Are you planning on visiting an exotic location this summer? If you want to come home with unique photos of the people, our guest writer Peter Bates suggests that you try a different method for taking travel portraits. We are excited to try some of these travel portrait tips on our next vacation!
How should you photograph the people you encounter when visiting a foreign country? Is there some winning technique? How about special rules of etiquette? Depending where you are, there may very well be. I will describe a method that will make your travel portraits as exuberant as this Cuban fruit seller:
The Traditional Method
If you have attended shows by travel photographers, either at camera clubs or through museum talks, you may have noticed portraits like this one:
I must say, I thought this was a decent photograph back in 1998. It’s well composed, colorful, and looks like it has a point to make. But now I see that it’s unclear what that point is. What is the woman’s relationship to the Maoist poster on the left? Is she for them or against them? Or just indifferent? What used to strike me as artfully mysterious now looks just puzzling. People still like it, and they buy it. But nowadays its style is a bit passé, too post-modern cynical.
But good news! There are other styles available for photographing people in your travels. Here are some that I used in a recent trip to Cuba.
Another Way: Concentrate on a Specific Group, Class, or Occupation
The day I arrived for a week in Havana, I knew that “capturing the essence of Cuba” would be an impossible task. In our bus rides from one tourist spot to the next, I noticed many charming and quirky shops. Why not photograph the shopkeepers of Havana? This gave me a sense of purpose and steered me away from snapping everything I saw, like classic cars, cute children, and colonial churches. “Shopkeepers” was fairly arbitrary; I could just as easily have picked pedicab drivers. My shopkeeper choice allowed me to tell my subjects I was doing a documentary project about them and show pictures I’d already taken. The more I took, the more street cred I got.
Break off From your Group and Hire a Cabbie
Most travelers tour in groups and some countries even have restrictive rules about solitary visitors. For example, Americans could not visit Cuba in 2015 unless with a “cultural exchange” group. This presented a problem for photographers who like to explore. Tour buses usually stop only at tourist sites, not at places that appeal to photo enthusiasts. Even tours designed for photographers can’t possible know that a roadside stand with Che on the wall would ring one photographer’s bell and not another’s. The solution? After a day or so, find a local photographer, mature student, or professional and ask where the markets are that they – not tourists – shop at. Then hire a cab for a few hours and knock yourself out. You will be amazed.
Learn Some Lingo or Hire a Guide
Have a rough familiarity with the language. For Cuba, I knew enough high-school Spanish to communicate in this wine shop. But I was having trouble getting the people to relax. They moved around so much (perhaps shy) that I could not get a good picture. Then I asked the young woman why she was carrying around a water bottle in a wine shop, and was she aware that she was hurting the feelings of the wine-seller? They all found this quite hilarious and I snapped this shot.
Be Fearless (but not Reckless)
When I began to take pictures in the neighborhoods of developing countries, I was timid. I thought it might be okay to photograph a scene from a distance, without “interfering.” This is what I came up with.
While the people at the right are looking at me, I am more of a curiosity to them. The woman in white doesn’t even notice me. The stall is underexposed because of the bright columns. I examined the picture and decided it wouldn’t do. Then I approached the proprietress and spoke to her.
Walk right up to people and say what you’re doing. Tell them why you are interested in them and what you’d like to do. But be prepared to move on if you don’t succeed. For example, if someone is really timid, don’t try to persuade them, no matter how “colorful” they look.
Use a Tripod
I know, the street photographers will kill me for this one. But a tripod enhances your chances of getting sharp, level, and steady pictures, particularly on shady streets. It also brands you as a professional, or at least someone serious enough about photography to set up a shot. You’re not just some tourist grabbing a snapshot while on the run to the next hot spot.
To Pay or Not to Pay
In 1975 I visited newly democratic Portugal. I noticed other people in our tour paying a farm co-op worker to pose for them. I thought I was being clever by filming her from a discreet angle, thus avoiding a posing fee. As you can see by this four-second clip, my sequence came out terrible. There was no engagement with her. (She was clearly posing for someone else.) And there was no hope of placing her in a better composition without her consent. But at least I was a couple of dollars richer.
Find out from your guides or locals if people expect to be paid for being photographed. Keep enough local cash in small denominations. What’s true in India and Thailand may not be so in other parts of the world. When I was in Cuba, I took a picture of a cigar seller. He was not hawking his image at a popular tourist spot like others I’d seen, but I still thought I should pay him. My driver stopped me. “He’s not looking for money, he has a job.” I ended up just showing him the picture and he flashed a toothless grin.
Probe Deeper and Find New Treasures
Speak as much as you can with your subjects. After I photographed this baker, he started telling me more about his life.
He pointed out that he lived in the next door apartment. Old balconies collapse at the rate of two a day in Havana, so I asked him if he was concerned. He said that he’d lived there as long as he’s had his shop, so no, he wasn’t worried, at least not enough to move. Then he added with a smile that when it collapses, he hoped he won’t be out on it.
Ask people about their families. Maybe they’ll tell you about where they live. Sometimes if you get people to talk, they will not only tell you astounding stories, but also give you more to photograph. They may even invite you up for coffee.
What was your favorite tip?
Which of Peter’s travel portraits tips do you plan to incorporate on your next vacation? Please, tell us why in the comments below.
Peter Bates is a documentary photographer living in Florida with his photographer wife Cheryl. Neither of them shoots sunsets or pelicans. Peter is currently working on The Bodega Project, for which he has photographed bodegas in New England and Florida at twilight, using high dynamic range techniques. He also videos and photographs the owners. Please like him on Facebook.