It has been ages that I want to write something on this topic. To be honest, this is probably the question that comes back most from my students: how should I approach people to take their photos?
For most people traveling here, and to be more precise, for most Westerners travelling in South East Asia, taking photos of people feels like intruding into their private lives. Mostly when your photographic tutor tells you to keep getting close, it may feel uncomfortable to approach locals one does not know. Well, I do have few answers for you.
Please note that in this article we are talking about Travel photography focused on people and South East Asia. For street photography in New York city, different tips are applied, including getting a good lawyer! If you are looking for more “street photography” style check out this great article written by Danny Santos on Eric Kim’s blog.
First, when people tell me they do not want to intrude, and enter people’s private spaces, this is said and thought from a Westerner perspective. Things in some part of the World, and mostly in South East Asia, as very different. Indeed, private space is very different here compared to in the US for example. Here, leave the door of your house open and neighbors will start coming in to borrow chilly, pinch your kids cheeks or just see what is going on. People will hug you and walk with you that way after 10 minutes they have known you. And for the ones who have been traveling to Vietnam, after 1 minute the first questions to come are often: “Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have kids? Do you make a lot of money? Etc…”. Privacy does not mean the same for them as it does for us.
Remember that when traveling, you are the foreigner, not them. You should be adapting to their cultures and get into their houses, ask them personal questions about their lives, and so on. And you should get close to them!
Now, how does one actually get close to people?
Well, it is all about the photographer’s attitude toward the subject(s). Let’s say I am eating snails on my terrace in Paris on a Sunday afternoon (as all French people do on Sunday afternoon) and this foreigner guy comes in and look what I am doing. First I think “what the hell is this guy doing?”. But this guy, obviously not French due to his accent and poor French language skills comes and talks to me. He looks very excited and eager to ask me about what I am eating. He manages to speak a little French and ask if these are snails. He tells me he heard about this French tradition but never actually tried. Of course I offer him one to try, and the guy does try it, looking very satisfy when he finally tried one of the most famous French culinary treat (guys, I am French and I ate snail 3 times in my life, this is not something we have for breakfast!). He seems very happy and give me some thumbs up, with a big smile, and asks where he can buy some.
Then I feel: wow this guy is cool, he is ready to try this disgusting looking dish and seems to like it. He is pretty open minded to be doing such a thing. And he makes me smile with all his thumbs up and bad accent.
So when that guy takes a camera up and make a sign to me showing that he wants to take a photo to remember this moment, sure I say! We have had a good time discussing about snails and watching his weird face when swallowing his first snail. And you know what? If you can send me the photo as well, I would love it!
Not sure this snail related example is what works best here, but I am trying to show you that it is about the photographer’s attitude, and only about that. I have made smile and laugh and took photos of people who seemed to wish to kill me when I saw them first.
But this takes a lot of energy, and time. You do not always have the luxury of time when traveling (2 days here, 3 days there, “quick quick I need to visit everything which is in the Lonely Planet”!). Yes, taking photos of people takes time, unless you walk to people, snap a shot and walk away. But then you are an A****hole.
When I finish a photography workshop in Hoi An for example, I know that was good and I probably have some good shots, as well as my students, when my jaws hurt from over-smiling for hours. Vietnam is easier for me as I can speak the language. I get into a conversation with people right after meeting them, and it often startle the locals when this foreigner guy comes to them and ask them how many children do they have in their own language. But wherever you go it works the same.
Learn the basics of a language, and when I say basics I mean learn 2 words: Hello / Beautiful. Come to people, say hello, at least (I do meet a lot of people who have been traveling in Vietnam for over a week and still do not know how to say hello). Try to communicate with the people using your hands and smile (Oh yes, the smile does EVERYTHING in South East Asia). Get interested and curious into them, what they are doing, things surrounding them.
Open yourself to them. If you open yourself to them, they will open to you.
Once the contact has been made and there is a good feeling going on, maybe it is time to take the camera up. You do not need to ask to take a photo, you have been talking to them for 10 minutes with a camera as big as their pet dog in your hands, they know where you are going to. Once you have snapped a photo, show them and say “beautiful” in their own language. You’ll usually end up with 10 people around you laughing and how their neighbors look on a photo.
That is a thing one needs to realize when traveling: for people living in developing countries, it in not obvious what we are doing with our photos. People who have never been out of their villages may see cameras as something used by the army to document the population of a country. People just do not know we love taking photos because we love it! So one needs to make this clear, explaining we love them because we think they are beautiful.
“Asking people “Hello can I take your picture?” is the worth thing you can do. It means hello please stop everything you are doing, freeze your smile and pose”
I have been watching a lot what goes on when we go in photo excursion. What is sure is that the “Hello can I take your picture?” never ever works. People either do not speak English, so they won’t understand and walk away, or you are in an area with a lot of tourists and they will think “please not again!” and walk away.
Talking about traveling in an area which has been busy with tourists for a long time: the place has probably been spoiled already, by unreasonable people giving $10 to an old woman after taking her photo. Not that it is unreasonable to help, but you do spoil people very quickly by giving them money. Well, there is not much you can do about that. You can still find people who will enjoy chatting with you and see how open you are to them, but as it takes time, they will miss a big group of tourists coming out of a bus and feel they can’t stay with you anymore. So money has to be involved here. Yes, but play with it then!
I hear “photo one dollar” a lot in Hoi An. But when the light is perfect and I spotted this great wall to use as a background, I say “fine you old lady, but come here. Walk in front of that wall, and look in that direction!” It will cost me $1 to get a great postcard (my own, not a 20 years old photo they sell all over the country), great deal!
And when I come back to any location I have been before, I print the photos of people I have taken and give them. You cannot imagine all the doors it opens to you, people then queue to have their photo taken. Just start the queue line where the light is best! 😉
To make it easier for you, try and find an area with a lot of activity going on. If people are busy doing their things, they will not care about you being around and snapping photos. Also, I usually tell my students that when not comfortable approaching people, start with kids: they are patient, easy and love having their photo taken!
Once again, approaching people and have them opening themselves to you is all about your attitude. It takes a lot of energy and smiles, but everyone can get there. I have met some photographers who, the more they realized they struggled to take photos of people, the more they were getting grumpy of not getting the shot. This was making people around feel they did not want to have their photo taken by this unfriendly not smiling man.
I found this to be the best way for me to decompress and relax from the hassles of life. When in a village, getting into people’s houses, chatting with kids and trying to get the best shot, I do forget all the world around, and I enjoy all simple things life has given me.