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How to Promote Your Photography Business with Street Portraits

This post was submitted by James Maher – author of the brand new The Essentials of Street Photography eBook (currently 25% off).

One of the toughest things for any photographer to do is self promotion.  Self promotion is a form of art itself, and unfortunately it is an artform that most of us photographers hate to do.  We wish our work could speak for itself, but at the beginning it can’t.

For a glimpse into what things used to be like for me, after being together for six years, my wife told me that I should probably stop telling people that I ‘do photography’ and instead start saying that I was a ‘professional photographer.’  How such a subtle word twist can change everything.  I had no idea.  Embarrassing, to say the least.

It takes a long time and a lot of work to build up an audience for your work.  Even within your community, it’s an everyday struggle.  And unfortunately, it’s a struggle that takes us away from our primary goal, which is our art and our craft.

But if you’re trying to make a living at photography, promotion is the most important thing that you will have to do.

Occupy Wall Street, Street Portraits

Street Portraits and Interviews about Occupy Wall Street (view larger).

Over the last few years, I have found an extremely versatile way to get exposure and jobs within a community, and it involves street portraits.

You’ve seen street portraits before and they’re nothing new and nothing fancy.  They’re basically a very quick, simple, impromptu photo session on the street with someone you have just met and they often will include a quick interview, which will take about 5 or 10 minutes to do and about 20 minutes to type up.

What’s amazing about them is how versatile they are.  You can relate a portrait of a person and a short interview on the streets of your community to pretty much anything.

Want to get into the real estate section of your local newspaper?  Pick a neighborhood and interview a few people walking around and ask them real estate questions or questions about the neighborhood, then contact the real estate editor at your local newspaper to show him a sample.  It’s worth a shot.

Lower East Side, Street Portraits

Street Portraits and Interviews on the Lower East Side for the Real Estate section (view larger).

Want to get on this great local blog in your neighborhood?  Then ask funny neighborhood questions and pitch it to the owner of the blog.

Mike Stupin, Street Portrait

Name: Mike Stupin
Occupation: Deliveryman
Location: Mama’s Food Shop, 3rd Street between Ave A + B
Time: 6:15 pm on July 25

“I live across the bridge in Bushwick. I’m a big bike rider. I work food delivery. Pretty much all I do right now is read and deliver pizzas and soul food. It’s probably the best job I’ve had in a long time. You get to ride your bike around and they feed you.

Delivering to pantsless people is very common. It’s not just guys; it’s everyone, all the time. People of every shape and size answer their door pantsless. Every once in awhile they get embarrassed and apologize and I’m like, ‘don’t worry about it. It’s kind of what I do, I put on pants so you don’t have to.’ Strangers love that joke. I’ve got one customer that I’ve never, ever seen wearing clothes. She’s always in a towel or a bathrobe. It doesn’t matter the time of day.”

It can relate to anything.  And it’s fun!  If you have a blog as well then this will be a fantastic addition to it.

Here are some quick tips that I have picked up to make your life easier when doing these portraits:

  1. Ideally, you want to mix an interesting background with an interesting person, so find an interesting location and wait there for the right person to come by.
  2. Purchase a digital recorder.  Download a transcription program, such as Transcribe!, which will allow you to slow down the audio to 60 percent to give you enough time to type the interview out without having to rewind.  This will save you a lot of time.
  3. If the person seems uncomfortable then conduct the interview first.  Talking will often get them to relax and to be more comfortable around you.  Offer to walk with them so you are not making them late and the act of walking will make them feel more comfortable.  Keep your eyes peeled for a good location while you are walking and right before you begin to take their portrait, tell them you don’t want to pose them (unless you do, of course) and that you just want them to stand how they naturally would.  Don’t let them give you the forced smile.
  4. If they seem to be standing uncomfortably, coax them out of it by asking them to walk a step forward, back, or to the side.  Usually, the person will reposition themselves into a more natural pose.
  5. Give them your card and email them the photo.  Who knows, you may have just found a new client in your neighborhood!
  6. The story behind the person is the most interesting part, so if you can’t find the best background or the flashiest person then don’t worry.  The least flashy people often have the most interesting stories, so don’t only seek out people with the best outfits.  Interesting outfits don’t always correspond to interesting people.

Street Portrait

Name: Joey McGibbon
Occupation: Doorman, Retired
Location: 6th Street between Avenue A and B
Time: 1:52 on Sunday, Aug. 27

“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. I was a doorman on the Upper East Side. The difference between the Upper East Side and here was like night and day. I worked for gazillionaires. What they paid for shoes and clothes, I could pay my rent for 3 months.

It was a different neighborhood 30 years ago. It was dangerous but I never felt really threatened. You just had to know your way about, where you were going, and what you were doing. Half this neighborhood was burnt out; every block had burnt out buildings. It was really empty. If you weren’t from around here people knew it because it was so depopulated.

I moved down here by accident. I was in love with this girl and we were in the throws of breaking up. I grew up in Queens. I had no intentions of moving down here, especially back then when this neighborhood was the way it was. But she moved here and I followed her. I thought maybe we’d get back together but it never happened and I ended up staying. It was quite an accident and it changed my life. I met some wonderful people: artists, writers, and creative people. It’s always been a young neighborhood, but it wasn’t college students, it was young people on the fringe. It was quite some fun. You had the Robots; you had EPCs; you had the Limbo Lounge; Pizza a Go-Go; the Pyramid Club was in full swing. I got exposed to a lot of things I wouldn’t have been exposed to in Queens. There were some heartbreaking things too; I lost a lot of people to drugs and to the AIDS crisis.

They filmed ‘The Godfather Part2’ on this block. All these buildings here still had the old fashioned storefronts. They were sealed up, but they all had the old-fashioned storefronts, so they fixed them up and created a barbershop and a candy store and put canopies on them. It’s the scene where that guy in the white suit [Don Fanucci] is going down the street, where he gets blown away by Robert DeNiro in the hallway. That’s where a lot of these trees came from, because the block association said, ‘if you’re going to disrupt our lives we want some compensation’, so they agreed to give them money for these trees.”

It may feel weird or awkward to do at first and it may make you feel like you are intruding on people, but the reality is that you will be making most of these peoples’ days a lot more interesting.  You will make them feel special.  It is not like you are trying to sell them something or get them to sign a petition that they don’t believe in; you are celebrating them.

Learn more about Street photography in The Essentials of Street Photography – a brand new eBook by James Maher.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

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