I/Eye: On Photography

I heart i heart strangers…

Posted in Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on February 5, 2010

maria . 32 years old / denver . colorado © Joshua Langlais

One of the most interesting and moving portrait series  I’ve come upon recently is Joshua Langlais’ i heart strangers. The concept is (deceptively) simple: Joshua photographs a stranger every day—and then posts that person’s picture and a brief description of their encounter on his blog (above).  Each portrait is presented as a diptych: a full-length image juxtaposed with a ‘head shot’. The narrative pieces accompanying each portrait are unpretentious, conversational, and it’s perhaps this very quality that allows us to appreciate the less-than-simple exchange that takes place: Joshua must persuade each person he works with to participate in his project, to become an impromptu portrait subject and of course to sign a release. The individuals understand that they are being photographed because they and he are strangers to each other, so right away all parties (that includes us, as his audience) are engaged in a complex exercise of social trust — an experiment that proceeds individual by individual.

Not infrequently that trust is blocked—an individual refuses to participate — or it may be that a person participates with ambivalence: she may go along with the idea, while expressing fearful misgivings: the photographer may be a  serial killer, a stalker, a weirdo, etc., etc. And this brings me to one of the more curious and interesting dimensions of this project: Joshua must be prepared to see himself reflected in all these roles in his subjects’ eyes.  The will to continue the project means accepting the various ways he is seen by strangers, whether in trust or fear. And one can surmise that this acceptance doesn’t come without a price:

it is on days like today that i understand why more people aren’t doing things like this. it is difficult. and very frustrating. why are people in such a hurry? who cares about company time? seriously. what company would reprimand you for being a few minutes late if involvement in this project was your excuse? people are rushing around constantly. but to what? why? i notice the way other people look at me when they see that i just asked somebody for something, but clearly didn’t get what i was looking for. sometimes i catch people with a disgusted look or a fearful look. like i am going to also inconvenience them by intruding on their personal space with some asinine question. maybe i just asked for the time…

Contemporary photographers are often quick to reward themselves with credit for challenging, subverting, questioning this or that social norm or artistic convention. I see none of that self-congratulation in Joshua’s approach to his work. If anything, following his project underscores that far from seeking to disrupt or challenge, he is doing something both more ordinary and (paradoxically) more difficult: he sees the expression of social trust as something that must be exercised, and, like all exercise, it is sometimes painful or frustrating. The marvel is, when one thinks about the stigma we have collectively been persuaded to attach to such expressions, and about the general, relentless impoverishment of our social imagination urged on us by our corporate media, one begins, slowly, to realize just how remarkable and inspired is Joshua’s effort.

One Response

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  1. amanda said, on February 8, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Joshua has always been a source of interesting stories. I’m so happy he shares them with the world. He is insightful and looks at the world differently than most. He’s a good person, and my little brother.

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