Friday, December 20, 2019

The Fascination of Foreign Faces: Part II

Fisherman's Family, Madras, India

So how does one go about making good pictures of people in foreign settings?  It isn't hard if you're prepared.  Here are some basic principles of people photography which have worked as well for me in African villages as on the streets of London.

First, be organized.  Know what you want to accomplish and plan how you're going to do it.  Make decisions about cameras, lenses, and films before leaving home.  Become so familiar with your equipment that you can use it almost without thinking.  Aging eyes and general laziness make zoom lenses on Canon EOS bodies my mainstay these days, but some of my best people photos were made with Olympus OM bodies and prime lenses in 24, 35, 85, and 180mm focal lengths.

My camera bag stays at the hotel, while two bodies with (nowadays) 24-85 and 70-200 lenses go over my shoulders.  Film, caption notebook, passport, local currency, and a few U.S. one-dollar bills go in a small belt pouch.  I'm light, mobile, and organized to give full attention to the subject.
It's also essential to be organized in the way you go about making photographs once you have some kind of entree with a subject.  People in other countries are can be amazingly gracious and patient, but it's an imposition to ask them to stand for several minutes while you work them over with a spot meter and make multiple lens changes.  Both common courtesy and good photographic practice dictate that you decide about exposure, angles, and focal lengths before approaching the subject, and then make your photographs in a friendly, businesslike manner.  Before I spoke to the young craftswoman I had already decided which lenses would be needed, mounted them on my cameras, and read the light with an incident meter.  I was ready to work quickly, fluidly, and with a confidence that communicated itself to my subject, helping her to be more at ease and responsive.
Second, be obvious.  An American with a camera in a Guatemalan village marketplace is conspicuous.  There's nothing you can do to change that.  Everyone knows you're there, so don't try to sneak shots.  They're probably more curious about you than you are about them.  If you try to hide in the shadows and pick off shots with a long lens, if you're furtive, if you appear indecisive or uncertain, you'll be greeted with suspicion.  Accept the fact that you're not going to get fly-on-the-wall candids and go with the flow.  Concentrate on what you can get.  Because if you treat those people with courtesy and friendliness, chances are you'll be able to make both excellent photographs and new friends at the same time.  The key is simply to be natural.  Behave as if you have a perfect right to be there and go about your work in a pleasant, matter-of-fact way.

Coffee Plantation Worker with His Pet Rabbit, Costa Rica

Third, be open.  Fear is the number one hindrance to good people photography.  For that matter, fear of being open and vulnerable is the greatest hindrance in most human relationships.  Fear often comes in the form of an inertia which suggests all kinds of reasons why you shouldn't take the picture now.  Later will be better.  The light will be better.  The people will be more receptive.  You don't have the right lens.  Or the right film.  Later...but not now.  If you want to make good photographs of people, you must put aside your fear and inertia by an act of your will and begin to photograph -- now.  Not later -- now! 

What does this have to do with being open?  Everything, because people will not open up to you until you open yourself up to them.  Put aside your fear of photographing them openly.  Project sincere attitudes of  friendliness and courtesy.  Don't talk any more than necessary.  A smile will open more doors than words any day.  These are not aliens from another galaxy -- they're people, and they will respond to your efforts to relate to them as people.  A smile, an eyebrow raised in question, a tilt of the camera, a word of greeting in the local language (if you haven't bothered to learn the words for "hello," "please," and "thank you" in their language you shouldn't even be there) will usually gain the cooperation you need.  If not, just smile, say "thank you," and move on.  My few words of Tamil spoken to the young woman nearly exhausted my meager vocabulary, but when combined with an open,  friendly approach they were enough to do the job.

(To be continued)

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