Featured Artist: Justin Bettman
Editor’s Note: As a urban portrait photographer myself, Justin Bettman’s Bagel Project caught my attention. His pictures of people living on the street are endearing and sometimes humorous. He has a knack for making connections with the people he contacts. In this interview, Justin chats about how the project started and offers advice to new street photogs. You can find more of Justin’s work at JustinBettman.com -Steve
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself (where do you live, are you going to school or working, etc.)?
I live in NYC and I work for the ad agency Ogilvy and Mather.
How did you get into photography?
In high school, I had a clothing company and we sponsored bands. I borrowed my dads camera and would shoot bands wearing the clothing before and during shows. I realized I liked shooting more than running the clothing company so I started shooting more and more bands. After shooting lots of bands at their shows and doing their publicity photos, I made the move into commercial and fine art photography which is my current focus.
How did the Bagel Project start and what do you plan to do with it?
I have always been a curious human being. And I’ve always liked to talk to people and hear their stories. So I wanted to figure out a way to do that with homeless people but still give them something in return. Originally I was thinking of giving away ramen because it was cheap and filling but I realized there would be no way to give them hot water on the streets. So I chose bagels since I think they are universally liked, cheap, and easy to consume. I didn’t really have any plan with what I wanted to do with it. It started out just me one afternoon with a friend and some free time and it grew from there.
Where do you make most of your contacts for the Bagel Project?
I would just approach people on the street and start up conversations. I’m notorious amongst my friends for talking to strangers so it wasn’t hard for me. I shot all the photos in the series in California.
What is the general reaction by the people you contact?
I think at first most of the subjects were confused with why an affluent upper middle class person is interested in hearing what they have to say. So often these people are just ignored and people walk by them as if they don’t exist. I think after they get over the confusion and start to understand that I’m genuinely interested in their story, the subjects were excited to have someone to share their stories with.
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in trying this type of street photography?
Gain the trust of your subjects. Most of the time I wouldn’t ask about taking the subject’s picture until an hour into conversation. You have to show them respect and gain their trust if you’re going to want a strong image. I think too many photographers think street photography is sneaking in a picture of someone when they aren’t looking and I don’t think that works for strong images.
Are there any other projects that you’re working that you would like to tell us about?
My most recent body of work is my Dark Series. These sets are much more produced with heavy lighting and staged stories.
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