Shooting travel portraits. Why it’s easier than you think
I’m in a mild state of shock today. I’ve recently read Watching the English by Kate Fox and discovered things about myself that I was better off not knowing. If you’ve not read the book it can be neatly summarised by the following: in terms of their social interaction with one another, the English are odd in the extreme. A This has been a profound revelation for someone who instinctively apologises even when they’re the person being bumped into (I’m rather hoping it’s not just me who’s ever accidentally walked into a lamppost and then apologised without thinking).
Politely asking permission to take a photo is better for you and your subject.
And that’s not all. The English have a reputation for talking at length about the weather. Pretty harmless stuff you’d think. That’s until you discover that we use conversations about the weather as a social facilitator because it’s our default method for breaking the conversational ice. The easy-going hugs and kisses and general bonhomie of our continental cousins just aren’t what we naturally do (though I’m willing to accept that you may be the most out-going person it’s possible to imagine, in which case award yourself extra points).
Ask a parent’s permission before you take pictures of children.
There’s more of course, but you’ll just have to buy the book to discover the numerous ways in which the English are peculiar. However, before you rush off to order a copy I’d just like to relate all this to photography. Specifically about shooting portraits of people you meet on the street while travelling in foreign climes. If Watching the English is right this should be a profoundly difficult thing for the English to do. After all creating a rapport with your intended subject involves a certain amount of social interaction. And talking about the weather to a) someone who doesn’t speak much English, and b) in a country where the weather is consistently warm and sunny all year round is a bit of a non-starter.
Get down to your subject’s level if they’re considerably shorter than you.
Fortunately, it’s all much easier than you’d think. You just have to pluck up the courage and employ another trait of the English: politeness. Don’t be aggressive or pushy. Learning a few useful words of the local language is important. Hello, please, thank you and goodbye are the very least you should know. It’s amazing how far a winning smile, eye contact and a few well-chosen words will get you. Just try to imagine how you’d prefer to be approached back home. Would you want someone pushing a camera in your face without first asking permission?
One big benefit of digital is that you can show the results to your subject. Not something I could when I shot this image with a Holga ‘Toy’ camera.
It’s important that you try to fit in with the locals rather than expecting them to fit in with you. Knowing something about a country’s customs is useful too. There may well be people that you really shouldn’t approach. Children can be a contentious subject – a child’s parent should always be consulted first. There may also be places where you shouldn’t shoot for reasons of religion or custom. These restrictions should be obeyed even if they seem illogical. It’s not your country after all. And if a person really doesn’t want their picture take this should be respected (so no sneakily switching to a telephoto lens and moving to the far end of the street – that’s just not cricket).
Actors at ‘living’ museums are good people to practise your portrait skills on. They often actively encourage photography.
Remarkably, this generally all works. People are people wherever you go in the world and they usually want to do their best for you. So, even if you feel a bit squeamish about asking it will ultimately worth it. And if your subject gives you a hug or hearty handshake afterwards you have my permission to enjoy the experience.
Your weekend challenge this week is to shoot portraits of strangers. This is easier at events such as fairs or shows, or at ‘living’ museums. It’s good to practise on people who are in the public eye and who are generally more willing to be photographed. This will help build up your confidence about approaching people you may meet on your travels later.