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Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

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:

1)Ask

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: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


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.

Discovering Ethnic Diversity in Singapore

Singapore may not offer the same sense of rugged adventure and unknown exploration as other countries in the region, but a visit to the thriving metropolis can be equally as satisfying a trip to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. One of the most fascinating aspects of Singapore society to observe is the multicultural, multifaceted diversity of the country. For a quick and easy peek at the diaspora living in Singapore, simply hop on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train at any stop. Grab a seat, sit back and spend an hour just people watching. You’ll see Singapore residents from all over Asia, and the world, who add to the spectacular diversity of the country.

The majority, around 74%, of the estimated 4,839,400 residents of Singapore are ethnic Chinese. 13.5% are ethnic Malays, 9% are from India 3% are from elsewhere. Although the majority of people living in Singapore are from China, Chinese is not the one official language. In fact, there are four official languages in Singapore including English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Instead of singling out one language as the national language, the always diplomatic Singapore chose all four so as to include each of the three majority groups. English was kept as an official language after Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew decided it would be beneficial both economically and politically to continue using English for business and administration.

A walk through one of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker center’s (street food markets) reveals the multilayered, multilingual aspect of the country’s diversity. In one stall a vendor might be mixing vats of black Hokkien Chinese coffee and speaking in a Chinese dialect. Across the food complex, in the halal section of the hawker center where Muslim men wearing taqiyah hats are making dough for roti, the melodic rhythm of Arabic or Malay can be heard. Down the lane in a stall selling fiery curries, the owner might hail from Kerala, India, and would be speaking in Tamil.

On a visit to Singapore you’re not going to find deep jungles or crumbling ruins, but you’ll find an incredible diversity of people, languages, foods and cultures. Observing the diaspora is a thrill in itself and visiting the many ethnic enclaves of the city is a great pleasure. Spend some time walking through hawker centers, cultural neighborhoods (like Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street), listen to the languages and you’ll understand an important and unique side of Singapore.

Singapore Tips and Ideas:
Here are some tips and ideas on things to do in Singapore to understand their multicultural society. Through a mix of street walks, gastronomic exploration, museums and ethnic neighborhood tours, you’ll leave Singapore with a more thorough understanding of the culture and the diversity.

*Visit Little India
Little India is perhaps my favorite area in Singapore. The Tekka wet market there is fantastic (although when I was there last summer it was closed for reconstruction). Spend some time walking through the lanes, the market and the main streets. Try a few Indian sweets and wash it down with a glass of milk tea.


Above: Men in Little India, Singapore. Photo by: William Cho

*Visit Chinatown
In certain parts, Singapore’s Chinatown is very touristy and can get a bit overwhelmed with people snapping photos of everything. Go a bit off the main drag and explore some of the Chinese medicine shops that are full of interesting herbs.

Above: A street scene in Chinatown, Singapore. Photo by: Khalzuri

*Ride the MRT
As I mentioned, riding the MRT around town is a great way to get a sneak-peek at the diversity of Singapore’s population.

Above: The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).  Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Asian Civilizations Museum
This excellent museum is located in Boat Quay, across from the grandiose Fullerton Hotel. This museum doesn’t specifically focus on Singapore, but it is bursting with information on the whole region. It’s a good place to go to enrich your understanding of Singaporean culture, and Asian culture in general.

Above: Asian Civilizations Museum by night. Photo by: Keng Susumpow

*Eat at the Hawker Centers
This one’s obvious. How could you go to Singapore and not eat at the hawker centers? I say it’s a good idea to eat at least one meal a day (if not all three) at hawker centers to get a true flavor and understanding of the regional cuisines. Singapore’s food scene is influenced by all the countries in the area, so it will be a bit like you’re exploring all of Asia through your meals.

Above: Chicken rice from a Singapore hawker center. Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Look at the Signs
The street signs directly reflect the diversity of language in the country. Take a look at them and you’ll see that many are written in all four of the official languages. You’ll also notice that signs and warnings on the public transportation buses and MRT are written in four languages as well.

Above: A sign in Singapore written in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.

Lessons Learned: Living in Nepal

Forty things you should know after living or traveling in Nepal.

1) There is no such thing as a rat or roach free hostel.

2) Cockroaches, although startling at times, are not aggressive at all.  (Learn to love them, especially in monsoon season).

3) How to properly haggle.  (Start low, but not too low).

4) The body language of someone who wants to cheat you.

5) The proper way to take a walk through the streets of Kathmandu without letting the street children, beggars, touts, salesmen, garbage, stray dogs, drug dealers, rickshaw drivers, and trekking guides bother me. (Note: It’s all about a strong and harsh: “NO!”)

6) The joys of tea, especially Nepalese milk tea. (Yum!)

7) When to tell a white lie. (For example: Suspicious person on the street at night: “Are you alone?” Me: “No, my husband is right back there.”)

8 ) How much most things really cost. (Note: for anyone who is not Nepali, prices are doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, therefore, bargaining is a must).

9)How to balance and hold on for dear life while riding one of Kathmandu’s ubiquitous rickshaws.

10) How to survive the frequent power outages of Nepal. (Note: keep flashlight and candles close at hand!)

11) How to get the street kids off your trail. (Feign complete disinterest).

12) How to maneuver through the insanity of Kathmandu streets.?(Always watch out for potholes, ditches and stray dogs!)

13) How to capture cockroaches whom have taken it upon themselves to nest in one’s bag. (Note: the tried and true “capture-under-the-garbage-pail-put-a-piece-of-paper-underneath-and-drag-outside” method works best.)

14) How to sleep on rock hard mattresses and make your hostel room feel “lived in.”

15) How to shower in ice cold showers. (Note: In and out as QUICKLY as possible. Also, soap and shampoo NOT standing under frigid waters).

16) That eating museli in your bed is not a good idea. (Note: this brings on phalanxes of ants.)

17) How to tell a Nepali person from a Tibetan person.?(Often different style of dress and different facial features).

18) How to not have a heart attack when hearing the blaring horn of the local buses. (Takes some time to get used to).

19) How to get all the worms out of the rambutan before eating. (Note: they burrow into the pit so check where the tree twig connects with the fruit skin. There are always a few lurking here, but if you miss some, don’t worry: extra protein.)

20) How to take the bus long distances.

21) That it is not possible to simultaneously itch 35 mosquito bites, so its better to just give up while ahead.

22) That when drinking yak butter tea with the monks it is better to think of it as soup.

23) That eating dal bhat with your hands is much more fun than with a spoon and fork!

24) Where to find all the best foods from the street vendors.

25) That swatting 40 flies off you at once is impossible and exhausting, so its better to just let them eat the crumbs of whatever off your skin.

26) To walk on the other side of the street from gangs of street kids huffing glue.

27) How to say: “No, I do not want that Tiger balm, necklace, socks, hat, incense, marijuana, hashish, underwear, violin, pottery, thanka, or purse thank you” with confidence. (Note: insert appropriate item for each salesperson.)

28) How to tell a real sadhu from a fake one. (If they ask for money or encourage you to take their photo, they might be faux holy men).

29) How to sit discreetly on a street corner to watch the street life without being asked 25 times if I am lost.

30) That seeing a monk dressed in maroon and gold robes riding a motorcycle and talking on his cell phone is not as strange as I initially thought. (Still amusing though.)

31) That the garbage/sanitation system of Kathmandu is good in theory, but a failure in practice.

32) That some people (locals) are resentful about the foreign presence.

33) That the Nepal “hills” look more like looming mountains to me and the “mountains” are gigantic beyond all reason.

34) That the greeting here is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten?”

35) How to tell a rabid dog (and how to run away from it).

36) How to live out of a backpack. (It is surprising how little we really need!)

37) How to deal with the famous Nepali leeches. (Don’t pull them off after they’ve started sucking. It is better to burn them off with a lighter or give them a quick sprinkling with salt. Shrivels those bad boys right up).

Top 5: Things To Do In Singapore

Five MUST do activities on any visit to Singapore:

1. Try a cup of the Singaporean coffee. It is called “Kopi” at the hawker centers. The pure coffee is black as night: literally, it looks like melted tar, but tastes like heaven. If you order “Kopi” the vendor will mix it with a portion of sweetened condensed milk. The generous portion of condensed milk, a creamy syrup, is added to each Kopi. If everyone could drink this everyday the world would be a better place. If you want coffee with no milk you tell the vendor you want “Kopi-O.”

Coffee In Singapore

Singaporean "Kopi" **

2. Go to Little India, smell the incense, and try some of the delicious Indian sweets. These things are so rich and delicious, it is probably best to split them between two people.

Fruit Stand in Little India *** by Khalzuri

3. Ride the MRT. The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is the incredibly efficient public transport train that travels to most areas in Singapore. The MRT comes every few minutes and is used by a large majority of the country. Apparently there is a large tax ($40,000) for people who wish to own private cars, and most of the cars are sent to other countries after 10 years or use. So, it doesn’t make much sense, unless you are uber rich, to get a private car. This means that thousands of people ride the MRT everyday. Besides being a convenient place to enjoy some air conditioning, it is a great place to people watch. Just riding the MRT gives you a good flavor of the diversity of Singapore.

4. Go to a hawker center, any hawker center, and try some random foods. Maxwell Food Center in Chinatown is a good one.  Go when you are very, very hungry and you won’t leave disappointed.

5. Drink a delicous Tiger Beer on a hot day, preferably with some spicy food. Beer tastes much better when it is hot out.

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