If you’re being approached by a photographer with a large, antique-looking camera, who is asking you to pose with a stranger, it’s probably Richard Renaldi.
The photographer traveled around the country for his project “Touching Strangers,” the book of which was published by Aperture this past spring. His method was fairly simple: he would chose a background and then introduce himself to the first stranger that he wanted to cast as part of his portrait.
“I tell them I’m making family portraits out of strangers,” Renaldi told Art Beat. “That I would like them to touch, that they need, for the picture, to touch someone that we both haven’t met yet in a way that a friend or family or a couple would touch one another.”
The idea came out of his previous project, “Seeing America by Bus,” where he took portraits of bus drivers at Greyhound stations across America. At one such station, he found two strangers sitting on a communal bench.
“It took the orchestrating of asking someone to take a photo for me to a new level … and I liked that. I thought it was really challenging and new, that there was definitely some uncharted territory in that terrain in which to explore.”
At the same time, Renaldi was transfixed with this image of a busy intersection in mid-town Manhattan.
“You see all these people clustered together in a group. For that moment in space and time, they’re all connected, but actually most all of them are strangers to each other. I liked that dynamic and wanted to explore that.”
In 2007, the photographer took his first images for “Touching Strangers.” He was intrigued to see “what the results would be in body language and the visual vocabulary that would emerge.”
He used a large format film camera, of a style that was first developed in 19th century.
“They’re beautiful … the detail’s amazing, the experience of being photographed by one I think is very unique and different than being photographed by a handheld, a point and shoot, or an SLR,” he said. “Definitely it’s a longer experience. It slows everything down and I think that process has an effect on the image making and the final result.”
As the project began to evolve, he developed a more selective eye when asking pedestrians to participate, looking for people that he thought had a story to tell or a sense of beauty he wanted to capture. He would start by asking one person and then finding a partner.
“Sometimes they take a really long time to come together, sometimes they happen really quickly. Most often they take a while and sometimes the whole thing falls apart because the (first) person can’t wait it out with me anymore.”
But, every once in a while, something surprising happens, like his one portrait from Twin Peaks in San Francisco.
“I found this woman in a cheetah print jacket named Annalee, very striking, very open face and she was with her husband and she was a tourist from South Carolina and I thought she would be great.”
Moments after she agreed to be photographed, a covered Muslim woman walked by and Renaldi wanted to include her in the portrait. The photographer gave his usual spiel, but the woman declined. Dejected, he went looking for another person.
“(I thought) even if this Muslim woman had said yes … my bias was that (Annalee) was going to be biased. I thought I was potentially opening up this other woman Rayqa to painful incidents of intolerance,” said Renaldi.
He went looking for Annalee and heard someone shout “Hey, photographer!” Annalee and Rayqa were holding hands. The South Carolinian had convinced her fellow stranger to pose together.
“She had intervened and I was just incredibly touched.”
Over the course of many incidents like the one in San Francisco, Renaldi has grown a lot. Since most people tend to strike conventional poses, the photographer has had to think of a range of “more intimate ways of connecting” and become a confident director.
“I definitely became more comfortable in asking people for what I want and I learned how to do that better … I was really surprised to learn that people do amazing things for you just by the mere fact of asking,” That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned, is how generous people can be with giving themselves over to someone.”
But the response to the project has not been so simple. Many viewers have sent him emails asking to be paired with a stranger and posed on a street corner. Others had been profoundly uncomfortable.
“It makes them feel anxious. Either they feel anxious about the pairings of racial dissimilars or they project themselves onto the situation — ‘I don’t want some stranger touching me’,” said Renaldi. “It’s not universal that everyone has that kind of desire to feel that contact or touch. Some people’s relationship to touch I’ve learned is very different.”
View more photos from Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” below: