Nevada Wier - chop

Faces of the World
The Challenges of Photographing People

Reprinted from Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine

By Nevada Wier


Hearing the names of Kathmandu, Rangoon, La Paz, Nairobi, or Samarkand evokes images of seemingly unreachable destinations where National Geographic photographers travel on assignment. Today however, distances in time and space have shrunk. It no longer takes months of sailing, riding camels, or trudging across deserts to reach such remote outposts. Within two days you can be sipping tea in the most fabled cities of the globe.

Whether your travels
take you on a photo tour to China, cycling through France or visiting a festival in Mexico, one aspect of photography is likely to be the most challenging: recording the local people you'll find along the way. And yet, once you become comfortable with the interaction this requires, not only will you get better photos of people but you will also have a more memorable travel experience.

I take many different types of photographs on assignment or when leading a photo tour, but it is people photography that I connect with most deeply. Taking a photograph is the pathway to learning about someone and ultimately about myself. I often see people and details better with camera in hand, and I pay more attention to people's gestures, expressions and movements. The camera isn't a shield, it's my tool for exploration and helps pave the way for a personal appreciation of life and people.

Monks in Myanmar Taking Time
The longer you stay in one place and establish an intimacy with the people, the better the chance of experiencing special and unexpected moments. But in the real world, few of us have the luxury of unlimited time or an endless bank account. Whether it's the accelerated pace of modern publishing, or the constraints of personal time and money, these factors dictate the limitations of a photographer's schedule. Often I have to "parachute" into a situation and establish an immediate rapport with a place and its people. I try not to become obsessed with my time limitations. I don't need to photograph everything and everyone. I really only need a few great shots that express my experiences. Whether you have one day or a month, let your natural curiosity and wonder propel you into a richer travel and photographic adventure.

Approaching Potential Subjects
Newcomers to travel photography are led to believe that only a combination of stealth and long lenses can guarantee the "trophies" they want. My guess is that most travelers feel guilty taking photographs of people; they feel they are being obtrusive and invasive, so they use a long lens to shield themselves. Still, even with a 200mm lens you need to be as close as 15 feet for a portrait from the waist up. My own approach is simple. I rarely use a telephoto lens, preferring direct photographic contact with people. Since I enjoy a personal exchange, I go right up to someone and engage m a conversation or make some kind of contact. If you are yourself and are open and honest, pulling out a camera is unlikely to disrupt the favorable atmosphere. If potential subjects feel that you are trying to use them, they won't communicate with you.

Success in photographing people lies in the manner of your approach. Suppose you are in a village market and you notice an intriguing woman selling beautiful red tomatoes. The light is perfect. You know the best shot is a candid shot, so you quickly hold up the camera and snap the picture. Suddenly, she senses you and looks up. If you meet her gaze with a guilty look and scurry around the corner, you're sending a message that you've done something wrong or you've violated something. I've seen this happen far too many times.

Don't slink furtively away. Instead, put down your camera, smile and wave. Go over and shake the person's hand in gratitude. You might even buy a tomato from her. After establishing good, friendly terms, take out the camera, put on the wide angle or macro lens and continue shooting. I find that people appreciate my directness, and the person in the next stall may also be willing to pose for you. By then you have the market on your side, having shown that being photographed can be fun.

Kirgiz woman and son Sometimes, though, you'll find that when a person notices the camera, he or she becomes annoyed and waves you away. With experience it's easy to tell the difference between someone who is sincere in the wish to be left alone and someone who says "No, no, no," but means "Yes, yes, yes."

I never patronize people or talk down to them, but I do reassure them and try to put them at ease. However, with those who give me an obvious abrupt "No!" or ignore my pleasantries, I smile, thank them, and walk away.

When staying in one city or village for a few days or longer, begin making "shop friends." Eat at the same local restaurant, and buy from the same shop keeper. Soon you'll become familiar and they'll relax in your presence, then you'll have the opportunity to shoot unobtrusively. I usually carry photographs of my family, friends and my house with me in a small book. They are big hits, helping to bring down social barriers.

Photographic Techniques
It is essential to know your equipment so well that the camera becomes an extension of your hand and eye. Dexterity comes from long hours of shooting and familiarity with your gear. Without quick reflexes and an automatic knowledge of your equipment, the instantaneous, decisive moments will pass unrecorded on your film. I have a favorite maxim: Move in slowly and work quickly.

Whether you have one day or a month, let your natural curiousity and wonder propel you into a richer travel and photographic adventure.
Many photographers prefer not to use a motor drive when photographing people. I can certainly understand the sentiment, as they can be noisy, obtrusive and confusing. After I have reeled off a series of motor driven shots I usually drop the camera from my face and make direct eye contact and then begin photographing again if necessary. Still, it does help to have a quiet camera, one which does not sound like a machine gun.

Be sensitive when using flash. Remember how blinding it is to have a burst of light go off directly in your eyes. Make the camera a bridge rather than a barricade. If your subject is unfamiliar with a camera you might even let him or her look through the viewfinder.

Don't spend too much time photographing one person in front of family or friends; it begins to embarrass them. Often I'll intensely photograph one individual, then leave or turn to his neighbor. Later I'll return and continue photographing the person who initially interested me.

When shooting with other photographers, whether friends or others on a tour, be sensitive to the social dynamics. When a person is talking with someone and establishing a rapport, don't sashay over and shoot over his or her shoulder. Not only is this action annoying for the person who is enjoying the exchange that might lead into a photograph as well as rude but it is unpleasantly surprising for the subject.

Communicating Across Cultures
While you do want to be sensitive to other countries' cultural mores, don't be shy and don't hesitate to explore the back alleys and tracks not mentioned in the guide books. Stretch yourself beyond your own cultural boundaries and inclinations. I find most cultures very tolerant; they expect foreigners to make mistakes. Generally speaking, America is a very private and suspicious country compared to most. As I walk through small towns in foreign countries, I'm not afraid to peer into doorways or go into stores and talk with people. It is usually construed as a friendly gesture and not an intrusion. You'll get the message if you've overstepped the boundaries.

In many countries, you simply will not be able to speak the language. And yet, I have had the longest conversations with people who don't speak English I talk in my language and they talk in theirs. Of course, neither of us can understand a word, but we have a wonderful time. Sometimes it helps to have a local person with you: a paid guide or someone who befriends you on the street.

Try to learn at least a few important words and simple phrases: hello, good bye, thank you, please as well as numbers, etc. (Lonely Planet Press publishes excellent compact phrase books for some of the more obscure languages.) The goal here is not to discuss quantum physics, but to extend a thread of contact. Even if you mangle their language, most people are pleased and honored that you have taken the time to try to learn it.

When you liberally mix a few phrases with gesture, imagination, good humor and an outgoing nature, it is impressive how quickly and effectively one can communicate in a short period of time. Non-verbal communication is an easy art to learn. All it takes is practice and confidence. It involves using your whole body: your face, hands, head and torso movements. If your first attempt fails, try a different approach or another set of gestures. While photographing people I've found non-verbal communication to be as successful as verbal communication.

Sensitivity And Diplomacy
The richest opportunities to photograph people arise when the tour bus stops and the road ends. Being familiar with local customs (do research in advance or ask someone along the way) will make it easier to interact with the people.

I don't believe in wearing only native garb when traveling. I wear simple, neat unostentatious clothes to blend into the crowd as much as possible. If the local women are wearing long skirts and long-sleeve blouses, I mimic their level of modesty in my Western style.

When traveling you may feel as if you're representing only yourself, but to the eyes of the world you are also representing your country. You are a foreign ambassador, for better or for worse.

From a temple festival in Pagan, Myanmar Working Quickly
Photographing a spontaneous action requires a combination of intellect, intuition anticipation and luck. This can bring you to the right place at the right time and enable you to "pre-sense"" what's about to happen. At times I come into a new situation ready and watching, and grab the decisive moments as they occur. Other times I pick a spot where something unusual or interesting might happen, such as a market street comer or a charming wall or doorway. Here, I'll study the composition, decide what I need, and wait for someone to come along to complete the photograph.

Most Third World cultures have a different orientation to a camera than Americans do. Having a portrait taken isn't a time to be spontaneous and open for these people; it is a serious, special event where they are expected to pose straight-backed, staring somberly into the camera. In Vietnam I once photographed an older black Tai woman. I really wanted her to smile and show her black enameled teeth (a sign of beauty), but her natural reaction was to assume the usual rigid pose. I snapped a few frames so as not to be rude, then tried to change the mood. I talked to her and the crowd, trying to disperse the somber atmosphere. I mimicked a smile and made everyone laugh, including the woman. My camera's motor drive proved indispensable in capturing the fleeting moment.

Control The Situation
After making a connection with people who are amenable to being photographed, don't be shy about repositioning themˇ if you don't like where they're standing or if the light is harsh, for example. Ask them to move a few inches, sit down, or even follow you to a better place. They'll get the message that you're trying to portray them in a flattering fashion. When we don't speak a common language, I mimic a posture or action and imply that the subject should follow my lead.

I like the process of both taking and making a photograph. In order to form a more pleasing composition or color arrangement I'm willing to move objects into an interesting pattern or a better light source, such as under a window. I also rearrange the folds in a skirt or the position of a hat, and brush back stray wisps of hair. I direct poses and hand placements. And if someone's tie is crooked or shirt is unbuttoned, I ask the person to fix the problem. Since I rarely travel with more than one flash unit, I'm forced to be very creative with available light. I often move subjects in direct sunlight into open shade outdoors, near a wall or under a portal, to get a soft, even illumination.

I don't believe that directing a photograph is being dishonest or unduly manipulative. Changing a hand position or moving a vase isn't much different from changing your shooting angle or focal length to exclude distracting elements in a street scene. Obviously, I'm not shy, but I don't march into a situation and brazenly begin moving objects and people around. I always ask permission when necessary and involve the subjects in the process as much as is appropriate. I find people aren't put off then; in fact, they appreciate the effort and time I spend on the image or their appearance.

The Issue Of Tipping
Some travelers swear by a Polaroid camera, claiming that a gift of an instant print unlocks doors. Others say that they may briefly unlock a door, but that they close doors for the next person who might not have a Polaroid. I tend to agree with the latter preferring not to foster a type of instant gratification. Polaroids breed more Polaroids, and eventually people will refuse to have their photograph taken unless they can immediately have an image.

There are a few situations where I'll pay money or present a small gift in exchange for photographs, such as, when I have asked the subject to take time out from work, or from their home duties to poseˇor when I've photographed a religious beggar or an educational, religious or art institution.

Photographing people isn't for the shy at heart. You need a certain amount of impudence to overcome natural reserve. You have to be friendly and forthright and have a lot of panache to approach strangers. Confidence and friendliness open the gates to communication. People are as curious about you as you are about them, and often all that is necessary to unlock this curiosity is a friendly word or two.

You don't always have the time or the fortune to wait for serendipity to lead you to a good shot. Then you have to rely on your wits and ingenuity, experience, and imagination to turn a good opportunity into an image on film. After all you don't take great pictures you make them.

© 1996 Nevada Wier and Outdoor & Nature Photography

This article is an edited excerpt from Nevada Wier's book Adventure Travel Photography published by Amphoto, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of BPI Communications, Inc. 1515 Broadway New York, NY 10036. ISBN 0-8174-3276-0.