How many times have you traveled to far off corners of the world and met fascinating people and wanted to photograph them, but didn’t? I’ve written previously about photographing people, but I would like to update that information for those of you who may have difficulty approaching a stranger and asking for permission to photograph.
This information could be as pertinent to street photographers as it is to travelers, although I have found street photographers to be a bit more aggressive in their approach to their craft.
Speaking of permission, yes, please do ask! One of my pet peeves is that of unethical photographer who sneakily takes photographs of people, especially in cultures where that is not acceptable. So, if you have a very understandable fear of asking directly, how do you come away with the goods?
Recognize The Fear
The first step is to admit to yourself that you do have such a fear. That is perfectly normal, as most people are reluctant to go up to a stranger and ask them to allow you to do something as intimate as photographing them.
Have a Positive Attitude
Prepare yourself in advance by developing and maintaining a positive attitude. Environmental or travel portraits can be a satisfying experience for both parties, if you help to make it so.
If there is one thing I can say for sure, after traveling to all continents and photographing many people, it’s that a friendly attitude and ready smile will accomplish a lot and seriously up your success factor.
It’s About Connecting
I often find that with a potentially recalcitrant subject, laying the groundwork before you ask works well. I’ve been successful with subjects that have refused other photographers by first engaging with the person. Talk about their work, ask about their family, show pictures of your grandkids.
Practice Your Ask
If you don’t ask for permission, the answer will always be “No”. Write down a few approach words and practice them. Simple and direct works best. If you do not speak the language, use Google Translate or other smartphone app. Or, ask a guide or concierge to write it down in the local language on a card.
“No” is a simple word and has no other meaning. You have a right to ask and the subject has a right to say no. If you are refused, smile, say thank you and leave. Do not attempt to surreptitiously photograph that subject, especially women, in certain cultures. I have seen physical altercations against photographers who have done so, especially in Muslim countries. Be respectful is one of my mantras.
Be Careful Photographing Children
You’d have to be a bit nuts to take photographs of children without their parents’ permission in today’s world, especially in many western countries. And never post images online of children naked, even if that is the way kids in that culture normally walk around.
Be honest and direct as to why you are asking for the subject’s photograph. “I like your local dress”. Or “I love the way you smile”. Or “Your child is so adorable”.
After taking the picture, share the result with your subject on your LCD screen. Better yet, use one of the amazing portable printers to leave a small image with your subject. In fact, doing so will result in other locals willing to be photographed.
If I plan to visit a place in the future, I always make prints when I return home and bring them with me on my return visit and distribute them to my subjects. That builds good will and makes for new opportunities, a real win-win.
There is a market in Ecuador that I frequent when I lead tours there. Early on I brought prints with me for my subjects. Now when I return they pass the word that “the photographer is here” and I get people asking me to take their picture!
Share Even More… and Make Friends
Leave your subject with your Instagram or website info if they have Internet access. I have made friends doing so as we communicate by email and messaging over the years.
Another favorite of mine is to carry with you an Instax by Fujifilm or a Kodak Mini-shot. These small, light cameras have a built in printer that puts out respectable tiny prints that I find my travel subjects treasure.
You’ll never get comfortable with this unless and until you practice. Fortunately, we all live near communities where we can practice before we embark on a trip. The fear will always be there; it still is for me after five decades of photography. But don’t let fear win out. Keep practicing and pretty soon your hit rate will increase.
If you’d like to hear me discuss this on Youtube, just click here.
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