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Curt Rosengren

People Photography: Up Close
& Personal

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Travel is a sumptuous, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of experiences, and people photography is a fantastic opportunity to belly up to the banquet and gorge yourself. It can add a unique dimension to your travel, nudging you into discoveries about people you may never have met and opening doors to adventures never imagined.

With the right approach, people photography can be:
  • A gateway to incredible travel experiences
  • A positive, entertaining encounter for the people being photographed
  • A source of fantastic photos that bring home the true flavor of your travels
The following tips can help you make your people photography all three:

People are People
This is less a tip than a general rule: People are people. They arenít exotic examples of local color or specimens in a global zoo. They are simply people working and playing in their everyday lives, and deserve to be treated accordingly.

Get up close and personal
The real potential for a one-two punch of great photos and rewarding experiences doesn't come from the lurk-around-the-corner-with-a-telephoto-lens variety of photography. It comes from an up close and personal, see-the-whites-of-their-eyes photography, the kind that forces the photographer to interact with people on a personal level.

Check your inhibitions at the door
No doubt about itópeople photography is intimidating. You feel like youíre intruding. There are a thousand reasons why you canít go up and take that personís picture, and if you really think about it you can find a thousand more.

Ignore the nay-saying voices in your head and jump in with both feet. Often youíll find that those voices are lying. One way to scale the wall of intimidation is to start practicing with people who can reasonably expect to have complete strangers take their pictures. Street performers are a great example. Once you gain a level of comfort here, you can start transferring that comfort to photography of other subjects.

With some extra effort, and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable at first, you'll find the results you're afterósometimes with some terrific unexpected adventures thrown in for good measure. The pictures you donít take will never come back, and the pictures you do will give you satisfaction for years to come. As will the memories.

In a town in southern Mexico, I almost succumbed to the "I canít possibly intrude" objection before deciding to join a funeral procession winding its way through the townís dirt streets. Not only was I welcomed, I was offered numerous shots of mezcal and ultimately invited to help carry the casketóan amazing experience I very nearly didnít have. I also got some great pictures.

Take a personal interest
A guerrilla approach to people photography--swooping in, snapping a shot, and disappearing--often shows in stiffly posed pictures, board-faced and anonymous. Worse yet, it can be irritating to the subjects and help create an environment where camera-toting tourists simply arenít welcome. Finally, it denies the photographer the chance to gain any meaningful insights about the people in the picture.

The solution? Take a personal interest! When people sense that you are genuinely interested in them, and donít see them as merely exotic photo props, they start to relax and open up. You become less of an intruder, and more of a newfound (if somewhat odd) friend. Make getting the picture a secondary goal and get to know the people you meet. Find out who they are, what they do, where theyíre from. If you donít speak a common language, smiles, gestures and pantomiming can go a long way toward establishing a rapport.

Showing a personal interest can open photographic doors that would otherwise remain shut. In Oaxaca, Mexico I visited a market where the vendors were primarily Zapotec indians. The setting, their traditional garb, their expressive faces all screamed "Take pictures!" The people themselves however, tourist weary and camera shy, met my overtures with shaking heads or wagging fingers. My camera wasnít welcome. It was only after putting my camera away and getting to know some of the vendors that I was able to successfully bring my camera back out.

My efforts also yielded an invitation to visit a family in their home in a neighboring village, some fantastic meals, and a day spent exploring the countryside with their son.

Get involved
Put your camera away and jump into the events of peopleís daily lives. Itís a great way to open doors without feeling self-conscious. Ask them about their work. Offer to help with some chore. Build a rapport by putting yourself shoulder to shoulder with the people you meet and taking part in their lives.

In Puerto Escondido on the Mexican coast, fishing boats beach themselves every morning, offering their catch to the locals straight from the boat. To get over the steep lip of the beach, the boat has to be pushed up the slope. I jumped in to put my back into it, and was rewarded with an amused welcome to take all the pictures I wanted. I could probably have taken those same pictures without pushing the boat, but by taking part first I felt much less self-conscious.

Show Respect
Be sensitive to the wishes of the people you are trying to photograph. Some people love the attention, but others simply donít want their pictures taken. If you run into the latter, smile and move on.

Someone once related the story of a woman on a photo tour to Morocco. "They just donít understand," she complained about the camera shy Moroccan women. "I just want to take their picture." The truth is, she didnít understand. There are always people who enjoy having their picture taken. Rather than force yourself on someone who doesnít want to be on the other end of your lens, be patient until you find someone who does.

The story of people who believe that a picture captures a piece of their soul is the exception to the rule, but there are many less extreme examples where your camera simply isnít welcome. Do some research before you go. Find out what is taboo. What is a welcome photographic event in one culture might be taboo in another. For example, photographing certain Hundu ritual festivities in Bali is off bounds, but Hindus at the very same event in India wil often welcome photographers with open arms.

"Speak" the local language
Speaking the local language helps immensely, but obviously itís not a reasonable expectation to learn the language everywhere you go. What you can do is learn the basics. "May I take your picture?" is a must. A smattering of verbs and adjectives will go a long way towards establishing a rapport.

Have fun!
The best pictures come when your subjects are at ease, so make the process be fun. Itís a party, and theyíre invited. Donít be afraid to be a little silly if it seems appropriate. Laughing at the goofy foreigner can be a great tension reliever, and put people at ease.

Silence is a sure killer of that spontaneous spark youíre trying to capture. If you share a common language, even a badly butchered one, use it. Ask questions. Get them talking. If you don't share a common language, talk to them in your own. Your goal is to get them to forget about the camera.. Someone once commented that the man in one of my pictures wasnít looking at the camera, he was looking at me. Thatís a worthy goal.

Keep Shooting
In many areas of the world, people go into formal portrait mode the minute a camera is pointed their way, the result of which is a stony faced mug shot. Take that picture, and then take another. And another. Work your way into the shot where they have relaxed. Itís the lucky photographer that getís the perfect shot right off the bat.

Money for Photos
The acceptability of this can be a controversial issue among travelers, and some will no doubt argue with the stance taken here. Eventually you will come across fascinating people who will request money for the privilege of taking a picture, usually in the poorer areas of the world. If this happens, politely decline and move on. Your presenceóand the thousands of tourists before and after youóis already having an impact on the local population (perhaps positive, perhaps negative), but you can do all you can to "walk softly," trying to minimize any negative impact. Paying for photos creates a begging mentality. If you really feel that you need to contribute, find an organization that is working to help and make a donation. You might even want to research these before you go.