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Travel Photography Subjects: Old People

Tibetan Mother

Travel photography is about bringing back images that represent the area you visited.  It’s about your feel of what was in front of you.  Most of us take photos while traveling with the intent of sharing them once home.  Showing others what the streets of Kathmandu were really like or how they manage to do more with less in Kenya.  The images with the most impact are often those who’s subject or theme is something familiar to the audience.  It helps us connect.

This post is number two of twenty one subjects that will help you focus when on your next journey and wish to bring back a well rounded story of where you were.  If you’re just going on vacation and only want pictures of yourself by the pool sipping boat drinks, then you can probably skip this one.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out what are some vital elements to capture when on the road and ask thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.

Old people.  They’re everywhere you go but many of us tend to look on by when traveling.  And yet, besides young children, I have found the elders of most areas to be inviting, warm souls who are easy to smile.  They hold the history of what has gone on around them and have many stories to tell.  And often all it takes is a few moments, a smile and an honest attempt to relate with another human to make that connection so vital to taking good people photos in general.

I like what Mitchell Kanashkevich has to say at the opening chapter of People Relations in the Digital Photography School ebook Transcending Travel, “Because people are, well, people and not inanimate objects they cannot be approached and photographed in the same way.”  This seems so base and obvious, yet when out of our element, on the road, we often look at people and photograph them as if they are an interesting sign or car.  Mitchell then goes on to describe methods for breaking the ice, connecting, posing and choosing settings.  Great advice for young and old.  His advice is easy to follow and worth the read.

Old can be very relative to where you are.  It is also very relative to what someone has gone through on their years on this planet.  Don’t limit yourself to just one definition as it will not fit everywhere you go.  When you’re in country, what types of activities are most popular with the elders of society?  Go? Dominoes? Sitting in a pub?  Find that out and you’ll find people more relaxed and approachable.  You’ll also find a wealth of stories, which is really the true value of travel.  Ask questions, if you know the language, and find out what the land was like 40, 50, 70 years ago.  Find out how their lives have changed as they aged.  Ask about passions and loss for surely they have known both well.  What have they done for a living (they may still be doing it)?  How do they celebrate life?  Ask questions and have a list ready, either written down or stored in your head.  These are the stories you’ll want to bring back.

You may notice I didn’t mention anything about taking photos.  For one thing, Mitchell covers it well in the book.  For another, it’s far more important to learn to relate than it is to tell you how to take portraits in this post.  Your people photography will begin improving the moment you set the camera down and get to know your subject first.  After a chance to chat and share some tea, then is a good time to politely ask your new friend if it’s ok to take their portrait.  Your friends back home will no doubt love the picture you show them, but they’ll love the story of the person in the photo even more.

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In the comment area below I encourage you to post a photo you’ve taken while traveling of someone old.  Someone you got to know.  And please post the story of how the photo was taken to help share more than just the two dimensional.

In my case, the photo above is of an 81 year old Tibetan mother, grandmother and great-grandmother named Doma.  I met her as part of a mission from one of her sons back in the United States to record a message.  She had been ill and I was traveling to the area of Nepal where she lived, how could I say no?   My instructions were somewhat vague, with suggestions like, “She doesn’t speak Nepali, but understands Sherpa, so find someone who speaks Tibetan if you can.”  As luck would have it, her health was good on the day I showed up and one of her grandchildren was there to help with introductions, being fairly well learned in English.  Through sign language and the little bit of Sherpa I know, and from smiling a lot, I set up the camera and began recording her message to her son, 7,000 miles away.  She went on for over eight minutes when her granddaughter started telling her to wrap it up.  I thanked her and she thanked me, over and over.  Gratitude is easy to understand in any language.

I have since delivered the video to the son in the USA.  It made him laugh and cry.  If I never climbed a mountain, if I never took a single picture, if I never met another soul on that trip, the experience of delivering that video made the whole trip worth it.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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