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How to take International Street Portraits

Few things are more enjoyable than traveling in a foreign country and using your camera as a bridge to connect with locals. Especially in countries and areas which are under developed, you may find that many people have not had pictures taken of them – and certainly not by one with an SLR camera. With a few things to keep in mind, and a little pro-activism, you may find your international trip to be full of some very special, storytelling images.


1. Become Familiar:

Every location is different, so keep safety in mind. Generally, if you return to the same location multiple times, or if you slowly browse the area it is easier to familiarize the locals with you and your camera. Without some level of familiarizing, it is more challenging to get permission for taking portraits – or even pictures of the neighborhood. Be friendly, become familiar, and people are more likely to welcome you.
I spent about 10 minutes in the street of this market in India before taking this portrait. I nodded and smiled to the 5 most immediate venders near me. I made it very clear I was no threat – even a friend.

2. Make Eye Contact and Ask Permission

When you are in a foreign country and don’t speak the local language, its still important to communicate and ask permission. Non-verbal communication will be key. Make frequent eye contact, smile, and hold up your camera when asking permission. Most will give you a clear yes or no for the photo, and its very important to honor their request.
I smiled at this old man several times before holding up my camera as a non verbal request to take his picture. He was very happy to acquiesce – even hold a direct gaze with the camera unflinchingly.

3. Go for the Story

What makes a portrait from an international location more compelling. Often it is the story that you can create with the image. Who is the individual? Where are they from? What do they do? What is their background like?
I was captivated by the story of this man. He was a shoe shiner, whose “office” and “home” resided in one place – the slide walk of this market. In a sense, he is homeless, but in another sense, he also has a home. The story was quite gripping in light of the context.

4. Coordinate the Elements for Composition

A jumble of textures, a variety of elements, and a subject – all these must work together when composing your shot. Remember the subject is most important, but there are other things that may add strength to your image as secondary subjects.

There are many elements that give support to the shoeshiner. His shoes. The tools. The clothes hanging behind him. Etc. All of these elements give greater context to the story, and thus I also arranged accordingly.

5. Interact

The human element – expression and character – give a unique kind of artistry to your pictures. Your interaction with your subject will determine many things about the photo; look and feel, mood, etc. After you capture your portrait, be sure to share your art with your subject. You may be able to impart something that is absolutely priceless.
I am so grateful that I did.

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Christina N Dickson
Christina N Dickson

is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

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