I have always loved meeting people, even if it is just a brief or chance encounter. One of the things that I miss most about living in an English speaking country is conversation with strangers. Even as a kid I would "foam at the mouth" and chat with bus drivers, sales clerks, kids on the curb, anyone really. Those small, tiny moments of conversation and connection (even if they are brief) are some of my favorite things in life.
Meeting new people used to come naturally. Now meeting people and establishing a connection isn't easy for me. For the past fifteen years, I have had an ever increasing amount of anxiety.
Back in my twenties, I thought that the anxiety was limited to travel. But the older I get, the more I realize the far reaches of my general anxiety disorder (GAD). To be clear, my disorder is common. I am not alone. Millions of people suffer from anxiety and the crippling power of panic. But knowing that I am not alone does little curb anxiety attacks when they come.
What am I anxious about? Well, many things. I am an overly anxious driver. I am get sweaty in crowded places. I get nervous for seemingly no reason at all. The list goes on and on. But, those fears and stress inducing times are just the disorder. The anxiety isn't me.
As a portrait photographer, having GAD makes my job more difficult. But, it doesn't make it impossible. A portrait photographer's primary job is meet a subject, establish rapport, and make stunning images (often in a short amount of time). This can be tricky, especially if the photographer has anxiety around meeting strangers.
More often than not, folks contact me and inquire about my portrait photography services. They want or need to be photographed. Being approached is, by far, much more comfortable than approaching others.
My portrait clients aren't the only subjects I want to photograph. Every day I see people who would make for wonderful portrait subjects. Most of the time, I take a quick mental photograph of the person and go on my way.
I rarely approach others, introduce myself, and ask the person to pose for me. I don't want to offend anyone with my solicitation. So, I hesitate and let moments (and images) pass me by. My twenty-year-old self wouldn't like this. So I do what I can to stand up to the negative self talk and social phobias, refusing to allow the anxiety to get the best of me.
For the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to fight against my sweat inducing demons and have pressed myself to say hello strangers and to ask others if I can make their photo (as long as the encounter feels natural, casual, and respectful).
What does this have to do with Sand Harbor, Lake Tahoe, or the portraits of the beautiful woman featured in this post? I am getting to that...
Last summer I was sent to the American west on a travel photography assignment for Amtrak's The National magazine. I had never been to Lake Tahoe or the surrounding areas in Nevada and California and was honored to receive the assignment. I was excited to explore and photograph a new location. I was also anxious about the plane flights, car rentals, and general unknown.
As usual, the travel was relatively smooth and I arrived without issue in Reno, Nevada. My rental car was ready for me and everything went as planned. Before heading south through Carson City and then winding my way up and into the Tahoe Basin, I wanted to stop for some supplies. Right outside of the airport I found a shop that had everything I needed.
Entering the store, I was greeted by a smiling soul with a calm disposition. I immediately wanted to make her photo. But, as I usually do, I just made a mental polaroid and went about my business.
After putting my supplies in the trunk, I hopped in the rental car and started the engine. Before pulling out, I reflected on the everyday situation. I had missed the perfect opportunity to introduce myself and to ask if I can make someone's portrait. I realized that my social anxiety had robbed me of yet another chance to be the best photographer I can be. But photography (and selfishness) aside, I realized that I had missed another chance to engage with a stranger, to connect with a fellow human.
I killed the engine and marched back into the store. Again, I was meet with a warm welcome and friendly smile. The employee then kinda turned her head, giving me the, "Didn't you just come in here?" look.
I introduced myself and handed her my business card. She, in turn, offered her name and a handshake. I was mindful not to take too much of Kaitlin's time and simply told her that I wanted to make her photo. If she wanted that to happen, she should feel free to contact me. If not, she should feel free to recycle my business card. I left... again.
Back in the car, I was proud of myself for standing firm against my social anxiety. But, I was also a bit upset that I had solely focused on my own wants (making portraits). I wished that the brief encounter hadn't been so one-sided. Knowing that I was over analyzing the situation, I head to Lake Tahoe.
I didn't expect to hear back from Kaitlin. But, to my surprise, she connected me and was actually interested in a portrait session. She mentioned that she was trying to say "yes" to the things that came to her in life instead of pushing them away. I was glad that she contacted me and, luckily, had some free time the next evening.
We met at Sand Harbor, one of the most scenic spots in Tahoe (or anywhere in the world for that matter). For an hour or so, Kaitlin and I made some portraits. We got the chance to have the conversation that didn't happen when we originally met. We just had a good time.
In the end, I was thrilled to be able to make some images with Kaitlin. But more, I was happy to have made a human connection without feeling any anxiety at all. The whole situation was positive reinforcement, encouraging me to continue to fight against my anxieties. The encounter gave me a boost of confidence as I try to gain a bit of my younger self back. For that, I owe Kaitlin my thanks.
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