16 Friends and Strangers: A Unique Portrait Project
Leni Stoeva. Photo by Erica Qualy
The idea for 16 Friends and Strangers struck me after I received a roll of expired black and white film from my friend Aaron Brame, co-founder of Memphis Film Revival.
My only instructions were to shoot this roll before we met the following Saturday so we could try to develop it along with some rolls from other local film photographers.
After I picked up the roll I started thinking about how I could use these 24 exposures intentionally in a week’s time. Knowing I’d be shooting on my newly-acquired Olympus Pen half frame-camera, I wanted to utilize the half-frame images and thought What if I did portraits?
I did some quick math — one image of a person per one click of the half-frame shutter would result in 48 subjects — way too many to wrangle and coordinate in a week’s time. If I wanted everyone to have their own frame, I’d just take two images of them, that would be 24 people.
Still a lot of people, but possible.
Then a more interesting idea came to mind. What if I took three images of each subject? Then they’d each have one frame to themself, but share the next frame with a complete stranger — whoever was next on my portrait sign-up list.
Planning how I imagined the portraits would be arranged on the film. Photo by Aaron Brame
This idea intrigued me the most and seemed the most feasible to try and get 16 participants within the week on such short notice. So I divided 48 by 3 (24 exposures multiplied by two comes to 48 images since this is a half frame camera, and 3 images per person) which meant, in theory, I could hold 16 portrait sessions.
To my surprise, all 16 slots filled up and there was even one back up! To help myself visualize and prepare, I drew out a map of how, in theory, the images would show up on film.
I loved interacting with my subjects, seeing what they chose to wear to their session, even meeting some of these people for the very first time. They told me their ideas for how they wanted to be perceived in the photos, showed me how they wanted to present themselves, and decided how they wanted to or didn’t want to interact with the person in the next frame. In a way, we were all collaborating.
The portrait project mapped out on paper.
As it turned out, I couldn't develop the roll with the group and had to drop it off at the lab to be developed and scanned. Those few weeks of waiting were excruciating. I think I may have held my breath the entire time. I had fully warned each subject that the film was expired, that I may or may not be developing it myself, that the images may be blown out if I accidentally chose the wrong aperture, or maybe they’d be out of focus if I chose the wrong distance setting. Basically I let everyone know that there may be no final product at all so there wasn’t really much pressure on me except the pressure I had put on myself.
But the film turned out just fine. Perfect, even. I was so relieved and beyond happy with the results.
The purist in me wanted to post only 16 subjects since that was originally the name of the series! But the thought of cutting the last frame of my friend, Taylor Cook, in half to exclude me didn't seem right.
Another thought in my head said but you didn't take those last photos, you shouldn’t include them as yours.
In the end, with Taylor’s blessing, I decided to include the whole roll. I think it shows a more intimate and truthful story.
Shooting film photography is a lot like living life, you can only plan out so much. At a certain point you have to relinquish control and just know that you did your best no matter the outcome.
The Artist’s Note on the Last Five Images
My last subject in this series is one of my close friends, Taylor Cook. She came over for her portrait and we were going to make dinner afterwards and catch up.
After I took her photo I advanced the film expecting it to come to a halt so I could wind the film up and finish the project, but to my surprise, it kept going. In theory, this should have been the last image! We were in a lull while making dinner so Taylor just offered to take my portrait to use up the last frame or so.
Suddenly I was in the hot seat! I was nervous! Why was I nervous! Just be yourself, I urged myself. I guess being under the bright lights and under a lens will do that to you.
So the last 5 images are by my good friend Taylor. She took shots of me and then later when my boyfriend got home and joined us she took photos of us until the film ran out. And of course not wanting to leave my dog out, we bribed Honey Bear with a tennis ball!
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Subjects: Leni Stoeva, Jimmy Ball, Franklin Doggrell, Peyton Baldizon, Rory Shrader, Marianne Spengler, Madaline Collins, Stephanie Galella, Emme Marshall, Will Ferguson, Kayla Drennen-Ferguson, William Ferguson, Renée Davis Brame, Aaron Brame, Louise Page, Valerie Walker/Jane Walker, Nyale Pieh, Taylor Cook, Erica Qualy, Erica Qualy, Jimmy Ball, Honey Bear
16 Friends and Strangers contact sheet.
Artist Erica Qualy frames the shot for one of her portraits. Photo by Aaron Brame.