Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.
Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.
But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.
Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:
This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.
2) Offer Money, When Appropriate
I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.
3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language
I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful. When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.
4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away
If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.
5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach
There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars. I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money). If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.
Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.
Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.
Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.
Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.
Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.
Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.
Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.
Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.
Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.
Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.
Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.
Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.