Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Fascination of Foreign Faces

Images for Sale. Madras, India

"Wannakil" --"hello," I said with a smile, right hand in front of my face with fingers up, palm slightly out in the South Indian gesture of casual greeting.
"Wannakil," replied the attractive young Indian woman, continuing to paint intricate details on a small plaster Hindu temple for her sidewalk statuary stall.  Her husband and small child watched the tall, bearded foreigner with friendly interest from a nearby tent.

Still smiling and with a question in my eyes, I tilted my camera slightly.  With a pleased smile, she nodded as I gestured to indicate that she should go on with her work.  As she did, I began my work also, making exposures from several different angles, then changing to a second camera body with a wider lens for a few more frames.

The Image Painter. Madras, India

 "Nandri" -- "thank you," I said with a repeat of the salute-type gesture.  She responded in kind, we both smiled, and I moved on down the street in search of other opportunities to make brief but no less genuine personal contacts with the people of India.

As a photojournalist and producer creating magazine features and audio-visual programs to help religious and humanitarian agencies communicate their mission, I'm always looking for opportunities to make portraits.  Strong photographs of people add power to the message I want to communicate, because people are interested in people.  That's why we call it "human interest."  When someone from another culture is portrayed in all of his or her humanity, dignity, and individuality, both the subject and those who view the photograph are served.  As the great Edward Steichen, creator of the landmark "Family of Man" exhibit said, "The function of photography is to explain man to man."

Mayan Tribesman. Northern Guatemala

Photography bypasses the logical centers of the brain and communicates directly to the heart.  When the subject is someone from another culture, an incisive portrait can arouse in the viewer a deep awareness that this also is a person, a member of my species.  Different from me, yes, but part of my family.  Nearly 30 years have passed, but I still remember the first time a photograph connected with me in this way.  It was an Emil Schultheiss portrait of an African girl in the old Modern Photography magazine.  Her face plastered with ceremonial paint, she peeked at the camera from the corners of her eyes.  I looked into her soul and was hooked for good.

(To be continued.  This article was first published in Rangefinder Magazine.)
(All photos with Olympus OM cameras and lenses, Fujichrome 100 film.) 

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