People add life to an image and make it more relevant to viewers. But how do you approach complete strangers to take their photo? Moreover, if you’re traveling and don’t speak their language, how do you communicate? Professional travel and documentary photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich shares some great tips:
One Common Sense Rule
“Be a human being before a photographer.”
Having a camera with you doesn’t grant you the right to interfere with others. Be sure to treat others with respect and put yourself in the place of the person you want to photograph. This should help you in avoiding many problems.
When photographing people, the subject may feel that you are invading their personal space. This can sometimes create misunderstandings and nuisances. You must be mentally prepared to face and overcome such hurdles.
Build Up Your Confidence
When photographing people, it is important to be confident about getting good results. You can’t expect to get great results in places where photographing is viewed negatively. Instead, look for photo opportunities in places where people are in a happy and celebratory mood and expect to be photographed. Collecting positive experiences can help you thrive as a photographer.
Turn on the Mental Switch
You definitely need to break out of your comfort zone to take photographs of strangers. It can feel terrifying but you need to challenge yourself to enter into their space and open yourself up to let them into your space.
“I find that to make people photos it’s like there’s a mental switch that you have to turn on. When you turn on the switch you’re basically saying to yourself, ‘I will take photos of people and I will do what’s necessary to get those photos.'”
Have a Purpose in Mind
Have a purpose for every photo that you take. Share your purpose with your potential subject to help establish some credibility. This can further help you to raise your own confidence. Your confidence will reflect on the subject in front of your camera and they’ll feel at ease.
“If you never have a purpose when you photograph strangers, you need to think of one right one.”
What to Say
“If you speak the language it makes a whole lot of sense to the people who you are photographing but don’t just talk about yourself or things that they have no idea about.”
Start a conversation from the little things and try to build a connection. Once you feel that a connection is established, you can then talk about photography. Building a good rapport can make the subject feel much more comfortable and they end up giving you more access. This drastically increases the chances of getting a good photograph.
But if you do not speak the language and happen to be in a photo-friendly country, be sure to spread some positive vibes.
“Smile, be open, curious, friendly, of course respectful. As a foreigner, you are often on the receiving end of people’s hospitality. People will let you into their lives.”
Bridge the Gap and Gain Access in a Foreign Culture
If you know the language, it can be an important key to a culture. But if you don’t, it can be a huge barrier. In the latter case, it becomes important that you get help from someone who is from the same culture and speaks the language, professionally they’re called a fixer.
“A fixer is your bridge between yourself, your creative vision, and the culture that you are working with.”
A fixer can help you with the language and also gain access for you in places where the action really takes place. This can open up a new world for you to photograph.
Get People to be Natural
As we already discussed above, being friendly with people, establishing a bridge, talking to them, having a purpose and sharing it with them, and having a fixer is all important to get natural photos of people. Besides these, you can also try the following tips:
- Photograph people while they’re indulged in their regular activities. If the subject looks at your camera, ask them not to. You can at least learn how to say this in their local language.
- Photograph the moment after their pose or in between poses.
- Photograph people during your conversation. You can get your fixer to talk to them while you take their photos. This helps in getting their focus off of the camera.
- Stick around with your subjects longer—a few extra minutes or even days depending on your project. People tend to get natural when they’re used to someone else’s presence. They then stop paying attention to the camera.
Find People Photo Opportunities
Finding the moment to photograph is really important. Here are some ideas to create photographic opportunities:
- Photograph the people you transact with. When you’re buying an item or a service from someone, you can build rapport with that person and then ask for a photo.
- Homestays can be great for getting intimate photo opportunities.
- Sometimes the magic happens precisely when things go to plan. Go with the flow and grab the opportunity to photograph the moment.
- Having your own transport comes in handy when looking for people photo opportunities. It helps you conveniently look around the locality.
Should You Always Ask Before You Photograph?
It’s not always necessary to ask to take someone’s photo in a public place. This can rarely get you into trouble. And if someone does object, it’s best to comply and delete the photos. In Kanashkevich’s experience, he doesn’t ask people for photos in the following cases:
- the person doesn’t take up a significant part of the image
- he can’t make out the person’s face
- people are in the middle of doing something or interacting with each other
- he sees a person with an interesting pose
Should You Pay for Photos?
Being a travel or people photographer is about documenting life. This means no setting up the scenes for photos and no paying, either. However, if you’re in for a commercial project, it’s a different story altogether. Some places will need you to pay for access—entry fees for example. That’s okay. But if you try to capture magic moments with people by paying them, you may not get them.
“I’ve got no issue with helping the people I photograph. Doesn’t need to be money either. But, doing it in exchange for a photo makes it less special for both sides.”
The next time you’re traveling, be sure to try out some of these tips!
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