Written and photographed by: Oded Wagenstein.
Know that moment when you meet a person, either in your country or while travelling, a person with an extremely interesting face, who you want to capture in an image? But then, a moment before you click the shutter, questions emerges:
How should I take pictures of a stranger, especially in foreign country?
Should I take the photo from a distance, with a Tele photo lens? Or should I get closer to the person being photographed, but risk losing the authenticity and spontaneity of the moment? Should I give him something for that? Or he might get offended.
Questions similar to those above are often asked by my photography students. Who usually own very good photography equipment and have good technical skills. Yet still, somehow, they are not pleased with their photographs, especially when the subject is people. If you feel the same, this article is for you.
Tip #1: Self Confidence
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” - Ansel Adams
The fear of hurting the person being photographed makes us do all kinds of things. Like, for some of us, the best strategy is to shoot the person from a distance. Some do not shoot at all (and usually regret it later). The worst cases are those who say that they “prefer to photograph flowers and beetles”, but deep in their hearts they know that people photography interests them the most. They simply do not know what to do when the moment of action emerges.
The facts are simple. In 99% of the time, the problem or the fear to get close is within us and not with the person being photographed.
During the past year I took photos of hostile tribes in South East Asia, on the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, of gypsy communities in Central Asia and even in the former Soviet Union. If there is one thing that I learned from visiting those places, is that most people would actually like their picture to be taken. That is, of course, if we do it right.
Tele lens photography, meaning, photographing people from a distance, can be much more comfortable. Also, many people would argue that it does not affect the authenticity of the photograph. Since the subject is not aware of the camera. Yet, during my work I have learnt that there is no substitute for the aesthetics and intimacy that a close up image can produce. There is something in the experience of meeting and talking to new people, in a foreign country, that makes your photography much more powerful.
So, how do we obtain the intimate quality of close up together with the authenticity and spontaneity of the moment, like in photographing a person from a distance?
The secret is by “breaking the ice” with the person. Since a person holding a camera is an intimidating sight for someone who is not used to being photographed, the first step is to simply come without the camera. Approach the person as a person and not as a subject of photography. Start with a small talk. I, for example, often show the person photos of my family and country and might even join them for a nice cup of tea if offered. I sit with the person for a few minutes; then take the camera out from my camera bag. I first let the person and their environment get used to the camera and only then, do I start working on getting the photos.
When I photographed this photo (above), of a young monk, in the picturesque town of Luang Parabang, Laos. It was after spending the whole day with him and with his friends. After getting the approval of the head of the monastery the day before, I joined their morning prays, lunch and in the afternoon, we even played football together. Just when the sun was setting, I ask the young boy: “where do you live?” He immediately ran up the stairs, stood up and pointed to the white door with pride. At that moment, as he stood there, I felt it was the right moment and shot this photo. Because of my early acquaintance with him, he was comfortable and relaxed.
This image was selected as picture of the month by the National Geographic.
Even after all this preparation, sometimes people still feel embarrassed by the camera, so they start to pose. This is exactly the opposite of what I want to achieve from them. So what do I do? I just allow them to do so. After two or three minutes, the person will finally go back to normal, and the authenticity of the situation will return.
In conclusion for this part:
This whole ordeal may sound as long process, but in my experience, 10 minutes will do.
Ten minutes of investment is all you need. Sure, during those 10 minutes you could shoot 9 more people, but that one photo, which you put your effort and love into, will be so much more powerful than the others.
Tip #2: Be Prepared
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams
The thing that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional in almost every field is usually preparation.
A professional photographer will start working even before leaving home, while an amateur photographer will wait for things to happen in front of their eyes in the field.
Here are a few tips, which in my opinion are a “Must” for every Travel or People photographer:
First, try to discover if the destination to which you are heading has any cultural prohibitions regarding photography.
When I shot the gypsy communities that live in the deserts of Central Asia, I knew, in advance, that they have many cultural taboos. Learning those cultural DOs and DON’Ts helped me on my mission.
Find a photographer who has already been and took photos in the country you are heading to (you can easily do so over the Internet). This person can be consulted with regarding several issues such as:
How do people respond to the camera? Are there things that you should not shoot? (For example- did you know that photographing bridges in India is considered a criminal offense?). If you have not found a photographer who would share their experience with you, you can use online forums or contact the embassy of the destination, in order to seek that knowledge.
You should also check the following: Are there any interesting festivals or rituals at the time of your travel? Is there any problem entering the country with photographic equipment at the border control? Are there any areas in which you should not travel due to safety reason?
Try to learn some words of the local language, such as ”Hello”, ”Thank you” and “Can I take your photo?”
Tip #3: Give Something Back
“When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph.” Annie Leibovitz
One of the most interesting discussions in the world of Portrait &Travel photography is dealing with the question of “Should the photographer give something back to the person he had photographed?”
During my last trip to one of the Central Asian countries, I found myself surrounded by groups of children asking for chocolate every time I took my camera out. I later discovered that photographers and tourists, who visited the place, probably felt bad for those sweet children, so they gave them chocolate.
These ”philanthropists”, other than severely damaging those children’s teeth, in a place where dental care is very uncommon, also created a really bad case of beggary, by teaching the children that a camera = chocolate.
In conclusion: I will never give sweets, cigarettes and other harmful items.
So what do I give? When it comes to spontaneous, single image, one that required a second of the person’s attention and time, I might not give anything. But if a person gave me their time, and especially in case they invited me to their home, even if for a short while, I will definitely give them something. But what?
Sometimes I give money, but usually I prefer to give something useful, that vary according to the location and needs of the person that I photograph. For example, I once gave two sacks of rice to someone that hosted me in his house. On another event I gave some children’s books, and once I gave small toothbrushes and got a small bracelet, that I still wear on my arm, in return.
There is one more special gift you can give the people you photograph- their own photo. I recently discovered that giving a person their photo, especially with their love ones, creates an outstanding result.
Interestingly, even in some very isolated places, one can find a place that prints photos. When I returned to this Uzbek man (above), with his photos in my hand, I was immediately invited to see his house and have a traditional meal. Other then, of course, being a great experience for a traveler, this creates more great opportunities to photograph.
When I recently photographed the nomadic Rabari tribe people in India, I took an image of an old Rabrai man with his younger brother. When I returned with the photo that captures the two brothers, I understood that this is the first time the two are photographed together. One of them told my translator: “If you had given me money for the photo, I would probably spend it on food or alcohol. But have given me a memory for life.”
Oded Wagenstein is a Travel Photographer and Writer. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israel) and a poplar photography lecturer.
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