Interview with Patrick Wright

I first met Patrick Wright a while back at a Film in Baltimore meetup. We got on the discussion of taking street portraits and the courage it required, exchanging tips and past experiences. After getting home that night, I had to look up his work. Scrolling through his Flickr, I saw a brilliant portfolio of subjects on the street, all seemingly comfortable in front of the lens. It's one thing to take a portrait of a stranger, but it's an entirely different feat to make them appear like your oldest friend. Patrick does this very well.

Recently, Patrick has been working on a new series DC Metro Moments, which details his experiences riding the Nation's Capital's metro system.

We spoke with Patrick about his experiences shooting portraits on a train, his run-in with the DC mayor, getting over the fear of photographing strangers, and more!

All photos by Patrick Wright
Interview by Josh Sinn


Where are you originally from?

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia.

You’re now living in Washington DC. What brought you there?

I went to college in Iowa. After I graduated, I moved back to Arlington and lived with my parents. Once I saved up a little money, I moved to DC in order to get the hell out of the suburbs.

What are your first experiences with photography?

One day in kindergarten they gave us disposable cameras and set us loose. Our teacher put gold stars on the backs of the photos that she liked. I remember flipping over my photos and getting a rush of good feelings every time one had a gold star. It’s kind of the same feeling I get now when someone likes one of my photos on Instagram. I guess not much has changed since kindergarten.

Do you have any formal training in it?

Not much. I took a couple darkroom classes in high school. They were great but once the classes ended, I stopped taking photos. I tried to pick it up again in college when I signed up to be a yearbook photographer. They loaned us expensive DSLRs and paid us $1,000 per semester but I was too shy to go out and take photos.

More recently, I took another darkroom class to brush up on my printing skills.

You started off shooting street portraits, which can be nerve-wracking. How did you push yourself to talk to people and gain their trust?

I always wanted to photograph people but I had always been too afraid. The idea of walking up to someone out of the blue and asking to take their photo seemed impossible. But I started to notice examples of people who were able to pull it off. I followed blogs like The Sartorialist and a Flickr group called 100 Strangers. I realized that photographing strangers was something I could do, something I had to do, so I borrowed my wife’s camera and got started.

It was hell at first. I felt sick to my stomach when I went out to take photos. My hands shook when I held the camera. But what kept me going was the idea that if you do anything for long enough, it starts to feel normal.

I started off photographing people at Union Station because it was on my way to and from work. I made myself take photos there every day for months. I knew that if I skipped a day, I might lose the nerve to keep going. By the time I finished the project, I had photographed more than 1,000 people. My fear of photographing people mostly disappeared and I started to have fun with it.

"I realized that photographing strangers was something I could do, something I had to do"

One thing I learned was that the more I explained to people about what I was doing, the more they would trust me. I’d say, “Hi, my name is Patrick. I’m doing a photography project and I’d love to take your photo.” Then I’d tell them about the project. I’d tell them that I post the best images online and that I could email them the photos if they’d like. I’d give them my business card. I’d speak in a slow and deliberate manner and by the time I was done, they’d say, “Okay, let’s get on with it.”

Also, I shaved every morning and wore a button-down shirt to look trustworthy.

Any interesting stories from photographing strangers in your DC neighborhood?

I was taking photos at Union Station when I saw Vincent Gray, who was mayor at the time, walk past me with a security guard at his side. The mayor was drinking a milkshake through a big straw. I caught up to him and said, "Excuse me sir, could I take your photo?" For whatever reason I didn't address him as Mayor Gray or Mr. Mayor or anything that would indicate that I knew who he was. He thought about it for a second, then handed the milkshake to his security guard and told me to go ahead. The smile on his face was a forced one, but I rolled with it because I couldn’t exactly tell the mayor not to smile. After I finished taking his photo, he and his security guard went on their way. A minute later his security guard came jogging back and asked, "Do you know who that was?" I said, "The mayor?" That was good enough for him and he left.

Last year, you started a project called DC Metro Moments where you photograph people on the DC Metro. How did this idea originally come about?

Before I started the project, I was having trouble finding the time to go out and take photos. Once I finally got off work and took the metro home, it was too dark outside to take portraits. Finally, the obvious solution hit me. I could be taking photos during my commute on the metro.

I enjoyed it so much that I was soon taking photos on Friday and Saturday nights as well. It's impossible to run out of interesting subjects who are going somewhere on the metro. I’ve photographed people on their way to first dates and people on their way to court dates.

What attracts you to a specific person to photograph? How much direction are you giving to your subjects?

I follow my instincts. Sometimes it takes an hour before I find someone I’d like to photograph. If they ask, “Why me?” I might explain that it’s because I like their outfit. But the real answer is probably more like, “Because you look cool but not in a way that’s screaming for attention and I think if I pointed my camera at you, you’d do something unexpected.”

I don't like to give a lot of direction because I like to see what the subject comes up with. Photographing teenagers is the best because they need no instruction. It's usually adults who prefer to be told what to do. When someone needs direction, I them to recreate what they were doing when I approached them in the first place.

Photographing strangers on a train is certainly different than out on the street. You’re in an enclosed space that you can’t exactly leave whenever you’d like so it must make approaching people more difficult. Do you feel more nervous about peoples’ reactions on the metro than the street?

Photographing on the metro is a little more challenging but it's not too bad once you get used to it. On the street, if things get weird you can just keep walking. On the metro, you can pull out your phone and stare at it like you got an important text. Then just hop out and switch cars at the next stop.

The thing that did make me nervous was having an audience. I didn't like the idea of several people watching me as I took someone's photo, making me and the subject uncomfortable. But it turned out not to be a problem. People are more interested in their game of Candy Crush than they are in the person taking photos three feet away from them.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t bring up Bruce Davidson’s Subway. How has his work influenced your own?

It’s one of my favorite books and it has been very influential. At first, I was afraid to start my own metro project. How could my work compare to Bruce Davidson's? But that’s the thing - it can’t. Nothing can. Once I figured that out, I was able to learn from his work and find my own voice.

Why did you work with film for this project?

I would have already quit this project if I had been shooting with a digital camera. On most nights, it might be a couple hours before I get a decent shot or I might not get one at all. If I could look at the back of my camera and see my failures in real time, it would be discouraging. But with film I don’t see the results until weeks later. And by that time, I’ve already moved on.

"I would have already quit this project if I had been shooting with a digital camera"

Also, when I'm shooting with a digital camera I get caught up in technical things like making sure the image is sharp and in focus. I'm much looser when I shoot with film. Accidents happen and I embrace them.

You often use flash for your photos on the metro where, in your past work, you’ve relied on natural light. Was it difficult for you to get used to shooting with flash?

I love working with natural light but using flash has really opened up the possibilities. When I relied on natural light, I was done shooting when the sun went down. With flash I can take photos long after most people are in bed. And I can freeze action with the flash so I can catch my subjects in motion.

It's been a steep learning curve though. With flash, you’re bouncing light off everything in the frame and it’s hard to anticipate how it will bounce back. I’m slowly getting better at it but the photos are still full of surprises.

Where do you see this project going from here?

The project is still in its early stages. As it’s progressed, I’ve been drawn to different things. I recently started taking landscapes on the metro which is a new thing for me. I’m taking candid photos more often as well. Who knows - in a few weeks I might be taking selfies on the metro.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Nope. Just one at a time for me.