I’m often asked how I gain permission from people in the developing world to photograph them.
Actually, it’s not that difficult. Whether the person you approach is on the streets of New York or from a remote tribe in Irian Jaya, what matters most is your own mental attitude.
For instance, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you approach someone with the intent of taking something (i.e. a photo) because then you have to convince them to give you something.
Whenever I approach someone, I truly believe that I am about to give them something. For one thing, I’m going to compliment them by letting them know they interest me and I think they’re special. I also know that I’m about to give them an experience they don’t get everyday.
With the right mental attitude, you don’t even have to be able to speak to the person. When you’re thinking positive thoughts, others can read it in your body language. They can perceive whether you hope to make their day or if you are just trying to get something out of them.
When I first enter a tribe or village, I almost always start by interacting with the kids. Kids are the most open and curious about new experiences. I unpack my photographic equipment and take a few photos of them, which I then give to them. It is my little magic show.
Before digital cameras, I shot Polaroids. Today I show them the LCD on the back of my camera and also carry a small battery-operated HP 325 digital printer so I can hand out prints. During my stay in the village these prints quickly make it to their parents’ huts and I find myself being invited into their homes and being asked to take photos of everyone. At this point the problem becomes how to take photos of everyone. I only carry a finite amount of Polaroids and ink cartridges. So, I find myself taking many group photos.
When I’m working in locations such as Kenya (shown here), the kids are often so fascinated that they offer to be part of the production crew.
Even though I first approach people without an interpreter so they can get a sense of me through my body language, I always have someone available who can serve as a translator. I want to be able to tell them what I intend to do with the photos, especially when I’m working on exhibits or books about certain issues they’re facing such as human rights violations, poverty or environmental degradation.
I often notice tourists taking photos of people in markets and villages without any meaningful interaction with the people they are photographing. Many times these tourists get a negative reaction. That doesn’t surprise me. Just imagine how you would feel if someone came into your backyard and started taking pictures of you and your family without making a connection with you.
Photography can be a great icebreaker that will allow you to have wonderful cross-cultural experiences. Strangers will be happy to allow you to photograph them if you approach them with the sincere belief that you are giving, not taking.
Phil will be talking more about his ideas and experiences during workshops in Los Angeles, South Africa and Guatemala. Visit his website for more details.
Here’s an image of a young girl in Mongolia who agreed to let me photograph her.