Being The Calm Travel Photographer
I had the Maasai warrior posed right where I wanted him. He looked strong and confident as he stood on a rock, with the Kenyan grasslands spread out behind him. I made an environmental portrait. It was time for my bread and butter, the close-up portrait.
As I exchanged cameras in my shoulder bag, the camera with the 24-70mm lens slipped from my grasp. The warrior and I watched as it hit a rock, bounced off, and struck another. I picked it up and did a quick check.
Both camera and lens were down for the count. I hid the shock I felt, put it away, and went with my second body and a 70-200mm lens. He looked at me and asked, “aren't you worried about your camera?” I replied, “of course I am. However, this is the only time I will ever have you in front of my camera. The broken one will wait.”
He gave a sly smile, and we made some memorable portraits.
Later, the young warrior approached me and asked if he could give me a Maasai name. The warriors named me “Malubo” and explained it meant I was “the calm one.”
Following the incident, the portraits I made had a more reliable connection. They knew I respected my time there, and our bond became like a chain connecting us. I may not always stay calm, but I will forever cherish the name, and the time spent with the Maasai.
Connecting With People
As a headshot and portrait photographer, I know how important a connection with your subject can be. Often, the relationship is what makes the difference in a technically sound DMV photo, and a photograph with meaningful expression.
Developing a quick relationship with my subjects in the studio has made me better at connecting with people as a travel photographer. However, if you don't photograph people as often, you can still practice.
Make portraits of friends, and practice getting them comfortable in front of your camera. Then go to a busy area in your town or city and approach a few interesting people for a candid shot. I have found if you can approach someone in your town, you certainly can when you are the tourist.
Do You Change The Scene?
I hear travel photographers say they don't want to affect the scene. That's ok for them, but I welcome the interaction. My feeling is that we already change the scene with our presence. Human nature is almost universal. Social norms and culture can influence actions, but human desires are always present. Humans want to be respected and acknowledged.
There are few times a photographer has little or no effect on the subject. One is when the subject doesn’t know the photographer is present.
Other times are when the subject is distracted by intense concentration, such as war or sporting events. I believe almost every time the photographer changes the scene just by being there. That goes for news, documentary, and travel photographers.
A Few Examples
Does the protestor become more emboldened by the press on-site?
Does the researcher become more self-conscious by the subject's presence?
Does the woman in the market hold herself differently at the presence of the travel photographer?
I believe the answer is almost always yes. That is not to say the subject's behavior is radically influenced, but it is. If we photographers affect the scene, why not do it positively, both for those we photograph and for ourselves? How do we do this as a travel photographer?
Add A Little Humanity
First, treat everyone as a human worth your time. Remember, your subject is a person, not a zoo animal. Acknowledge them with a wave, head nod, or greeting. A common language is not required.
Learn The Language
Speaking of language, learn a few words in your subject's native tongue, even if most speak your language as well. This approach helped with some kidding around when I told a Samburu warrior to look brave, like a lion. We had already been joking around, so he cracked up laughing when I took the photo, looked at the back of the camera, and told him in the Samburu dialect of Maa he looked like a warthog.
Do things to endear you to your subjects. Language and respect go a long way here. However, in the right context joking around can bring you closer. I have attempted to sing along with Samburu tribesmen. I won't be winning any singing awards, but the tribesmen asked me to come back and camp in the village. Be vulnerable; after all, you are expecting your subjects to be.
Know The Social Norms
Of course, research is essential, as it is with any photography. You must know the laws, as well as the social norms, of the locations you visit. Know whether or not certain hand motions are offensive. Look into what extended eye contact may mean. Look into how to greet, and act around, the opposite sex.
Especially in cities, make sure you know what might be off-limits to photograph. I thought I did but ended up getting detained in N'Djamena, Chad, when I took photos in a crowded market. That's another story, but it all turned out ok.
Pay attention to how the locals greet and act around each other. How do they stand? If they stand inside the personal space you are used to having, be prepared. Hugs and kisses are standard in some places. In others, hugs are solely for same-sex greetings only. Know the norms and be ready for them.
Respect People's Wishes
Expect many people to say no when asked if you may take their photo. I haven't run into a situation yet where getting the photograph was worth not respecting the person's wishes (I'm not a journalist, so missing a shot doesn't impact me negatively). Show respect and patience, and you may be rewarded with travel portraits that reflect a special connection with your subjects.
As a travel photographer, these connections make the difference between a snapshot that documents where you went and a photograph that reflects a human connection worthy of a place on your wall!