Photo: Colin Strain photographed by Colin Urban Scott
For photographer Colin Strain, one of the best ways to get to know a place is through its people. He's originally from South Africa, but has been in London for 14 years now and still finds in fascinating. To explore his city and hone his photography skills, he takes his camera out onto the streets and introduces himself to people, learns a bit about them and photographs them once he's made a connection. All photographs below were taken by Colin Strain as part of the worldwide 100 Strangers project.
CAPA WORLD: In five sentences or less, tell us a bit about your background as a street photographer and your experience developing your art on the streets of London.
COLIN STRAIN: My wife gave me a DSLR for my birthday as I had been keen on photography as a teenager but never progressed with it. When I first saw the 100 Strangers project on Flickr I knew I had to do it. I work near Kings Cross and love to take a walk during lunch time, and before or after work during the summer, to chat to people and photograph them. I love the fact that I don’t know what is going to happen or what I’ll end up shooting. I often find myself around University College London and have some lovely shots of the students who study there. Having grown up in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the UK 14 years ago, I still find London to be an exciting place that is full of surprises.
CW: What has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome to get a great street shot?
CS: My own fear. People often don’t look approachable as they’re busy or on the move. I often feel apprehensive stopping them but I have learned that it is in my own head and that more often than not, people are happy to break for a chat. If they don’t want to be photographed, they are usually polite and sometimes even apologetic. Connecting with people like this is a very positive experience.
CW: Where’s your favorite place to go in London to see the work of other photographers you admire?
CS: The National Portrait Gallery, but if you keep an eye out, there are often photography exhibits available all over. The London Festival of Photography held exhibits all over London in June and July with images on display in places like Kings Cross Station which made it very accessible not only to enthusiasts but to everyone passing by.
CW: Tell us about the first time you approached someone in the street with the intention of taking their photograph. How did you ask? What was their reaction?
CS: I was on my way to the station from a portraiture course that I’d taken specifically to kick start my 100 Strangers project. I was determined to get my first stranger portrait in the bag but had already chickened out of asking a few people that would have made great subjects. I told myself that failing to even try would be far worse than failing to achieve a good portrait and then I saw this girl in a doorway with a friend. She looked really great with a retro hairdo so before I could talk myself out of it I went over to her and told her that I was doing this photography project called 100 Strangers and could I take her picture. I was so nervous that I don’t remember exactly what I said but I do remember that I can’t have seemed confident or capable. She was really flattered and laughed a lot but between us we managed to make a portrait which made it into Flickr’s Explore page of the top 500 pictures posted to the site that day. That was a massive boost for my confidence.
CW: Do you have any advice on where to go in London to capture any of the famous icons from an unusual angle or viewpoint?
CS: London is a difficult place to photograph well as everything has been photographed so much already. For me the people are what make the difference so including them in the shots makes for unique pictures. There are always interesting looking people around that can add spice to travel photos.
CW: Where’s your favorite place in London to take your camera and why?
CS: The area between London Bridge station and the river is fantastic. There’s loads of interesting streets and architecture and the morning light is just perfect for photography. I've met some amazing people around there. The Old Thameside pub next to the replica of the Golden Hinde is my favorite pub in London. My best shoot so far came after meeting one of the students at the nearby Kaplan Law School.
CW: Do you have any photography advice for students studying abroad in London wishing to capture the essence of this global city?
CS: There are so many images that one can associate with the brand London. The Underground signs, red post boxes, the variety of street markets and many more. But the thing that really makes London exciting for me is the incredible diversity of people and the richness of cultures. Look out for great light early in the morning or in the evening and don’t be concerned by a little cloud; it softens the shadows. Capturing the people in and around these locations provide images that will instantly transport you back there when you view them years later. Most people are used to cameras and don’t think twice about walking into the frame of your shot. I prefer not to take candid pictures of people without asking though I have tried it. If you take a picture of a feature and some cool looking bohemian happens to be in the foreground, then that will make it more interesting. Some private properties have policies against photography and if you’re not sure, check with security before shooting. Even when I've overstepped the mark and been told to stop, they've been polite about it.
CW: Give us your best recommendations on where to eat and drink off the tourist trail on a student budget.
CS: I’m not a student, but the food at Borough Market is always good and reasonably priced. Pick up a plate of paella or jerk chicken and when you've finished it, wash it down with a cup of mulled wine or a kir royale. There are loads of fish and chips shops if you want authentic British cuisine and I have yet to have a bad meal at any of them.
CW: Is there a place in London where you have not yet taken your camera but would like to? Why do you think it would make for some good photography?
CS: I’d like to take a day off work and shoot street portraits in Canary Warf, the finance district. I think it would be a challenge to capture some of the suited high flyers who work in the banking sector but their tailored suites and sharp haircuts would make super subject matter and the bankers need some good press these days.
CW: Favorite London discovery?
CS: Café Pacifico in Covent Garden. It’s an authentic Mexican restaurant which has very reasonable prices and the food is fantastic. Plus they make a mean margarita. It’s great for a family lunch and at night it rocks too.
Visit Colin's Flickr page to see more of his photography.
Interested in photographing Londoners? Colin has extended a special invitation to any interested CAPA students to contact him through his Flickr page to meet for a few hours of photography in London. He loves to meet new people and share his hobby.