want to be photographed.

This photo is of a ladies weight lifting champ. I love this picture because the light is so tender yet her face is full of strength.

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With the next photo I want to share a story about rejection. Often young photographers are scared to approach people because of the fear of being told no or turned away. But sometimes it’s good to go against your intuition and seek out rejection. The more you have encounters where someone declines to have their photo taken the more you realise that rejection is not that bad. It’s just someone saying no, and that’s not the end of the world. When someone declines to have their photo taken, I usually immediately give them their space and move on. With this man, for some reason, I was compelled to ask again. I really wanted to take his photo and I ended up almost begging him. Eventually he agreed. When I printed the picture and took it back to him he absolutely loved it and was very grateful that I’d taken it.

This photograph is part of my series called Voortrekker Road which looks at the complexities at play in a street where an immigration hub intersects with the South African community. The man depicted in the photograph is a very shy Nigerian man, and to me he looks quite effeminate in this picture. I love the picture because I feel like it goes against the stereotypes surrounding Nigerian men.

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The last image is also part of my series called Voortrekker Road. This photo is of a Palestinian man working at a Moroccan falafel shop. When I went back a week later he was gone and no longer working there, moved on to the next transitory space.

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Visit Retha’s website and follow her on Instagram for her latest work.



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