I’ve wanted to write something on this topic for ages. 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 traveling in Southeast Asia, taking photos of people feels like intruding into their private lives. When your photographic tutor tells you to keep getting close, it may feel uncomfortable to approach locals one does not know. Well, I have few answers for you.
Please note that in this article we are talking about travel photography focused on people and Southeast Asia. For street photography in New York City, different tips are applied, including getting a good lawyer!
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’s perspective. Things in some parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, are 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 chili, pinch your kids’ cheeks, or just see what is going on. People will hug you and walk with you after they have known you only ten minutes. And for those traveling to Vietnam, after one 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?” Privacy does not mean the same thing to all cultures.
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 foreign guy comes in and looks at what I am doing. First I think, “What the hell is this guy doing?” But this guy, obviously not French based on 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 asks if these are snails. He tells me he’s heard about this French tradition but has never actually tried. Of course I offer him one to try, and he does try it, looking very satisfy when he finally tastes one of the most famous French culinary treats (guys, I am French and I’ve eaten snail just three times in my life–this is not something we have for breakfast!). He seems very happy and gives me a thumbs up, with a big smile, and asks where he can buy some.
Then I think, “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 ups and bad accent.” So when that guy lifts a camera up and signals to me that he wants to take a photo to remember this moment, I say sure! We have had a good time discussing 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 people smile and laugh and taken photos of people who at first seemed to wish to kill me.
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 up to people, snap a shot, and walk away. But that can cause misunderstandings easily.
When I finish a photography workshop in Hoi An for example, I know that it was good and I probably have some good shots 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 startles the locals when this foreign guy comes to them and asks them how many children 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 three words: hello, beautiful, and thank you. Say hello, at least. (I 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 a smile. The smile is everything. Get interested and curious about them, what they are doing, things surrounding them.
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 ten minutes with a camera as big as their pet dog in your hands–they know where you are going to do. Once you have snapped a photo, show them and say “beautiful” in their own language. You’ll usually end up with ten people around you laughing and talking about how their neighbors look in a photo. Then it is time to say “thank you”.
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.
I have been watching a lot what goes on when we go on a photo excursion. What is sure is that “Hello, can I take your picture?” never ever works. People either do not speak English, so they don’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.
I hear “photo one dollar” a lot in Hoi An. But when the light is perfect and I spot a great wall to use as a background, I say, “Fine, 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 year 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 having them open up 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 got grumpy about not getting the shot. This made people around feel they did not want to have their photo taken by this unfriendly, unsmiling 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 forget all the world around me, and I enjoy the simple things life has given me.
About the Author:
I am Etienne Bossot and I am delighted to take you on an amazing journey through stunning locations in South East Asia, while sharing my passion for photography. For the past 4 years I have been teaching to thousands of people, having any kind of photographic levels. I am also a commercial and wedding photographer in South East Asia.