There’s a bit of a dilemma when travelling to far flung destinations for photography. The people we find can be the source of some truly iconic images and the desire to capture them is strong for most of us. Think of the famous ‘Afghan Girl’ with her piercing green eyes; how we’d love to get a shot like that! This was famously the first time the girl had been photographed, and she was apprehensive, but gave her permission. She didn’t have her photo taken again for another 17 years.
But what about people that have come across camera-pointing foreigners many times? What about travelling in groups when the sole aim is to take photos? How do you avoid making them feel that they are in some kind of ‘human zoo’?
Engage first, photograph second
Photographer Steve McCurry, who shot Afghan Girl (one of the most famous pictures in the world), not only asked her permission, but sensing her shyness, and undoubtedly the fierce defiance that comes through so strongly in her gaze, left her until last. He showed he wasn’t a threat by engaging and photographing others first.
For most of us we will most likely be travelling as part of a group. This makes the impact of our presence and our pointing lenses much greater. We should be prepared to take as much time as necessary to build rapport before taking the shot, and be ready to leave without one if necessary.
Pay for it
Whether you buy something from a vendor or offer a tip (depending on the culture and the circumstances), it is important that you are willing to pay something for your picture. Most of the time, it is enough to be polite, friendly and respectful, but occasionally something more material will be appropriate. A good local guide or fixer can be invaluable in this case, letting you know what is appropriate and in some cases preventing you from tipping a small fortune!
Travel with a local
Communication is key and travelling with a helpful local can be a godsend. Not only can they help with the language, but they’ll know the culture inside out and prevent you from causing offence, or from missing opportunities by applying your own cultural values inappropriately. A good example is in photographing Indian Sadhus or holy men. They are great subjects but can be tricky to deal with. There are some that dress as Sadhus and hang around holy sites purely to be photographed to make money – they are the easy ones, but they can also be ruthless and will fleece you given the chance! There are also more authentic ones that are happy to be photographed and will expect a small reward. They generally make their money from donations for their blessings so it is not much different to them. Then there are those that are trying to get closer to god through the use of marijuana. These can be very unpredictable and you never really know how they will react. A few words in the local dialect can help gauge the situation and your next step.
Whether you speak the lingo or not, a smile means the same the world over and can break down barriers in an instant.
Show them the picture and email it to them if possible
You’ve gained some rapport and built a bit of a bridge, so don’t just run off, show them what you have been doing. You might find they want you to try again and you get another chance! If they like it, offer to send them it by email. But make sure you do. If you do they will be eternally grateful, if you don’t they’ll be less likely to trust the next photographer that comes along.
Split up from your group
Popping off for 15 minutes on your own can really help. You’ll find different photographic opportunities and you’ll be much less intimidating to any prospective subjects.
Become part of the scenery
Hanging around in a market place for about 15 minutes before you start taking pictures can do wonders. People start to ignore you and those candid shots become much more natural. Even better if you can buy something from a local trader or enjoy some of the street food – the locals will see that you are taking part in the daily life of the place and start to accept you.
Although asking permission is generally the way to go, there are many times when this is not possible or when it would spoil the shot. For example, when that perfect moment presents itself, or when you are some distance away from your subject. In these cases you just have to take the shot and if you are spotted, try to build the rapport afterwards. You can still ask permission either for the shot you have already taken, or to take another one. Most people in most countries don’t mind being photographed, but they do mind being disrespected or taken advantage of, and a few words, even after the event can make them feel that this is not the case.
Set it up
Many of those iconic travel shots we see and drool over are not the result of impeccable timing, but are set up. Think of monks in Myanmar next to a stupa with a gorgeous sunset or sunrise in the background. The chances are that the photographer has negotiated with them to hang around for a few hours, and to stand in just the right spot for the perfect shot for a few dollars.
The good news…
…is that people are getting more used to having their photos taken. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the ancient looking man with the wizened face we so want to capture no doubt has a selfie-mad grandson with a smart-phone!
Photography should definitely be about respect, appreciation and building bridges. It provides a great opportunity to engage with local people of different cultures and show that we are interested and want to learn about them. Provided we are respectful and polite, and take the time to chat, there is no reason why our subjects should be made to feel like they are in a human zoo. On the contrary, we should be able to help them feel valued and respected and have and may even encourage them to maintain their traditions and culture as they realise that people from other parts of the world value it.
One of the great benefits of travelling on one of our photography holidays is that your photography leader will help you negotiate this mine field and you can concentrate on getting the pictures!