Touching Strangers

How long is the longest that you have every gone without being really touched? I don’t mean a quick pat on the back or a hurried squeeze from a friend – I mean lengthy psychical contact from another person.

In my early 20s, I lived in London. It was amazing. It was also terrifying and lonely. I only had a few people I was friendly with and to make matters worse, I had no boyfriends or even dates for what felt like an eternity. In actuality, it was 8 months that I without intimate contact of any kind. I don’t just mean sexual, I mean I had absolutely no intimacy, tenderness or a meaningful connection with another soul.

One night, I went out to hear a DJ with someone I can now only describe as an acquaintance because I can’t even remember her name now. She was just a girl that I sometimes hung out with. The music was loud, the place was dirty and smoky and the bass thumped so hard in my chest that I felt sure it would induce a panic attack. The girl introduced me to a friend of hers, a guy, a random dude. We talked for a while about nothing much that I can recall; he seemed nice enough but the place was so terrible that eventually, I had to get out of there.

As I was leaving, the guy I had been talking to hugged me goodbye. I went to pull away quickly, but he held me fast. Not in a weird, I want to get on you kind of way. But in a way that made me feel that somehow, he understood I needed to be held for a little longer. I needed to be reminded that I was solid and present and visible. He smiled and looked in my eyes. He kept his hands on my shoulders as he told me that it had been a pleasure meeting me and truly, I believed him. I broke down in the cab on the way home after I realized how long it had been since someone had held on to me. I never saw him again; don’t even remember his name. It doesn’t matter, the Universe had done its job through him. In those brief moments he had unlocked something inside of me and made me feel…I don’t know if worthy is the right word but worth something.

This is why when I read about Richard Rinaldi’s new collection of photographs, Touching Strangers, I was immediately inspired. You can see his Kickstarter page here (as well as a video about his process, though he has already raised his goal and then some). Rinaldi’s mission was to take pictures of random strangers touching. It sounds banal. Anyone can put their arm around someone they’ve never met and pose but, that was not what Rinaldi was framing. He was attempting to capture an intimacy between these people who did not know each other – and he accomplished just that. It seems as if asking them to touch each other, though certainly in a way that he staged, actually became authentic. In the moment the aperture clicked, the intimacy became real. They were suddenly not strangers but rather connected to one another as fellow human beings.

Rinaldi has compared his search for subjects to the way a hypnotist might during a show. He looks for people that are open, whose body language suggests that they would agree to holding hands with a stranger. Of course, this made me wonder: would he have picked me? Does my carriage suggest such a thing? It probably doesn’t, but I’ve begun to think about this now. How can I change this? How can I become a person who looks open enough to connect with someone I do not know? Clearly, there are some trust issues going on.

I love this series. I love the vulnerability and the honesty these pictures portray. I love how these people who have never met cling to one another. They kiss on the cheek and hold hands and caress. Rinaldi somehow knows, perhaps like the man I met in London, what each of his subjects need from the other. It also made me wonder how long it had been since these people had been touched in this way – an hour, a day, a year?

A statistic in The New York Times says that in major cities, 40% of all households are comprised of people who live alone. That’s a pretty big number. I’m sure many of them have friends and loved ones. I’m sure they have full lives and certainly plenty of freedom to pursue whatever hobby strikes their fancy. I wonder though, all these people living alone, when was the last time someone held their hand? As Americans, we crave freedom. Sometimes though, the freedom to go anywhere to do anything, to be a totally unique individual, can in its own bizarre way be isolating.

Do you think you would be the kind of person that Rinaldi would choose if he saw you walking in the mall, or the grocery store? Do you have the kind of broad, open energy which would suggest that when asked by a stranger to touch a stranger you would agree to happily? Like I said, I don’t think I have it, but I really, really want to.

You can see more images from Touching Strangers on Rinaldi’s website

Featured image taken by Richard Rinaldi from his Kickstarter Page

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