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Touched by a Stranger 

New TLF exhibit offers uncomfortable pairings

Imagine strolling down the street and being approached by a stranger. He seems friendly enough, a man in his 40s with tats on his arms and a professional camera in his hand. He tells you that he's a photographer and asks if he can take your picture — but, not so fast, he doesn't want you solo. Instead, he wants you to pose with someone you've never met before and, there's another catch. He wants you to casually touch each other in some way during the shoot. Would you do it?

The answer for many of us would be a firm "no," and that's not surprising. We savor our personal space and we're taught at an early age not to talk to strangers — let alone cozy up to them and actually be photographed doing so. For photographer Richard Renaldi's Touching Strangers series — a photography collection that features pairs of people of varying ages, races, genders, ethnicities and classes from the streets together — 40 to 50 percent of those he approached declined.

But there were also plenty who stepped out of their comfort zones with enthusiasm, apprehension and curiosity. "For the most part, similar to a stage hypnotist, I learned how to read a subject's openness and how far they would allow themselves to be pushed," says Renaldi, who suggested most of the poses for each pairing. The result of the project is more than 200 pairings and close to 1,000 shots total.

The collection showcases at The Light Factory through Oct. 17. Featuring around 20 images taken by Renaldi in cities across the U.S., the exhibit will be the first at TLF's new home in Plaza Midwood.

Piggy-backing off Renaldi's project, the folks at TLF are also hosting a photo contest, asking Charlotteans to take their own photos (details at www.facebook.com/TheLightFactory).

The concept of Touching Strangers came to Renaldi in 2004. He was working on another series, "See America by Bus," which was comprised of portraits of folks waiting to catch a bus.

"It was on the benches in these bus stations where I encountered the unusual circumstance of asking people who were strangers to each other to appear together in one of my portraits," says Renaldi. "The challenge of coordinating two or more strangers to appear in the same image appealed to me and in thinking about how I could expand on that, I thought of this question: 'What would happen if I asked these strangers to touch one another?' That question was the genesis for Touching Strangers in 2007."

The result is intriguing. Subjects for the photographs in the "Touching Strangers" series appear with mixed expressions; some appear humbled and relaxed, while others seem awkward. While these bonds are as short-lived as the camera's shutter clicks, they leave viewers with a striking look at human interaction. Keeping our humanity in mind, aren't we all more similar than we are different? Ponder this while looking at images of a man wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, a T-shirt and boots, paired with a hipster teen in skinny jean cut-off shorts, a neon tank-top and Converse sneakers. The teen's hand is resting stiffly on the man's shoulder, and both seem nervous.

"I was interested in what type of physical vocabulary would emerge when a photographer asked two strangers introduced only moments before to touch one another for a photograph. I suspected that the body language would be a compelling ingredient," says Renaldi. "Some of the images convey a sense of discomfort while in others, the subjects seem to be completely at ease with each other. I envisioned both these extremes — as well as the grayer, more ambiguous zones — were fundamental to the integrity of the project."

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