I had just left my hairdresser on a beautiful summer afternoon in Manhattan. My blowout looked good, my husband was expecting me home, and the last thing on my mind was being photographed by a stranger.
As I stepped up to the corner of Madison and East 71st street, a man appeared and blocked my path. I looked up in surprise, an emotion that doubled when he asked if he could photograph me for his book. He introduced himself as Richard Renaldi and informed me that he was creating a book called “Touching Strangers,” which consisted of taking pictures of strangers standing together, touching—and he wanted my photograph to be part of it.
I stood quietly as Richard explained that I would be paired with a young woman visiting with her mother from Croatia. They were currently shopping in the Juicy Couture store, but if I agreed, we’d all gather at the Frick Collection for the photography session. His words came out quickly—it couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds, and that’s New York seconds.
His name seemed familiar, and I inquired about his publisher. It turned out that he was working with Aperture, where my oldest daughter worked when she first graduated from college. When it became clear he knew my daughter, some of my nervousness diminished, and I began settling into the idea of having my picture taken by this man.
I waited as he went to gather the young woman from Croatia, my photography partner, Mila. I idly noted that her outfit would work with mine, and that there was a slight familial resemblance between us—I was already making this stranger more familiar to me. I felt calm as we walked a block to the museum, despite the strangeness of the situation.
As we entered the Frick Collection, we were met by an official from the museum, which further put me at ease. As we waited for the shot to be set up, I began to second guess my choice. Questions crossed my mind, like “what if there are embarrassing subjects in the book? How will that impact me and my family?” I realized that I was still slightly nervous.
Richard explained the process as he prepared his equipment, and I could tell he was passionate about the project. The room was beautiful and empty, with soft light coming through the skylight. Richard had set up a huge camera that resembled what you see in old movies from the 20s.
We received no touch-ups, no makeup or hair attention. We were only positioned and given slight direction. I remember worrying about silly things like the bandaid on my arm from a gardening mishap or that I would look stern without smiling. Mila’s presence calmed me, even though I’d never seen her before in my life.
As Richard positioned himself under a black fabric curtain and began shooting, all my worries disappeared. It was fun! It was likely the most serene experience I’d ever had having my photograph taken. I didn’t feel self-conscious, even when a crowd formed behind the barricade. In fact, despite my natural inclination to feel uneasy with too much attention, I found myself connecting to the process and the people around me. It was sweet and friendly, and I felt like I was in a room full of people I had known for ages.
If I could, I would do it all over again. Not only was it fun, but finding yourself in an intimate position with a stranger was strangely liberating. I felt connected to this unknown young woman from another country—we were united and at ease.
Months later when the book was published, a friend informed me that my picture was in the New York Times. I opened the section and smack in the middle of the paper was a full-sized photo of Mila and myself. Looking at the photograph brought back the good feelings I had spontaneously working in partnership with total strangers. It truly touched me.
In the field of aesthetic medicine and nursing, I spend most of my days with strangers. I touch their faces, discuss their deepest concerns, and work closely with them. While I feel a unique connection with every person who walks through our doors, my “Touching Strangers” experience put my interactions in perspective. We may only be in each others’ lives for a moment, but even a few minutes can make a huge personal impact.