Born and raised in the small North Island farm town Raetihi, population 1,000, Emma began photographing strangers when she was at “uni” in Wellington. She placed a classified ad in the local paper and calls flooded in from potential portrait subjects. “I realized that all the time I just shoot people I know,” says the 26-year-old. “So I decided to combine my fascination with portraiture and what that can really convey along with pushing myself to do something out of my comfort zone.”
During her four months in Bushwick and six weeks working on “Stranger New York” she’s been surprised by the city’s art scene — “people here are really willing to give words of support and encouragement,” she says — and not so surprised that photographing strangers here is vastly different than in New Zealand. “Undertaking this project has forced me to trust myself as an artist,” Emma says. “I am more vulnerable when I meet each stranger in New York, less able to rely on smalltalk based around our shared cultural experiences.”
Emma finds these “strangers” by posting ads on Craigslist, asking for subjects of any age or gender, with no experience necessary. Noting that it’s an “artistic undertaking” helps minimize, but not eliminate, suspicious responses. But many of the responses have led to “honest, beautiful moments,” she says. The first person she photographed here was Kyle, who lived in a public housing complex in Sheepshead Bay.
“I was nervous, admittedly because of the misconceptions I had about that neighborhood and venturing into the projects,” she says. “However, Kyle was sincere, open, and creative, and I took some amazing photos of him and his boyfriend. I loved spending the afternoon with him.”
Her goal with the project is to “question the implied intimacy of a portrait and the process itself is a tool used to help in my understanding of the relationship between photographer, sitter, and audience,” Emma says.
She isn’t sure if her project will ever be finished, but hopes to begin editing in September, then plans to host an exhibition toward the end of 2014. And she’ll invite the strangers to her exhibition to view their own portraits for the first time on the gallery walls.